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Julia Dean: Sharing a Vision with the Next Generation

PhotoMedia's 2008 Photography Person of the Year: Julia Dean PhotoMedia's 2008 Photography Person of the Year: Julia Dean
© Agi Magyari

The founder of one of the nation's most prestigious photo workshops is helping aspiring photographers carry on her passion for socially concerned imagery.

Committed. Concerned. Caring. Those three C's pretty much sum up photographer Julia Dean, who not only has incorporated those elements into her life and work but also has strived to encourage other photographers to do so through her teaching.

"The thing that impresses me most about Julia is her desire to make a difference in people's lives," says longtime friend Reid Callanan, founder and director of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

This year, Dean, who established the prestigious Julia Dean Photo Workshops nearly a decade ago, is moving into high gear with her love of photography about social issues. Soon she expects to complete a worldwide project, called "Child Labor and the Global Village: Photography for Social Change," which began in the late 1990s and involves 11 photojournalists, including herself. Next year, she plans to launch "Documenting America's Social Challenges: Five Pressing Issues," a five-year undertaking that would also employ top photojournalists. Topics being considered for the project include health care, immigration, and education for the working class and poor.

"My whole future, what I'm trying to make happen, is one socially concerned collaborative project after another," Dean explains. "I want to bring some of the best photojournalists in on it.... It's going to be a great thing."

In addition to such collaborative efforts, Dean is also embarking on a cross-country adventure in an RV to document the current state of Native Americans. She will be accompanied by her "significant other," Jay Adler, an English professor who will do the writing on the project. Their itinerary will take them to 27 states across the United States.

"I haven't done any socially concerned photography of my own for a decade since I started the school," Dean says. "So this is a real treat for me. I always wanted to be back on the road again. This is like a dream of mine. It will be real fun and a great challenge."

At age 53, Dean has traveled to more than 40 states and 40 foreign countries during her illustrious career. However, while she was growing up in tiny Broken Bow, Neb. (population 3,800), such a lifestyle seemed practically unthinkable.

"In the fifth grade, one of my neighbor ladies went to Switzerland," she remembers. "I just thought that was marvelous [that] somebody was going so far away. I'd never heard of such a thing."

It was during her formative years in Broken Bow that Dean first got interested in photography. She received her first camera — a 110-format rig — when she was in the fifth grade, which inspired her to start taking photos through grade school and high school. When Dean was a senior in high school, an older friend returned from college and showed Dean some black-and-white prints she had made while at a photography class.

"I just wanted so badly to do the same thing," Dean says. "So off I went to college and declared my major as journalism, so I could take the photography class. That's how it all started."

For most of her early career, Dean epitomized the struggling artist dedicated solely to her work. While in school, first at the University of Nebraska and later at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), she was rather unprepared when it came to photography and the world in general.

Asked about what type of photography she hoped to pursue at the time, she admits she didn't have a clue. "I never thought about wedding or portrait or anything," Dean says. "I didn't even know what kind of photography was to be had. I also hadn't thought about how I was going to make a living at it."

It wasn't until she was studying the history of photography at RIT that she came across the work of photographers such as Lewis Hine, who had done documentary work on social change. Other influences included the Farm Security Administration photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans.

While she was studying those icons of photography, the proverbial light bulb went off. "That's when I went, ‘That's what I want to do,' " Dean recalls, but adds she was faced with one slight problem. "I was so naïve. I thought, ‘Oh, but there aren't that many world problems.' It didn't take long to get a little less naïve."

Abbott's apprentice

After graduating from RIT in 1978, Dean applied for an apprenticeship with the legendary Berenice Abbott in Maine. She had heard about the opportunity when some friends at dinner casually mentioned it.

Although Dean admits that her printing skills were a bit lacking during this period, her enthusiasm and willingness to learn helped her land the position at Abbott's home in Maine.

"The thing that always struck me about Julia was that she was always extraordinarily enthusiastic and a game girl," recalls longtime friend and Abbott biographer Hank O'Neal. "She wanted to go out there and get the photo. She was full of determination that she was going to make it as a photographer."

"I was a hard worker," agrees Dean, who learned fast and developed printing skills through Abbott's guidance day by day.

"My experience with Berenice Abbott was definitely an experience that I call my own. Almost everything else I've done, anybody could do," Dean remembers. "But having had the amazing good fortune of finding out about Berenice Abbott at the right time was my good fortune. I think she was a huge influence."

While Abbott, who was 80 at the time, influenced the 23-year-old Dean about being an independent career woman, O'Neal turned out to be just as important an influence. He was the first person Dean had met who worked from home — or from wherever he happened to be — on various projects.

"I had always been raised that people went off to work, then they came home from work," Dean recalls. "I never saw anybody be home and work. I was fascinated by [O'Neal's] discipline. I think I learned discipline from both him and Berenice."

Ever since the internship, it's been a rather wild ride for Dean, with stints as a ski photographer in Colorado and a white-water rafting shooter in West Virginia; she also took assignments for various relief groups and publications that allowed her to travel the world.

During the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., she worked as a "go-fer" for the Associated Press (AP). She later worked as an AP photo editor in New York City, moving into that position after taking baseball dictation in AP's sports department. However, "I just decided that I was not just meant to sit at a desk," she says of her short stay at the AP.

Along the way, Dean authored an award-winning children's book ("A Year on Monhegan Island"), traveled across the United States to document the disappearance of American general stores and has taken various odd jobs to make ends meet.

"I just lived on nothing," Dean says. "I just knew that I had so much adventure in me that not having money was not going to slow me down. I was just going to have to do things differently."

The gift of teaching

Just as the apprenticeship with Abbott was a serendipitous event, so, too, was her journey into teaching. That came about in 1982 when George Tuck, her mentor at the University of Nebraska, asked if she would be interested in teaching summer classes there.

"I was 27 years old. I barely knew the answers, let alone being able to explain anything," Dean remembers. "I'd stay up all night planning lectures and reading textbooks and working really hard. It was really scary, but standing up in front of people for the first time — it was 25 years ago now — it was really fun. I just totally loved it.

"I finally found what I wanted to do," she adds. "I can teach and I can be a documentary photographer."

One of the students in the second class she taught was a 19-year-old fellow Nebraskan named Joel Sartore. He has since gone on to become a photographer for National Geographic magazine, an author of several books and an assignment shooter for magazines including Time, Life, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. He also has taught classes at Dean's workshops.

"I've always thought that her greatest attribute was as a teacher," Sartore says of Dean. "Anybody can take pictures these days, thanks to modern cameras, but very few people have the gift of teaching that she does. She's landed in the perfect place through a lot of hard work. Teaching is totally where she should be."

Dean's teaching career continued at the university, where she worked towards her master's degree at a local community college and at the prestigious Maine and Santa Fe workshops. She eventually earned her master's in 1992 from the University of Nebraska.

International flavor

In 1984 Dean took her first trip overseas, wrangling a press pass from Bicycling magazine to shoot the Tour de France for one month. She then traveled on her own for two more months, financed by a loan from her life insurance policy.

"I was interested in going someplace far," she says. "I didn't know what that meant, really, except that it sounded fascinating."

It wasn't until she got to the Greek island of Corfu that her eyes were opened to how different life could be. "I was just really enthralled," she says. "I just wanted to photograph the way people all around the world live, and I wanted to teach people about it. So basically that's where my love of documentary photography came from."

Dean's experience abroad rekindled her interest in social documentary photography, which she had studied at RIT. "I hadn't been able to put any of it together until it all fell into place [in Greece]," she says. "There I was in Greece taking some nice pictures, taking pictures that meant something to me."All of a sudden, the Tour de France didn't seem so important.

"Even though people thought it was cool that I got to cover the Tour de France, none of it mattered much to me. Even though it's important to photograph and it's fun, I just wanted to do more serious photography," she says. "I wanted to educate people — whether it's through magazines or being a teacher or both — that's pretty much been my goal for the rest of my life: to photograph what I see, share what I see. I hope that my whole future is involved in socially concerned projects."

"It comes from her heart, there's no question of the genesis of it," notes Callanan of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. "It all comes from having a big, caring heart."

On the road again

It was a trip to Los Angeles in 1994 that prompted Dean to move to Southern California. She landed a teaching job at local community colleges and began teaching photo classes in her studio. In 1999, she launched the Julia Dean Photo Workshops school, offering 10 classes, all of which she taught for the first few years.

"I basically started the school because I needed a job," Dean says with a laugh. "One day I woke up and I went, ‘I can't take this anymore about how I'm going to pay my rent. I have to find a job.' "

Today, the school offers some 160 workshops throughout the year, employing more than 50 instructors. About 1,000 students attend the Julia Dean Photo Workshops each year. Dean has conducted 25 travel workshops so far, giving her a chance to keep shooting and traveling.

The addition of Brandon Gannon as general manager and director of publications and Chris Skeels as director of operations at the school has freed Dean to concentrate on her collaborative projects as well as her own work. She hopes to fund the "Five Pressing Issues" project through a series of photographic auctions (one each year for five years) and to complete the "Child Labor" series, which has been almost a decade in the making.

Dean is also enthusiastic about shooting a Native American series later this year, to be called "Ghosts Over the Land," which brings to mind memories of her previous adventures. "When I was young and running around the United States in my tent and my car, I never envisioned that 25 years later I'd actually get to live comfortably and do the same thing," she says.

"There's still a whole lot more to see. I have a long way to go."

P.J. Heller
Story Author: P.J. Heller

P.J. Heller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southern California.

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