Photography club offers new outlet to aspiring artists

Credit: Robert Siegel lemur

This photo of a lemur clinging to a bamboo stalk in Madagascar was taken by photo club member Robert Siegel during his travels.

In one office, a larger-than-life bamboo lemur, photographed in Madagascar, peers solemnly from the wall at visitors wandering through the lobby. Its neighbor is the 'Mystery Marsupial,' whose furry back is pointedly turned on all passersby. And on the opposite wall hang a pair of stunning sunset photographs, taken in Tanzania and Alaska.

These visual treasures are part of a 150-piece collection, spread throughout offices at the new satellite campus known as Stanford Menlo Park, and created by the collaborative efforts of its art committee and a hitherto little-known group: the School of Medicine Photo Club.

The 10-member club is one of the few medical school groups where faculty and staff have come together out of a shared passion for photography. 'We're a small, informal group of friends who just like sharing photos and talking about gear now and then,' said Brian Tobin, a manager in IRT Educational Technology Services and one of the photo club's members. One person in the club used to work across from Tobin's cubicle, and two others got to know him when they gave lectures using new classroom technologies. Another, Kingsley Willis, was a graphic designer in the medical school who worked with Tobin on several projects. And Tobin regularly spotted another future member snapping pictures of flowers at the medical school's Alway café during lunch hours.

'We kept bumping into each other, talking in hallways and over lunch, noticing new photos we'd hung in our cubicles, and drooling over each other's gear,' said Tobin. 'As we got more serious, we wanted to make it bigger than small chats.' So they got together formally for the first time last fall, when John Hally, formerly with Educational Technology Services, presented a workshop on techniques for creating panoramic images, using photographs from his visits to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The group had met only twice when an art committee, charged with finding works to decorate the Stanford Menlo Park offices, contacted Tobin. He was one of 20 artists selected to participate in the Stanford Continuing Studies course 'Art 44: Creating a Photographic Exhibition' during the winter of 2007, which helped people with photography collections learn how to display their work in a gallery, from matting and framing to publicity. Participants worked together for a group show in downtown Palo Alto's Modernbook Gallery.

'Someone from the art committee saw my photographs and figured, 'Oh, he knows art,' so they asked me for ideas to decorate the SMP buildings,' explained Tobin. 'But when I saw all the big white walls, I realized it'd be a much bigger project than finding cheap art to brighten up the place.' Instead, he proposed that the school's photo club pull together an original photograph collection. This would simplify the process of hunting for inexpensive artwork, besides serving as the group's first major collaboration.

'I was somewhat anxious when I first heard about the art committee,' said Samuel Zelch, the medical school's chief financial officer. His initial role was to make sure the budget was reasonable, but he eventually 'morphed' into co-chairing the committee with Susan Hoerger, deputy director of human resources. 'I knew if we weren't careful, we might have a much larger eye than budget.' Needless to say, Tobin's idea was greeted with considerable enthusiasm.

Credit: Olya Gary lemur

"Horses's Eye" was taken by Olya Gary, computer information systems analyst at Lane Medical Library

'I went back and told everyone [in the club], 'Hey, we have a gig,'' said Tobin. They spent subsequent gatherings choosing exhibition themes and curating photographs. The nine selected themes: 'Landscapes,' 'Stanford,' 'Stanford Fountains,' 'Water,' 'Bugs and Creepy Things,' 'Textures,' 'Travel,' 'Animals' and 'Flowers, Foliage and Fungi.'

They then donated the final collection of image files to the committee, who contracted with Stanford Visual Art Services to print them, and organized several framing parties of Stanford Menlo Park staff.

It was interesting, Tobin noted, that certain themes were dominated by specific club members. Tobin himself is featured in 'Stanford Fountains,' with photographs of Tower Fountain when it was dyed red during the 'Big Game' between Stanford and UC-Berkeley, and Old Union Fountain during a candlelight vigil, among others. Adela Chau, director of the medical school's budget and finance planning, has some wonderful photographs in 'Animals' from her travels worldwide, including a spectacular close-up of an elephant rearing back on its hind legs, in Tanzania.

Another stand-out is 'Horse's Eye,' taken by Olya Gary, computing information systems analyst at Lane Medical Library.

Then there's the 'Potato Bug,' taken by Robert Siegel, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, during a visit to the foothills surrounding the Stanford Dish. It's a crisp shot of a remarkably ugly beetle, quite monstrous and alien-like in appearance when viewed through the camera lens from a distance of merely two inches - where Siegel positioned himself for the picture.

Siegel was also the one who took the photo of the bamboo lemur that greets visitors in the lobby of one building. 'I like getting very close to funny-looking things,' he said. Next to the lemur hangs the 'Mystery Marsupial' photo taken by Willis, the graphic designer.

'For most of us, this [photography] is somewhere between a hobby and an obsession,' said Siegel, speaking for his fellow club members. They're delighted with the results of this first major collaboration, and will organize similar projects in the future. Siegel is spearheading an effort to put together photographs for 'Medicine and the Muse,' the school's annual art program; Tobin has been asked to help provide artwork for the new Learning and Knowledge Center.

'Our group has a wide array of skill-sets, and that's what we can capitalize on,' said Tobin. He added that the club is always ready to welcome new members, even those interested in photography but lacking the necessary skills.

'It's the new photographers who want to learn that keep things exciting with fresh perspectives,' he said.

To find out more about the club, contact Brian Tobin at btobin@stanford.edu.


Alissa Poh was a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs in the School of Medicine.


Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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