What's in a Street?

TMCC photography student hangs her work in an exhibit entitled "Street."
Rebecca A. Eckland

Downtown Reno paints a vibrant and dynamic scene through pedestrian and vehicle traffic, the flashing lights of casino marquees that play on the surface of the Truckee River, flowing through the middle of it all. And yet, Reno photographer Stephen Johnson witnessed another side of these typically vibrant scenes in the early morning hours before dawn during the final months of 2020. 

Johnson, along with a dozen student-artists from TMCC’s Art 299 or Advanced Photography class, challenged themselves with a change in perspective during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic by photographing outside of the studio—and their typical subject matter—to focus instead on the streets. 

“[Stephen] commented often about the quiet and the peace of being out at that unique time in the middle of downtown Reno, which is usually humming during the day,” said his classmate, Barbara Dayes. “His photographs really show that calm and that quiet. Normally he photographs the [natural world], but this project really encouraged him to photograph a different kind of [urban] environment.” 

The result of this year-long class project is an exhibit called “Street” that is currently on display at the McKinley Gallery West in the McKinley Arts & Culture Center. Through a dozen different aesthetic—and literal—lenses, the show asks its audience members to consider the unique reality of the streets that comprise our community: what stories do the streets tell? What narrative (or literal) lines? What lives, celebrated or erased? After all, how often do we look—really look—at public places, and especially the streets of our community?

“Street” offers a curated collection of perspectives on the nature of community, and how these collective spaces—and projects—can be sources for personal and professional growth.

Outside Studio Spaces

To appreciate “Street”, participating photographers Dayes and her classmate Pedro Gomez Ramirez take us back to the final months of  2020. “The idea for the show is right in the middle of COVID-19,” said Ramirez. “Some of us were kind of in the dumps and wondering why we were doing this class via Zoom, not having the interaction we normally do in person. We were all basically just working from home. Some of us thought it would be nice to have a challenge not only for the times but for individual growth and variety... so as to not to do the same thing we normally do, but to get out of our comfort zone. In that light, I proposed we do a project together on street photography.”

Those who chose to participate in the group project are a unique student demographic of “lifelong learners,” photographers and other professionals who find value in continuing to improve and hone their skills as photographers and who are not necessarily in pursuit of a certificate or degree. Interestingly, among the eclectic group, not a single photographer specialized in photographing these kinds of urban spaces. And yet, each student embraced the challenge wholeheartedly, some switching from digital to film media, others focusing on new subject matter and others, still, playing with tonality, light, texture and lines in ways they had not explored in their work before.

Although it wasn’t easy, the project encouraged the students not only to meet up and physically walk and photograph areas of downtown Reno and Sparks, but to gain new insights on their processes, including their relationship to the camera, and to interacting with other members of the public who were curious about the project. And yet, all of that was a part of the learning process. 

For Dayes, this is at the heart of the reason why she continues to take classes even while having no interest in pursuing a degree. “If you stop learning, you stop living,” she said.  

Dayes, a self-described life-long learner who has been taking photography classes since the early 2000s, finds value in learning for the sake of learning. “When we attend our class, it’s not about a grade, it’s about an experience. And we get so much from just interacting with our fellow photographers. We have about a dozen people in our Special Projects—technically it’s Art 299—but it’s really a group of advanced photographers [who are both degree-seeking and non-degree seeking] exploring art the way that we want to.”

Dayes recalls a pivotal moment in her experience of street photography that happened on South Wells Street, and that would become her contribution to “Street.” It was late afternoon, and the light created diagonal lines across the street and sidewalk. As she continued to walk and to take pictures of the street, she noticed a homeless man who was lying in the doorway of an abandoned building. 

“I realized his hand was in the light and his hand was creating a shadow on the sidewalk [and I knew], I had to get [a picture of] the hand and the shadow. The closer I got to him, the more I realized that this man had a story. He’s had a rough life. He was missing fingers, and the fingers that he had were bent, broken and gnarled. It was incredible how powerful and how compassionate just his image made me feel. I didn’t know anything about him, but I knew that he was a survivor,” she said. The piece is one of the larger prints on display in “Street” and offers one glimpse of an “invisible” population. 

And yet, according to Ramirez, the project brought about many unexpected encounters, and not just with one kind of person. Passers-by, drawn by the walking photographers, were curious and asked questions.

“We got to interact with people on the street and that was also very rewarding. These people were interested in what we were doing... so many people had withdrawn [because of the pandemic] and didn’t have those connections,” he said. Ramirez, whose work is typically an expression of light and shadow, also includes a silhouette of a classmate, suggests that one aspect of public spaces that’s inevitable is the likelihood that you’re never truly alone on a public street.

Unique Learning Spaces

“Street,” which will remain on display until April 1 after a closing reception on March 31, features the work of TMCC Photography Professor Dean Burton and students Will Barber, Stephanie Hogen, Stephen Johnson, Clara Lawson, Jaime Ramey, Marianne Reger, Breeann St. Onge, Bill Strohschein, Pedro Gomez Ramirez and Barbara Dayes.  Although several of the student-artists are well-known for their distinct styles and tastes, “Street” offers audience members another angle or focus that deviates in interesting ways from these artists’ past portfolios. 

This is due in part to the learning environment itself, which has inspired Dayes and Ramirez to continue taking classes like Art 299 at TMCC for years. “This whole experience—the class and the exhibition—this happened because TMCC nurtures learning and it creates an environment where we can motivate each other and we can motivate ourselves. We wouldn't find this at another institution. TMCC is very unique that way,” said Dayes.

Ramirez, who helped to motivate and keep the other students on schedule for the “Street” exhibition, agrees that he is drawn to the learning environment of the photography classroom at TMCC. “There’s plenty of space to explore, grow and to try new things.” 

Although this group project was a departure from the typical course content which encourages students to pursue and develop their own interests and images, this kind of collaboration and community is fostered by faculty like Professor Dean Burton who are invested in TMCC’s mission to support student success. 

“Professor Burton creates that unique environment,” said Dayes. “This kind of class wouldn’t exist without either the college or this excellent professor.” 

For more information about studying Photography at TMCC, contact the Visual and Performing Arts Department at 775-673-7291.