The Art Institutes International Minnesota Photography Academic Director talks about how following trails blazed by her parents has led to some of her most fruitful personal projects, how a personal project has in turn grown into a student program, and how she discovered the importance of family trees.
View a selection of Colleen Mullins's work in the slideshow above. You can also see more of her photography on her website and follow her on Twitter.
To read more from poet and PhotoVideoEDU contributor Ron Egatz, visit his website
If your mom really wants to take you on a luxury cruise, don’t argue. Just grab your camera and and get on the boat. When Colleen Mullins finally gave in to her mother’s pleas, it was the unexpected beginning of her series “Pictures of the Floating World,” a collection of black-and-white film images she shot with a Mamiya 6 over the course of six years of cruises with her mother. (You can view a selection from the series in the slideshow above.) Like the genre of Japanese woodblock prints that it’s named for, the series depicts a life of pleasure, luxury, and entertainment, unmoored from everyday life—in this case quite literally.
“Pictures of the Floating World” is just one of several personal projects that have shaped Mullins’s career as a photographer and enriched her work in her considerably more grounded role as Photography Academic Director at the Art Institutes International Minnesota, in Minneapolis. It’s not the only project that has grown out of her willingness to follow trails blazed by her parents, paths that have led her to unexpected revelations. With a rangefinder view on the world of luxury cruising, Mullins saw her mother transform before her fellow vacationers. “She definitely cultivated this mysterious, reclusive, rich-lady persona on the ship, even though it wasn't really true,” says Mullins. “She really was a hermit, a self‑imposed exile. She had this weird, frugal streak, so she could go on these super‑expensive cruises and take me. But she had a very different persona at home than she did on the cruise ship.”
With the passing of her parents, Mullins discovered seemingly endless archives at various locations in her hometown of San Francisco. A personal history of her family began to unfold, and for this only child who had become a book artist and photographer, uncovering the archives was like striking gold. “You just become the archaeologist of your own existence,” she says. “That’s the simplest way to put it. My father had lived almost an entire lifetime before I came along. The stuff I found in the house he shared with his first wife on Third Avenue was an archive of 1966 and earlier.”
A San Francisco city architect, her father left behind many architectural drawings, along with one small hand-drawn map showing where a tree was planted in the San Francisco Botanical Garden (then called the Strybing Arboretum). It turned out that when his first wife died of cancer, he did a tree planting in her memory. Mullins discovered that her father and his first wife had planted a tremendous number of trees on the streets of San Francisco’s Richmond District during the 1950s.
Mullins herself has carried on her father’s arboreal interests in recent years. In her “Elysium” project, she photographed the 70% tree canopy loss of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In “Cultivar,” she explores the Armstrong Redwoods reserve on the Russian River in Sonoma County, where she camped as a child. Mullins envisions the work ultimately becoming part of a larger, possibly diaristic project. Among her numerous awards is a recent McKnight Artist Fellowship for this work.
Running both the photography program and the digital film and video program at The Art Institutes International Minnesota is probably not what Colleen Mullins imagined herself doing as a child growing up on the West Coast, but she caught the photography bug at a young age. She unwrapped a Kodak Automatic for Christmas when she was five, and got her first lesson in composition when the many photos she took with it got developed. “I shot everyone headless,” she recalls, laughing. “Height is the great determinant of framing.”
After high school photography classes and a period studying at the University of New Mexico, Mullins returned home to finish up a bachelor of arts in photography at San Francisco State University. She completed her studies at the University of Minnesota, earning a master of fine arts in photography. Mullins submitted a master’s thesis on book arts involving photography, and has continued to practice and teach the craft. These days, she still calls the Twin Cities home, teaching as an adjunct at the University of Minnesota in addition to her work at the Art Institutes.
Although Mullins flies back to San Francisco regularly to work her way through the massive archive left by her parents, she remains dedicated to her students in Minnesota. “I just recently took over the film program in April, and that has just been a hoot,” she says, smiling. “I have a great time with those students and that faculty, and I'm looking forward to some collaborations between the two departments.”
Her “Elysium” project led to the creation of a student program that takes her to the Big Easy every summer. Students participating in the New Orleans Travel and Study Program learn to develop story ideas and then work on the ground, making local contacts and building in-depth projects.
Despite her many projects, Mullins has no intention of giving short shrift to her pedagogical work. “I've grown quite attached to my day job,” she says. “It's really fun to watch people grow and change and get better. I'm not one of those artists who are only teaching because that's what artists do to make a living. I'm really in it with both feet, if you will.”
As for future plans, Mullins has recently been thinking it would be nice to take a real vacation, something that wouldn’t turn into an opportunity to start a new project or bring along students. Where? She hasn’t figured that out yet. But one thing is for sure: “It definitely will not be a cruise,” she laughs. “Oh, goodness. No.”