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SVA’s Digital Photo Adventures in Asia

Posted by on June 11, 2011 | Student Photography

In her second blog post, Abby Robinson (leader of SVA’s Digital Photography Residency in Shanghai) shares behind-the-scenes details from on the ground in China, introduces us her colleagues and some of her students – both past and present. 

One of the Buddhas @ Jade Buddha Temple
Giant Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple, Photo © Abby Robinson

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On the final prep on the day before the students arrive, I accompanied Eleanor Oakes (special programs coordinator for SVA’s BFA photo department) and Zane Mellupe (originally from Latvia but a ten-year Shanghai resident, fluent Mandarin speaker and our local liaison) on an all-important trip to make business cards. 

As in much of Asia, having a card in China is crucial. It was fascinating to watch Zane work with the graphic person at the printer to translate English into Mandarin, a far more complicated process than I could have imaged. Did we want Chinese names or should we just have a phonetic approximation of our English ones? Even though Eli’s title at home is coordinator, would manager work better here? (Yes.) What was the class’s title? Did “residency” imply living quarters and if so, would “program,” “workshop” or “course” be a safer bet? Even SVA’s address proved complicated; numbered streets like West 21st are problematic.  

Phone numbers were sticky too because Eli didn’t yet have a local phone (I already owned one). She and Zane raced out to get a sim card so there would be a Shanghai contact number to put on her card. Purchase of a phone swiftly followed. Preparing our two cards took about two hours—time well spent in terms of future cred.

One of the other things we did before our students arrived was have dinner with a former one. Wayne Salazar was in Shanghai (his second time back since last summer’s residency) to work on his Open Closets project (see my first blog post). Wayne is a foodie and had made reservations at a newish French restaurant, Maison Pourcel. When you step off the elevator, you’re met with what turns out to be a long video of the Pourcel chefs. As you stare at two people who look remarkably alike, it slowly dawns on you that this is not some Photoshopped trick but identical twins. Meanwhile, the chefs continue to unflinchingly face you in an unnerving way that’s a cross between a Diane Arbus photo and a Thomas Ruff video portrait. Despite the sort of creepy starter, the food was quite good.

Friday June 3, 2011

The next day, our students begin to arrive. The first, Zipeng Zhu, both a student and our indefatigable 24/7 translator. Zipeng (aka Phil) was born in Shanghai and raised in China. Currently an SVA Graphic Design major, he was a student in my Digital Photography for Designers class last fall. Phil is quite the dynamo; he proved helpful in his first half hour here and now seems invaluable.

Next (coming in on the same plane) were Leah Berry, who hails from New Hampshire and just received a degree in photography from Alfred University, and Ivan Numergut, an SVA film department alum, now working in TV. We went out for dinner—an intro to hot pot cooking for the two Americans, who were both fighting off sleepiness. Meanwhile, Eleanor was waiting for Cassie Binkley to arrive. She’s studying studio art and is just about to graduate from Capital University in Chicago. The last arrival of the night was Ryan Mellinger, an NYU photography major who will graduate in January 2012.  

Saturday June 4, 2011

The remaining members of our posse arrived: Jocelyn Augustino, a professional photographer based in D.C. who specializes in politicians and disasters, and Christil Jones, a sophomore photo major at SVA.

We met at 4 p.m. in my room for an orientation session to go over the various do’s, don’ts, and not recommended’s of the workshop and Shanghai living. Then on to the James Cohan Gallery for the opening of a Louise Bourgeois print show. Sculptures by two Chinese women artists, Lin Tian Miao and Hu Xiaoyuan were included as tributes to Bourgeois and as exemplifiers of her quote, “I am not what I am. I am what I do with my hands.”

Afterwards we took our mostly jetlagged participants (except for Jocelyn who had already spent a week in Beijing) out for a Chinese banquet. And by 10:30 everyone was in his or her room getting ready for bed.

Eleanor & Ryan with (l to r) Jocelyn, Phil, Ryan and Leah in the background @ Bourgeois Opening
Eleanor and Ryan with (left to right) Jocelyn, Phil, Ivan and Leah in the background at the Louise Bourgeois Opening, Photo © Abby Robinson