Artist in Residence: An Interview with Photographer Erik James Montgomery

The 28 seventh graders of Bradley Beach Elementary School had an amazing opportunity this year to work with a professional photographer and teaching artist, Erik James Montgomery in a project they will never forget.

Mr. Montgomery, a youth advocate for more than 30 years, with a studio in Camden, visited seventh graders in their language arts classes twice a week from February to April.

Together with language arts teachers Mrs. Sucato and Mrs. Vitale, seventh graders worked on an art project called The Ordinary-Extraordinary Photography Project. Students took a series of portraits of an everyday hero in their lives — like moms, dads, grandpas, teachers, and a community police officer. They also interviewed and wrote essays about their subjects.

Students used cell phones, Nikon Coolpix digital cameras, and their own digital SLR cameras. They used free apps like Google Photos to edit and organize their work. In class, they practiced visual thinking strategies, studied photographers, and learned about the history of the camera. They did a lot of hands-on work, like setting up a mobile “photo studio” in the computer lab, and a “dark room” in the media center.

As part of the project, students visited the Newark Public Library to view a Hip Hop exhibition and a collection of historic photos of New Jersey.

Students presented their photographs, printed on canvas, at the PTO-sponsored Bradley Beach Porch Fest on May 18. Sixteen homeowners volunteered their porches to display the art at the free event. Porches also featured professional musicians and lots of food donated by local businesses. It was so successful that the PTO is thinking about doing it again next year.

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Photo by Mrs. Sucato

All of the work and the essays — with a great collection of behind-the-scenes pictures — can be found on a special website made for the project by Mrs. Sucato’s daughter Zoe.

“The photos are incredible. They show the unique, intimate bonds between the students and their subjects, and reveal something essential about them both,” Mrs. Sucato said.

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Photo by Genesis Pimentel

The project was part of a grant awarded by the Artists in Education Residency Grant Program, a cosponsored project of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Young Audiences New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

This is the fifth time Bradley Beach Elementary School has received the grant. We also have hosted a ceramic artist, a spoken word poet, and a graphic novelist. Next year we will be doing a Latin dance residency with fourth grade.

Students said goodbye to Mr. Montgomery at a reflection day in early June. Seventh-grader Claire Cooperman had crocheted him a scarf with 28 different colors of yarn, one for each student. Other students made cards thanking him for opening their eyes to an amazing art form.

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Group selfie by Mr. Montgomery

Below is a Q & A with Mr. Montgomery:

Q: Have you ever taught photography to another school?

A:  Yes, I have taught at many public and private schools over the years. Their ages are usually between 10 and 18, but I also instruct adult students as well.

Q: How was Bradley Beach different from other schools where you have worked?

A: I appreciate my residency at Bradley Beach because there is a real sense that the school really cares about the total welfare of their students. Specifically, Mrs. Sucato and Mrs. Vitale were quite welcoming to me and went over and beyond in helping to bring this project to fruition.

Q: How did you learn to take photographs?

A:  Originally, I taught myself. Way back before YouTube and the Internet, there was this wonderful institution called the library where one could gain knowledge on almost anything. But seriously, as a teenager, I read more than 100 books on photography. Recently, I returned to college (Columbia University and Academy of Art University) to enhance my knowledge and expertise.

Q: How long have you been doing photography?

A:  Next year I will be celebrating 30 years as a photographer! I knew I wanted to be a photographer since my senior year of high school.

Q: Can you tell us about your work?

A:  I am mainly a fine art photographer. In that, I capture images that invite the viewer to consider societal issues, faith, and my own personal journeys.

Q: What inspired you to become a photographer?

A:  I am very image conscience – from the inside-out. I have always loved the arts including music, dancing, graffiti, calligraphy, etc. As a child, I would listen to record albums for hours and just stare at the artwork on the covers. I really appreciated when the album’s photographer made an image that corresponded to the music on the album. Later, I started appreciating fashion so I would use images from GQ magazines to decorate all four of my bedroom walls! I guess through osmosis I absorbed all of this artistic energy from music and fashion and, in turn, that helped me to gravitate to photography.  

Q: Who is your favorite photographer?

A: I really like James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks. They were both pioneering African-American photographers who created stunning imagery beyond the difficulties they faced.

Q: Do you have kids?

A: I have two adult daughters: Renata and Tomorrow.

Q: Do you have any pets?

A:  Yes, my two daughters: Renata and Tomorrow! HA! Just joking! We have a pet hamster named Lollipop. We would like to get a dog but all four of us live very busy lives so that would not work unless we could train it to use the toilet on its own.

Q: Who is the most famous person you know?

A:  Hmmmm, I really don’t “trip” over famous people but I do know several recording artists, musicians and film/television directors.

Q: How tall are you?

A:  Taller than most people I meet. I’m 6 feet tall.

Q: Are there any fun facts about you?

A: Yup! I am a French Fry-a-holic. It’s really bad. I am also a vegan. I really love to laugh (it’s good for your health). I can listen to intelligent people speak for hours (unless they are self-centered, then I reject them). And I can drink a cup of coffee and go right to sleep – weird, I know.

Q: If you had one wish, what would you wish for? (You can’t wish for more wishes.)

A: Not to be religious, but I would wish that everyone in the world would love God the way He loves us. (If that answer is too deep then feel free to use this one instead: I would wish for world peace.)

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Photo by Xavier Davila

 

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