The Rule of Thirds

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Three lives. Three alumni. Three glimpses.

The Sesnon Gallery is hosting a new exhibit, called “Three Lives in Photography,” which displays the work of three UC Santa Cruz alumni photographers, from now until May 10. Curated by Sesnon director Shelby Graham, the exhibit celebrates the varying differences in form and content between each alumnus’ artistic preoccupations.

The idea for this exhibit came about several years ago when Graham met with the artists at the Society for Photographic Education’s conference in San Francisco.

“It was a combination of talking about photography and mentioning UCSC, and then I noticed that each of them had this really incredible series of work,” Graham said. “It became clear that these works would look fabulous together.”

As the Sesnon is a smaller gallery, visitors will have the chance to catch brief glimpses into the much larger bodies of work each artist developed over their lengthy careers. Each one — Robert Dawson, David Pace and Joel Leivick — works with complex photographic forms to express ideas about topics ranging from mundane American locales to the daily experiences of those living in Burkina Faso to environmental awareness and ecological decay.

Robert Dawson’s (Merrill ‘72) expressive black and white pieces center on environmentally-conscious subjects. One featured project is “Water in the West,” an ongoing piece — started in 1984 — that traces the relationships between American society and water usage.

“‘Water in the West’ goes back to my early beginnings, and it partly relates back to getting to know this guy Ansel Adams,” Dawson said. “I got from him that he was as proud of his work on the environment as he was with his photography. He was influential in thinking in terms of photography, but he also wanted to preserve the environment and bring attention to environmental stories.”

With a focus on bold landscape pictures capturing the melancholic and sometimes uncanny ways our society builds and destroys water sites, these photos capture a particular story about America’s complex environmental history.

Dawson claims his fascination with nature and the environment began during his time in Santa Cruz.

“I mean, how could I not be influenced [by environmental consciousness] when you’re here at UCSC?” Dawson said. “Just the forest and the views — it’s a rare combination to have all of that during the formative college years.”

Dawson, who teaches at San Jose State and Stanford, said much of his interest in education grew out of the unconventional methods of UCSC during the late 1960s.

“The openness of that period and the experimental thinking of that time was quite refreshing,” Dawson said. “I’ve been committed to issues about the environment and agriculture, and that started partly because I went to UCSC and partly because of the 1960s — a lot of that energy stays with us.”

Like Dawson, Joel Leivick (Porter, ‘72) often foregrounds intricate environmental portraits that reveal an eerie quality about man’s relationship to nature. Some of his large prints are currently on display at the Sesnon — two of which take up the entire back wall of the space.

These expansive landscape images are shot in sweeping black and white, with certain shades of gray and silver illuminating off the endless branches of a dense forest scene. The work displayed in the Sesnon captures the complexities of nature in a way that immerses the viewer into the intricate minutiae of the natural landscape.

“I have a high tolerance for complexity — I like to work with things that have complex forms,” Leivick said. “One of the things you have to do is to go after the things that seem good. It’s what Mozart said when he was writing a string quartet as a kid: ‘Choose the notes that sound good together.’ No one had to tell him how to do it.”

Leivick recalls his time at UCSC as especially important for him — he met his wife at Porter College during his freshman year. Since leaving Santa Cruz, Leivick developed a professional career teaching photography at Stanford.

“I’m happy to reminisce about those times, but it was a long time ago,” Leivick said. “Life takes you in a lot of different directions in 40 years, so in that period of time you lead a professional life and a family life and all the other things that come around. Still, college leaves an imprint on you.”

In the gallery space, Leivick’s expressive moments in nature are placed opposite the detailed portraits of African life in Burkina Faso, where David Pace (Stevenson, ‘74) travels to photograph locals two months out of the year. During his stay, he lives in a village, where on Friday nights the people like to party. Donning his camera, Pace will take candid snapshots of the high-energy dancing that occurs in the dark of a Friday night.

A collection of still photos compiled in a video format detail Pace’s experience dancing alongside these African peoples. Many of the photos convey the frenetic yet joyful attitude of the weekly ritual.

“Most of my work is very composed, but with this situation I had to shoot in the dark,” Pace explained. “I had no choice but to give up trying to create the best composed shot.”

In addition to teaching him to adapt to a more unpredictable style of shooting, this experience encouraged Pace to embrace the intricacies of digital color photography.

“When I first came to Africa, I was shooting black and white film, doing portraits,” Pace said. “After my first trip, I was looking at my color work and it was more intriguing than my black and white stuff. After the second year, I stopped shooting film. During my third year, I didn’t even bring a film camera, I just shot digital. The African color was so important. For me, it was an important way to shift from a black and white perspective to a color perspective.”

While at UCSC, Pace developed an individual major in Jungian psychology — which focuses on psychologist Carl Jung’s theories — and dream interpretation, called Jungian Foundations of Thought.

“[My individual major] taught me to think more symbolically and think about images and systems and forms of thought that were outside the mainstream,” Pace said.

Pace has taught at San Jose State, San Francisco State and Santa Clara University, where he’s established a study abroad program for students interested in working on photography in Burkina Faso.

All three of these artists have been challenged and changed by these different projects, but many of their artistic and personal preoccupations could be traced back to their undergraduate careers. Each of these artists began to form their identities while studying here, and though they have each gone on to develop different forms of visual expression, their thought processes grew out of their education at UCSC.

“Our experience here at UCSC shaped our awareness of the world,” Pace said. “It shaped the kinds of questions we asked, our concerns with the environment, education … all these things came from our experience at UCSC.”

The three artists will attend a gallery walkthrough at the Sesnon on April 26 at 5 p.m. “Three Lives in Photography” will be open until May 10.