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Reid Callanan: PhotoMedia's 1999 Photography Person of the Year

PhotoMedia's 1999 Photography Person of the Year: Reid Callanan PhotoMedia's 1999 Photography Person of the Year: Reid Callanan
© Reid Callanan

Reid Callanan, founder and director of the Santa Fe Workshops, is the PhotoMedia Photography Person of the Year for 1999. An engraved sculpture is given annually to a member of the photography industry who has earned recognition for "exceptional artistic and business accomplishments, passion, devotion to the industry, inspiration to colleagues, and humanitarian achievements in the community."

PhotoMedia honors Callanan and the Santa Fe Workshops for educating thousands of photographers at all career stages, while promoting the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and support for the photographic community in New Mexico and worldwide.. Through his dedication to these principles, Callanan has been able to attract the highest caliber administrative and seasonal teaching staff, while expanding a few courses started ten years ago this summer into the premier photography workshop in the western United States.

The Santa Fe Workshops now offer classes in three seasons with more than 80 week-long courses that span the spectrum from basic lighting to the most advanced digital techniques. The Workshops attract up to 1,500 students a year from all walks of life with one simple goal: a desire to inspire and rekindle a passion for image-making.

The Maine event

A chance mailing launched Callanan into photo education in 1975. That spring he graduated from Saint Lawrence University, in the icy reaches of far northern New York, with a geology degree that left his heart stone cold. Having dabbled in photography while summering in Maine during college, he took a part-time job in a camera shop when he returned home to Baltimore. One of his first tasks was to open mail, and one of the first mailings he unsealed was a poster from the now-famous Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport.

"Two words caught my eye," says Callanan. "One was Maine, one was photographic. The combination jumped out at me. I said to myself, right then and there, that that was where I was going. In a matter of weeks, I quit the job and took a two-week intermediate class in June. I ended up staying the next 14 years."

David Lyman's Maine Photographic Workshop was only two years old when Callanan attended that first class. Callanan quickly became entranced with everything about it. "I fell in love with photography all over again," he says, and he fell in love with the workshop experience as well.

"It's a very intense, all encompassing environment, where you basically eat, sleep, drink and breathe photography 24 hours a day for a short intense period of time. I also was reacquainted and fell in love with the coast of Maine. So in those two weeks, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I could live on the beautiful coast of Maine, and the world's greatest photographers came to my doorstep.

"I could have meals with them, and talk to them. People like Elliot Porter, Paul Caponigro, Ernst Haas and Sam Abell were all teaching there at the Maine Workshop. That was a huge benefit to me."Callanan stayed on that summer as a work-study student. That fall, Lyman offered him a permanent post as lab manager. Over the course of the next several years, as Callanan took on more and more operational and organizational roles, he became the natural choice to be named director of the photography program when a vacancy opened.

Callanan gladly accepted the position, embracing an intense work schedule that also allowed him frequent winter vacations trips to New Mexico, where his brother and sister had recently moved. He thrived in the director's chair until the late 1980s, when, he says, he realized that he wasn't challenged anymore.

"I did all the program development, ran operations, hired the staff. I was in charge of the program there. I couldn't get any higher up because there was an owner sitting above me. That was David Lyman, who still owns it. And I got tired of the Maine winters. I was married, and my wife was really instrumental in getting me to see that there were more challenges out there in the world of photography, and that we should think about doing something else."

In the winter of 1988-89, Callanan had had enough. After quick reflection, he recognized that running workshops was the only thing he did well. He looked around for various sites locally, but none was as attractive as Santa Fe.

"We chose Santa Fe for a lot of reasons," he says. "I had family in Santa Fe. My wife Cathy had lived in Santa Fe for a year and a half. I had gone out to Santa Fe to visit many times over an eight-year span. I loved the Southwest. I loved the smell of the town. I loved the light. It was a very evocative and exotic place to me. So from the personal standpoint, I was attracted to Santa Fe, and we could see ourselves living there and being happy.

"On the business side of things, it was pretty clear to me that you needed to pick a place that people would want to go to. Santa Fe is certainly one of those destinations. It has a national and an international cache to it. It's been known for decades as an arts town, as a place that has incredible light. And when you say 'Santa Fe' to photographers, their eyes sparkle. They either have been there or want to go there.

"It was also far enough away from Maine that it made sense. I didn't want to move to Vermont and start a photographic workshop. It was just too close. It wasn't ethical, it wasn't right to compete for the same geographical audience. David (Lyman) had been my mentor. Starting two thousand miles away, in a western town, I didn't feel like I would compete geographically with the Maine Workshop."Callanan left the Maine Workshop in 1989 with a decade's worth of industry relationships and $50,000 in savings. The Santa Fe Workshops opened for business in the summer of 1990 with a charter sponsorship from Kodak.

That first June, Callanan attracted a high-profile teaching staff, including Michael O'Neill, Sam Abell and Neil Southkirk, and five former employees from the Maine Workshop. "All the ingredients I needed to go out that first year fell into place," he says. "Staff, instructors, Kodak as a sponsor, and finding a venue in Santa Fe."

The venue was modest — a few classrooms empty for the summer at St. John's College, a colorful-red brick campus east of Santa Fe, off the Old Pecos Trail. By the next summer, Callanan's crew secured a lease a few miles away at a quiet retreat center and monastery run by the Catholic Church. Callanan says that though the center doesn't have an overtly religious feeling to it, "it did have adobe buildings, a court yard, studio space, a darkroom, classrooms, and everything we needed to produce the workshop."

Still housed at the retreat center, the workshops have grown to a year-round core staff of 12. Course catalogs, advertising and marketing campaigns, and registration processing are all handled by the in-house staff. During workshop seasons, 12 more seasonal staffers, often local photographers, are brought aboard as course assistants and to run the store.

In the years since 1990, courses have expanded across the calendar into three seasons. The winter season runs mid-February to the end of March and offers five workshops a week. The summer season, by far the biggest, runs mid-June to Mid-August and offers eight workshops a week in the summer. A fall program rounds out the year with coursework from mid-September to mid-October. During all three seasons, digital and photo workshops are offered. In addition, digital workshops are offered year round, and 44 weeks in the coming year are booked solid.

While darkroom, studio and composition courses draw attendees from the photo world, digital courses are attracting attendees from all industries. Callanan says that from the start, he put his faith in and drew his support from the community of friends he was able to draw into the Santa Fe Workshops family.

"What I brought from Maine was an understanding that I wanted to be a good neighbor. One of the great benefits I had in leaving the Maine Workshop after 14 years and starting my own business was I could take what worked well in Maine. And perhaps more importantly, I could leave behind the part of that operation that didn't work so well."

During his tenure, Callanan says, the Maine Workshop attempted to provide all needed services to incoming photographers. "That was in part because it has a huge impact on a town, when you have a thousand photographers coming to this little seaside town. They kind of ran over the place, taking pictures of everything. So we had a full meal plan, we took care of everybody's housing, and we even had our own labs."

While the intent was to provide better service to attendees, one result was that very little money trickled down into the community. "It was a great business model, but it doesn't make a good model for a neighbor."

"What I decided to do in Santa Fe was to farm out as much as I could, along with the income. For example, we use the film labs in Santa Fe. So all the income for processing the film goes to the labs in town. We provide certain meals on campus, but not all the meals. Our Sunday welcome meals we do at one of the restaurants in town. Our Friday night wrap up party, we go to one of the big hotels. All that income is going out into the community. It also eases the load on us. I don't have to have as big a staff."

Callanan also works hard to bring the community into the Workshops. Evening slide shows of work in progress, displaying some of the top photo work in the country, are open to the public and free of charge. The workshops also offer a standby program, allowing local photographers to attend workshop classes for half-price if the seats don't fill within 10 days prior to a class starting. "I have a real sense that if you give to the community, you'll get back ten fold," says Callanan. "And it certainly has worked."

As the Workshops have expanded over recent years, Callanan has taken on more strategic efforts aimed at increasing educational access to a broader range of students, leaving hands-on work to the staff. The most prominent effort in that direction has been the creation of a non-profit organization, the Santa Fe Center for Visual Arts.

The Santa Fe Center started as a means for working with other non-profit photography organizations, many of which are prohibited by their charters from working with for-profit corporations such as the Santa Fe Workshops. It has blossomed into a scholarship and award-granting foundation. It now endows several annual contests and symposia unrelated to the Santa Fe Workshops itself.

These include scholarships, awards for excellence in photography education, and a special focus on recognizing long-term individual work of photographers. These are highlighted through a division of the Santa Fe Center called The Center for Photographic Projects. The website of the CPP, www.photoprojects.org, features current picture project award winners, resource lists to help photographers get their works published, and a high-traffic community-building bulletin board where picture project photographers talk to one another about the challenges of their work.

Starting the Santa Fe Center for Visual Arts "was one of these blind moves, an 'If you build it, they will come' philosophy," says Callanan. "And it has worked. We now have a viable, energetic non-profit that's doing a lot of good."

The scholarship fund recently received a three-year, $30,000 endowment from a Santa Fe Workshops alumnus. The grand prize winner of this year's CPP Picture Project Competition, Floyd Leroy of Los Angeles, won $3000 in cash. He also was awarded a scholarship to The Project Workshop, a seminar in July to be lead by well-known National Geographic photographer Sam Abell.

Leroy's "The Accra Journal" was chosen from 267 projects and more than 1600 images submitted to the Center for Photographic Projects competition. His photo story chronicles his encounters with doctors, hookers, cleanup boys, boxers, reggae stars and the National Chief Imam of Ghana while visiting many cities along the soggy West African Coast.

It's a work that would otherwise rarely be seen, but now will gain national exposure at the Project Symposium, a weekend in July packed with project showcases and roundtable discussions with photographers, museum curators, photo gallery directors, photo editors. "It's a gathering of picture professionals and photographers to talk about picture projects, how to get them published and how to get them shown," says Callanan.

One the ironies of Callanan's career is that, while serving the industry's creative elite for decades, he has had little time to pursue his own photography. While still in Maine, he picked up a Polaroid SX-70 to return some immediacy to his work. That inclination came after seeing months of unprocessed film pile up in his refrigerator. Over the next few years, he became addicted to using the instant camera as a diary of his everyday life.

"I capture the moment, the light of an emotional event," he says. "My family, my kids, my wife, our vacation. If I see a certain light in a room, or a beautiful flower, or my daughter dressing up, I push a button and that's it.

Callanan draws inspiration from the work of Emmett Gowan and Sally Mann, who, he says, "record the everyday occurrences of their life with a fine photographic eye." In doing so, he creates what he calls "sophisticated snapshots. They have the emotionality and immediacy of a snapshot, but the visual sophistication of a photographer's eye."

This summer, one of Callanan's SX-70 images, just four-by-four inches, will appear in a 50-year retrospective of Maine photography, put on by the Maine Coast Artists Gallery in Rockport.

"I'm not usually interested in going out and having gallery shows," Callanan says, but in this case, he made an exception. The reason? The gallery is now run by an old friend from Callanan's days at the Maine Photographic Workshop.

"It's real personal stuff. I do it because I love it as a record of my life. The images have preciousness. Because of their nature, they're one-of-a-kind jewels. But I don't think that having that idea about a work is good for a photographer, so I give them away. I include them in correspondences, and send them out as little note cards of thanks. And that sort of balances things out."

Callanan guesses he's given away 3,500 of his Polaroid images over the years. As letters of thanks, and as a way to share his love of photography, the gifts of his images are simple evidence of the more than 20 years he's spent building the country's photographic community, one relationship at a time. Each of those photos is one of the literally thousands of reasons PhotoMedia has chosen to honor Reid Callanan as Photography Person of the Year for 1999.

John Callan
Story Author: John Callan

John Callan, a former editor of PhotoMedia, is a freelance writer based in Woodinville, Wash.

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