As senior Emily Rinaldi dissects cadavers in the anatomy lab, her biology professor, Dan York, will often pause at her side and say, “‘Hey, Em, what is the homework for this Thursday?’”
It’s a genuine question of York’s, not a pop quiz to test Rinaldi’s knowledge of the Anatomy II Syllabus. In another lab, across campus in the Sage Center for the Arts, Rinaldi and York are classmates in Photography II, which York is auditing this semester to sharpen his skills in a medium that has long enamored him.
“Pictures are incredibly powerful, and I think pictures can have a strong impact on people’s feelings and thoughts about something. I find that really fascinating,” York said.
Alongside his four classmates, York has set out to capture Hillsdale through the lens of his Leica, a camera designed for street photography. He has already become more competent with the powerful medium, even after just a third of a semester. But his improvement behind the viewfinder has challenged him to grow as a person, too.
York likes to work with faces, eyes, souls. Firing off his shutter outside of class, he focuses his camera on people amid their daily lives, exploring a style known as street photography.
“I find people very, very fascinating. A lot of the older, great photographers were essentially street photographers,” York said. “There is something about people and people photography. You can capture so much — the mood and what’s going on — in a photograph, particularly with people in it.”
At Hillsdale’s annual fair, kids crunched on caramel popcorn, ride attendants slumped until shift’s end, and teens screeched as rides spun them into the air. Twirling his lens to catch each moment in perfect focus, York clicked and clicked as he navigated the twisting roads of the fair grounds. His favorite shot? A man wearing a mane of grey hair leaned against a sign that read “World’s Strangest People” as he smoked a cigarette outside the freak show tent.
The photo’s composition, lighting, and tone tell a story about one of many characters at the fair, York said. The potential to create a narrative in a photograph has always attracted York to photography, and it fuels his desire to improve, explore, and create even more.
One day, he said, he’d like to return to Africa, where he has taken many of his students, and photograph the boy soldiers.
“It’s one thing to see the written word. It’s another thing to see a truck going down a dusty road with a bunch of boy soldiers in the back carrying AK-47s,” York said.
York’s fascination with photography, and especially his passion for photographing people, has bolstered his work, said Photography Professor Doug Coon, who hadn’t taught a fellow professor before this semester.
“He’s very into it. That’s the most fun part, I’ve found, within the context of non-traditional students. They do tend to be pretty excited about photography,” Coon said. “They tend to be more motivated, in getting out and actually shooting.”
Photography excites traditional students, too, Coon said, but their time with the camera competes with commitments non-traditional students juggle with more ease. York has dedicated many hours to his camera, setting up shots, adjusting the exposure, and making bold but pleasing choices in the field and in his editing.
The practice has paid off.
“It’s super interesting to see Dr. York’s beginning photos, what he focused on or what his interest was, and how it changed. Compositionally, he can finagle things, and now he has a goal for photography instead of shooting for what he thought was interesting,” Rinaldi said.
While York once snapped photos of anything that caught his eye, he now intentionally organizes his subjects in a shot to convey an idea.
“He’s paying attention to more detail, which I think is really interesting, and really awesome to see him grow in that way,” Rinaldi said.
The transition might have came more quickly to York, a biologist, than another new student of photography.
“When you look at things biologically, it’s very systematic. It’s about how things work. When you come to art class, it’s similar in a way in which you have to think in a way things work to get the picture you want. You have to dissect the world around you in order to create more art,” Rinaldi said. “That’s pretty much what art is. You’re looking at the world around you and you’re dissecting it. Art forces you to dissect things and understand them for what they really are.”
Rinaldi said she feels confident in sharing her critiques as well as her affirmations with York in photography class, even though he grades her anatomy tests. The five students share their work with each other and Coon every week, and both Rinaldi and York said the discourse teaches them better than a lecture-style course could, and the discussion motivates them to pursue new ideas and better techniques each week.
“York’s being in class, it just feels like another student in the class. It’s not abnormal, and I don’t find it weird at all. I find it actually refreshing because I get to experience both sides of Dr. York,” Rinaldi said.
York said he has experienced a new side of himself, too. In front of his biology classes, York performs like an actor on a stage, ready to impart his knowledge to an eager audience. But his personality outside of the classroom takes on a quieter, more introverted quality, he said.
When he steps into the field, camera in hand, he summons the confidence to approach people and ask to take their picture. His camera, which he has only equipped with non-zooming prime lenses, heightens this task: after York spots a subject he wants to capture, he must position himself quite close to them before he snaps the photo.
“That is not my personality at all, to get right in somebody’s face to take a picture without them punching you out or thinking you’re a total creep. Talking to strangers — I’m just not that comfortable with it,” York said. “But now, with my camera, I see something I really want to take a picture of and I’m actually developing the nerve.”
York said he jokes that he would take Photography III next, if only the course existed. He may audit a design class to quench his curiosity about aesthetics, instead.
Mostly, the photography junkie just wants to continue his improvement for his renewed passion: “I love it because I can really see that I’m furthering myself quite a bit.”