Each summer, students earning master’s degrees from Academy of Art University’s School of Photography can take an immersive course based on a single location. The course challenges students to improve their technique by revisiting and reshooting that same environment.
Capping the summer of 2019, eight students in the course assembled their best photos of the Marin Headlands, located north of San Francisco. The work was the basis of a month-long photo exhibit titled Muted Oasis at the university’s 625 Sutter Gallery.
Learning From the Headlands
The Marin Headlands are north of the city on Highway 101, just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. Many San Franciscans know of the Headlands as a lookout spot—an ideal place to photograph the city, with the bridge in the foreground.
Photography instructor Connie Begg led the excursions to the Headlands. Her instruction and the students’ repeated visits allowed them to explore deeper into the area’s natural beauty.
As they look forward to their photography careers, the new graduates know that mastering their craft depends on discipline and continuous effort. Begg explains that the course “encourages students to create a body of work without second-guessing their ideas or changing their projects.”
A Weekly Cycle
Students travel up to the Headlands each Tuesday. Upon returning, they submit the photos they took there. Each Friday they receive detailed feedback. The cycle repeats, says Begg. “They go back each week to capture more images and refine their ideas based on the in-depth critiques.”
Their work appeared at the Academy’s 625 Sutter Gallery during August. Muted Oasis featured two images per student. A booklet with students’ statements provided more information and their full body of work from the course.
In the exhibit, creativity in how the students approached the assignment was evident. Each photographer adopted an individual perspective, emphasizing different facets of the same location.
Begg says that the student photos in the course are always wholly personal. “The work is uniquely their own, based on their own individual interests and sensibilities,” she notes. “This never ceases to amaze me.”
Fiona Cui shot landscapes from Rodeo Beach to Hill 88. She said that sometimes it took her some walking time before choosing which image to shoot. “I used a low view to imitate a child capturing the scenery by phone,” she wrote in her artist’s statement.
In her series titled “the slide to psychosis,” Sophie Darling focused on one aspect of human relationships with nature. “It is said that those who live on a cliff’s edge peering out to nothing but the vast ocean and horizon are to be driven insane,” she wrote. Darling used an 8 x 10-in. pinhole camera to evoke “mental illness and symptoms of psychosis.”
Jeffry Harrison was the only photographer to focus specifically on humans. He was intrigued by the surf culture of the Marin Headlands. “Perhaps no one has a deeper connection to the Marin Headlands than the group of surf locals,” Harrison wrote.
Struck by the sheer peacefulness of the ocean waves, Sean Hung took an interesting approach on Rodeo Beach. “I used long exposures to show time passing,” he wrote. He employed rocks on the beach as anchor points in his images. This gave him a new insight: “No matter how much pressure to the rock, they can withstand,” he wrote.
Peter Kyong photographed structures and buildings and their aura of mystery. His aim was to project a “strong tension and formal elements to express the contrast of emotions,” he wrote
In his statement, Stanley C. Phillips described enjoying “the ability to simply sit and be with the land.” He used a pinhole camera and Polaroid film to “produce images that express moments I shared with the land.”
There was even an abstract, Rorschach-like approach. Keman Sheng explained in his statement that, as he adjusted to nature outside the city, he started to see animals in rock formations. The process “encourages people to slow down,” Sheng wrote.
Shalin Modi shot wild birds in their habitats, including deserted shore bunkers. He wrote about how birds are “the perfect symbol of freedom.” Modi also reflected on how the experience encouraged growth in his craft.
“For me, this course was very exciting, as it involved going out in nature or wilderness and showcasing our work from there,” he wrote. “The short amount of time to complete the project helped me to evolve as a photographer.”
Article by Cristina Schreil originally published in Academy Art U News