Northern Short Course: Still Curious, After All These Years

Northern Short Course participants signed up for portfolio review sessions (above) and John Tlumacki of The Boston Globe spoke about his Boston Marathon bombing photographs (below). Photographs by Sean D. Elliot
Northern Short Course participants signed up for portfolio review sessions (above) and John Tlumacki of The Boston Globe spoke about his Boston Marathon bombing photographs (below). Photographs by Sean D. Elliot

By Mark E. Johnson

Warwick, RI (March 14, 2014) – When the weather forecasts started slipping out, the back channel chatter started: winter weather for the first day of the 2014 NPPA Northern Short Course, rain and ice and snow. Bad, bad news – it’ll drive down walk up registration, folks won’t make the journey.

I wandered in to the hotel Wednesday night and found a nearly full lounge as the early events wound down. The numbers seemed a little higher for the room than the last time we were here three years ago. By morning, as I made my way to the registration desk, it did seem a little thinner. No line to pick up your badge, small pockets of familiar faces scattered outside of the main ballroom.

As always for me, nearly a decade departed from these regions, there were friends to find and stories to catch up on. Before I knew it, John Tlumacki had been introduced and was well into his presentation. Having heard him talk about his Boston Marathon coverage twice before I wasn’t too concerned.

Then I walked into the room and there he was, a few minutes in, the room was silent. As my eyes adjusted, my fear for a sparse crowd evaporated: as I was socializing in the hall, the room had quietly filled. I took up a position at the back of the room, standing with a few others too disorganized or socialized to be on time and let the emotions and awe swell over me once again.

The Northern Short Course was off and running and I was back amongst my people. 

It’s been about a quarter century since I first attended an NPPA short course, a green university student desperate to learn more. As the day progressed and I looked at who was here, I saw my classmates from so long ago: eager, enthusiastic and still encouraged about the future. A reminder of the passion that was lit in me, one that has wavered a time or two but is still present, one that I know share with my students.

Tlumacki’s story drew me in yet again and, while the telling is a little more polished than it was a few months ago, you still hear the passion in his voice, the sorrow and hope, the care and concern. It’s a great story, moving from the tragedy of that April afternoon through the recovery, his connection with two of the victims, how he has healed himself through their physical recovery.

It’s a constant reminder that we never know what comes next, we must always be ready. It’s rare that I’ve felt so proud of a colleague.

Nearly two hours later the lights fade up, the hands go up, questions about how the story was played and how he’s holding up. With a Bostonian’s grace, he answers them all and the crowd disperses. The volume comes up, connections made again, introductions shared. All around, young faces, idealistic and optimistic. 

My peers, 25 years ago and some of them still here surround me. 

A quick lunch and then the afternoon sessions. I moved in to Sonia Narang’s first session on audio and many of the things she talks about reinforce what I’m teaching already. There’s comfort in confirmation.

For the second session I move around the corner to the nearly hidden space that John Harrington commands well past the timed ending of his slot. And no one leaves, no one fidgets. Here is what I came for – out of the industry for so long I crave detailed information on business practices, on copyright issues, on how to do this better. And he delivers. It’s an opening primer on what copyright is and then a deep, detailed dive into his workflow – screen captures and Excel spreadsheets, the messy, overwhelming depictions of how to build copyright registration into your workflow.

In 120 minutes, I have what I have come for – a long string of notes and a new plan for one area of my teaching.

Moving back to the hall, more old faces. Having worked in these parts for more than a decade, I know a lot of people and only get to see them every few years. We cop are notes on all of the sessions, who said what, the takeaway from this and the lesson from that. The catching up runs away with my time and I miss the afternoon’s last session, as it empties you can see that Liz O. Baylen is surrounded and being grilled with questions.

And the faces are the students again. Around the periphery the veterans, still curious after all these years.

A few hours later I wander down to where the portfolio critiques are going on. Coming down the hall, there they are – dozens of kids, laptops out rearranging the order of their images, checking captions one last time, polishing the screens of their iPads. Packed into one hallway, the temperature rises slowly.

Some might sense a scent of desperation, but to me, it’s a reminder that I was in a hallway like this once, too. With mounted prints and slides in matte boards, we waited our turn, hoping that our heroes would help and not shatter us. 

The first full day of the Northern Short Course is in the books, it’s just like old times. Two more days to go.