Star Teacher: Reed Estabrook

By Amy Touchette

ROADSIDE BEAUTY: An image from Estabrook’s “American Roadside Monuments” series, which won him a 1976 NEA Fellowship. “While I loved the vastness of the midwest, I spent every summer from 1970 to 1982 escaping the “Tyranny of Green” to roam the American west,” he says.

Reed Estabrook’s childhood passion for building things did not go to waste when he switched majors from architecture to photography after “falling in with the wrong crowd”—the likes of Emmit Gowin, Linda Connor and Bill Burke, to name a few of his Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) classmates. As his photography career took off, Estabrook spent much of his time building—not structures but photography programs. “Developing programs—the curriculum, faculty, equipment, facilities—is really not significantly different from architecture. Both are multifaceted and complex,” Estabrook says.

This esteemed educator of 40 years would know. After earning an MFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1971, he taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed the fledgling program at the University of Northern Iowa, and chaired the photography program at the Kansas City Art Institute. In 1984, he tackled the development of the new photography degree program at San Jose State University and eventually came to serve as coordinator, where he created the dual track curriculum and lead the institution’s transition to a digitally based curriculum.

While also working as a teacher, what he found “most challenging was managing the larger institution, keeping it from doing silly things. The classroom is part of a much bigger organism, and that relationship is crucial,” he explains. “The department, the college (especially) and the university as a whole can do great damage to a program with decisions that seem logical in terms of the larger whole,” making program leadership “crucially important.”

All this hard work has paid off for Estabrook. Not only has he enjoyed an inspired professional career, but this year he will receive the Society of Photographic Education’s (SPE) Honored Educator Award, traditionally one of SPE’s greatest honors. Those who nominated him spoke of his tireless and imaginative work ethic on behalf of students, his visionary and technical sense of the medium and his undying “enchantment of a new professor, still thrilled by the various abilities, ideas and interests of his students.”

Estabrook is an artist in his own right, with photographs featured in the collections of MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J Paul Getty Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Reed Estabrook headshot © Gabriele Niedereichholz



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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