A new focus

Becky Young

Becky Young was Penn's first photography lecturer. Now after sharing her love of photography with Penn students for three decades, Young is leaving to focus her energies on a book about her life behind the camera.

Q&A/When Becky Young started teaching at Penn, she was the only photography lecturer in the Fine Arts Department. Now photography is thriving at Penn, and for Young, it’s time to move on.

Thirty years ago, Becky Young taught her first photography class at Penn. An established portrait photographer—and former darkroom assistant to Harry Callahan—Young had no teaching experience at all. Penn, at that time, had no photography department either, so Young and the fledgling program grew together, from one teacher and a "closet" in the Furness building to nine instructors and a fully equipped department in the basement of Addams.

This spring will be Young’s last at Penn. The guiding spirit behind photography at Penn has decided to devote herself, full-time, to writing a book about her life’s work.

Next month, an exhibit at the Addams Gallery (April 11-29) celebrates Young’s art and bids her a fond farewell as she embarks on the next phase of her artistic career.

We met with her in the Rittenhouse Square apartment, above an Oriental rug shop, where she has lived and worked for 30 years. Surrounded by her work, Young reflects on how her art has evolved over the years, and the important role Penn has played.

Q. A lot of your early work depicted nude women in domestic settings. What’s striking is that they’re ordinary women—not models—of all shapes and sizes, doing ordinary things like sitting at the kitchen table. What prompted you to start that series?

Becky Young

"I just wanted to give them that wonderful feeling that, out of nothing, they could create something."

A. I got so sick of the way women were shown as objects in advertisements that I started photographing them as subjects. That was in the ’60s and ’70s. People wanted to do it because of the reason I was doing it. I said "I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care about your size. All you need to do is like yourself well enough to let me take your picture in your home." I had a show and it got so much publicity because they were all Philadelphia people and everybody wanted to see each other with no clothes on. And then I started photographing women in relationships with other people, their husbands and all. Then three years later I was doing mothers and daughters. It ended with this whole family series. It was really fun.

Q. The quality of light is interesting.

A. All of these pictures were done with natural light. I kind of had long exposures but I loved the effect of natural light. I just took a Hasselblad and a tripod and that was it. If it was raining I couldn’t do it because the light would be bad inside.

Q. Can you tell me about the photographs you took of your twin sister the day after she died in 1988?

A. Nan died of lung cancer in seven months after smoking for 30 years. I had no intention of taking [the photos] originally, but she died and then I was so happy I took them. I wanted to get as much of her as I could possibly get. I didn’t print them until 1996. There was a cancer show at the Ross Gallery here at Penn and they wanted me to be a juror and they thought it would be wonderful to put these in. It took me years to figure out how you can delicately put images of your dead sister in an exhibit, and I ended up making them black and white. I love the purity and delicacy.

Q. The show will also include mixed-media pieces. Tell me how they came about.

A. When my twin sister called and told me she had lung cancer I started doing them totally out of nowhere. It was as if all my other work was about the life outside me, the women and the men and all, but when she died some higher power seemed to be guiding me. I started doing these “illuminations” and it was pivotal for the rest of my work.

Q. How did you get the job at Penn with no teaching experience?

A. There was a guy who was teaching a class that included photography. Four weeks into the semester he had a heart attack in class and died three days later. So that’s how I got this job, from this man dying. I’d never taught. By that time I’d certainly established myself as a photographer but not as a teacher, and I said no and then I called up Callahan and he said, “Just do it, you’ll love it, and you’ll learn.” So that’s how I got the job and it got popular so they let me have another class, and then that got popular. I think some kind of energy that I felt was getting to the students as I was learning. And the feedback from them was so wonderful, and that gave me impetus to do more. So in the end I had six classes, which was really too much—but I loved it.

Q. And the program grew.

A. Yes. Julie Schneider became chair of the undergraduate department and she started working with me getting teachers in and expanding. I asked her if there was any chance of having someone teach my summer session. So she hired someone, and the next fall we got someone else and we got more and more people over the next nine years and she let me cut my load in half and made me director of the program. When I started I had my darkroom in a closet in the Furness building. We just developed a program that started from nothing. It’s fascinating for me to see what happened. When we moved into the Addams building about three years ago we really had a chance to expand and we built a state-of-the-art photography department. We have a minor and major in photography. Now, as of last year, we have our first masters degree in photography. I feel I’m leaving it in good hands. I really do feel it’s an entirely new generation of photography instructors, including Gabe Martinez and Karen Rodewald who will be taking my place.

Q. What have you enjoyed most about teaching at Penn?

A. Just connecting to these young kids. These kids were from all over the school. They weren’t necessarily fine arts students at all. It was great to watch them get excited over something they’d never done. I didn’t have any slides and every weekend I’d spend hours and hours making slides. And they loved it and I loved it more and more. I had no reference and that was both a blessing and a curse because there’s something nice about just going in there and feeling my way. I was really teaching on a wing and a prayer. And when we really enlarged the department it was wonderful to see how other teachers taught.

Q. How did teaching fit in with the rest of your creative life?

A. One thing that was so great about Penn was that this work [I was doing in my studio] was so off-the-wall, teaching grounded me. It was a wonderful balance. I’d be with students for two days and then I’d come back to this very quiet, introverted world.

Q. Why stop teaching now?

A. I began working on a book [about my work], and I took the whole summer and wrote and at the end I said I’ve got to retire and dedicate myself to getting this work out to a wider audience. I just knew it was now or never. Something happened when I spent the whole summer writing about the stories behind these pictures. I got a computer and I started putting all the work onto the computer, and I was off and running. I never thought I’d leave here. I loved it and it became so much a part of my life, but 30 years was enough. I need to devote all my time to this body of work and reach a wider audience with it. But I can’t even imagine not being at Penn.

Q. Of all the courses you taught, which were you most proud of?

A. About eight years ago I created a class called the Visual Diary. It was about using words and images to get to know more about yourself. And that really worked. It was something some of the students needed, it seemed. They write extensive diaries and email them to me so it’s a lot of work. But it’s so satisfying.

Q. What did you want your students to come away with?

A. I just wanted to give them that wonderful feeling that, out of nothing, they could create something. And it didn’t mean they had to be artists all of their lives. I think photography was more accessible. A lot of people may not have known how to paint but they would take photographs because they would inevitably have cameras, so they’d come into class with their wonderful little Nikons not really knowing how to use them other than take a snapshot and a few months later have not only skills but some kind of knowledge of what was going on inside of them.

Originally published on March 31, 2005