Sunday, October 04, 2009

Jerry Burchfield

i stood with my feet in the pacific ocean and watched the sun drift below the horizon as i said my silent thank you and farewell to jerry.

jerry burchfield died september 11, 2009. since his passing i’ve read numerous articles describing him as an artist, educator, and a dedicated family man. they also listed his many accolades, the projects he worked on, and the multitudes of books he authored. to me he was a friend, colleague, mentor, and a member of my extended family.

i took my first class with jerry in the spring of 1998. it was his conceptual photography class at cypress college. i was just beginning my photographic education at that point and was pretty proficient in the technical aspects, but had no clue about developing concepts and executing them. i struggled with that class. heck, i only got a “d” the first time i took it. it took me years to figure out what he was trying to teach.

jerry was an artist and i had no desire to be one. his methods were more abstract than i was comfortable with. he pushed me to develop my photographic style and learn how to use my photography to communicate a specific message. what style? i had no style. he told me that if i kept taking enough pictures a pattern would emerge and sure enough one did.

i was a slacker in school. i would do projects at the last minute. after a few classes with jerry i had learned what kind of pictures to turn in. i would bullshit my way through it after my friend mick told me the key was to say, “i meant to do that.” one year i decided to not do that anymore, not to put off projects until the last minute and really work on something meaningful to me. i turned this project into jerry and for the first time, he didn’t like what i did. i was frustrated. wtf? i can half-ass a project and he loves it and when i work on something really hard he doesn’t? i stopped taking pictures for nearly 4 years after that. i focused on my job, on the postproduction side of photography. i resented jerry and photography for those years. i finally told him how i felt and he just said that perhaps working on things at last minute forced me to work more instinctively and for me to trust my instincts. i did just that and my photography been better ever since.

jerry worked on these grand projects that i’m still not sure how me managed to pull off: creating “the tell”, photographing the entire length of laguna canyon road with an elaborate lighting rig, and taking part in creating the world’s largest photograph to name a few, all the while finding the time to raise a family, teach, write books, and produce art. it was through watching him that i learn that the things i once thought were impossible were possible especially with the help of friends who are just as crazy and enthusiastic and a little bit of tenacity.

he had more patience than anyone i knew. he took the time to help those who other people might have gotten frustrated with and given up on with the same care and attention he would give his dearest friends and loved ones.

i was stressed one day at work and it brought me to tears. he had been diagnosed with cancer by then. my problem was miniscule by comparison, but he still took the time to take me out to lunch and talk about it. he still took the time to care for me when he bigger things going in his own life.

jerry worked hard to expose his students to experiences that would enrich their lives. he would have his students learn how to publish their own books, be part of real exhibits, make clothing out photographs, visit galleries and museums to see the work of others – maybe they would inspire us in our own work, get access to photograph an abandoned air force base, and get them involved with projects that called for mass participation.

i can see him sitting at his desk and eating his lunch. he would offer me bites of his food if he thought i would enjoy it. he would do silly things like stand in front of class with a gag holding a sign that read “will work for art”. his performance pieces were strange yet somehow entertaining. he spit chewed up leaves at me for one. he did manhole rubbings with his “man hole” for another. it’s the little moments that i remember most.

these experiences and more i’ve had a chance to have because of jerry. his influence has shaped part of my life, my outlook on life, and the possibilities that exist. for these things i’ll always be grateful.

his friends stood on the patio of the hotel laguna and watched the sunset with me. i know he touched their lives the same way he did mine.

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