Photos Courtesy of Michelle Lynn
“How do we cut these?” one student asks. “Hot dog style,” another responds. “Who gave you that ceramic chihuahua that Claire broke?” another student yells.
Michelle Lynn’s photography classroom has a personality of its own. The energy of the room is incomprehensible considering it’s 8 a.m. on a Thursday. Lynn wanders around the room in her black checkered pants to offer guidance and advice to her rambunctious students. This classroom is bigger than most but the walls are covered in pictures, the shelves are stocked with books and the tables in the center of the room are virtually empty. The only light available is from the computer screens where students sit and work vigilantly on multimedia projects, slideshows and collages. Scattered on the tables, there are a series of photos matted on sturdy white boards that reveal the sheer talent of Lynn’s students.
Each year, Michelle Lynn, the photography teacher at Downers Grove South High School, has students who win a variety of awards and competitions. She explains that at this point she’s probably had 16 students win a National Scholastic Award and get honored at Carnegie Hall for their work. She’s had students who have been awarded cameras or Adobe Photoshop or cash prizes, but the mastermind behind these students goes unnoticed. December 13, 2015 was the first time Lynn had been recognized for her individual teaching success. She was named the Outstanding Photographic Educator of the Year by the Photographic Society of America.
“For me, this was really special because as I said, I’m always really proud of my students. I kind of feel like I win something when they win something, but this was the first time where it was just me,” Lynn says sitting in her now empty classroom. “It felt really nice to be appreciated for all the work that I do not just because of one particular student.”
The Photographic Society of America holds a student competition each year. This particular year, in 2015, Lynn’s students won three out of six possible awards including best of show. Although the recognition she received does not compare to the work she puts in each day, to her, the acknowledgement was more than enough. Lynn was honored at the Photographic Society of America’s annual holiday party where she received a plaque that is now kept in her cluttered classroom. Lynn took the plaque down from its dusty shelf to examine this symbol of her dedication.
“I wasn’t the star of the show, I mean they had a big deal guest speaker and all that, but still it was really nice. It was a fancy lunch and I got my picture taken, and I was in the paper,” Lynn explains.
Photography is not Lynn’s only area of expertise. She also teaches jewelry and metalworking as well as ceramics and design: all three of the subjects she studied in college. Lynn received her bachelor’s degree in art education at the University of Iowa, as well as her master’s of art with a concentration in photography.
Growing up, Lynn’s household was a more creative realm than most. Her father even had a dark room, although Lynn never took any interest in it. Her dad, who dreamt about going to art school out of the army, never got the chance. Instead, he got involved working with electronics. He used to bring home wire, Lynn says, and she started making things out of it. By the time she hit junior high, Lynn was making her own jewelry and by high school, she was selling it to stores before opening her own jewelry shop out of her basement. Once she got to college, there wasn’t much left for her to learn.
“What ended up happening is I would take jewelry classes and I would spend the majority of my time helping the other people in my class,” Lynn says. “I was spending more time helping people than making my own jewelry.”
At this point, she switched her major from art to art education. As a part of the art education curriculum, Lynn was required to student teach, and she decided to travel abroad to teach in England. While in England, Lynn fell head over heels for the art of photography. She started looking at everything there was to see through the eye of a camera lens.
“I think I must have shot 400 maybe 500 rolls of film,” explains Lynn. “At the time, film cost like I don’t know maybe 13 dollars to develop a roll, and my parents wanted to kill me because I had spent a fortune on taking photos.”
As an active photographer, Lynn’s photos are dark and mysterious. They evoke a sort of tension between the photograph and the viewer sometimes with a foggy, disorienting effect that makes the audience question what they’re looking at. She makes the ordinary look extraordinary, like the corner of an abandoned room or windowsill. Her colors are bold and defined even if she’s shooting in black and white.
It’s skills like these that she teaches to her students. Her classroom ranges from introductory to advanced students, so the work created differs immensely. The first assignment she gives them is to photograph a hose, because it is the most mundane object she could think of. This gives her students the chance to really look at an ordinary object and create something spectacular out of it. Over the semesters her students move into more in depth projects like their multimedia piece. There’s a girl in the corner of the room working on her project. It’s a beautiful landscape photograph and right above it, the clouds are moving by.
“At this point, she’s like my grandma. She says she’s not going to retire until I take over,” says Sydney Antiporek who is on her seventh semester with Lynn. “She’s helped me figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
It is now Lynn’s 33rd year teaching but only about 15 of those were spent teaching photography, Lynn says. When she started at Downers Grove South, there was already a photography teacher in place, but once he retired Lynn stepped in.
“One thing about photography is that I think it’s easy to get hooked and passionate about it,” Lynn says. “I always say to the kid who I’m trying to encourage to continue on ‘Do you love it?’ And they’re like ‘Yeah I really love when I’m out there shooting. I really love doing it.’ I go, ‘If you love it and you’re good at it, you should keep going.’”
Lynn has seen her student’s work progress each semester. Her dedicated students take photography all eight semesters of their high school careers. Lynn expresses that when those students are done, their work far exceeds college level. It’s these students who she encourages to continue on after high school. Lynn even prints out a list of jobs that can come out of photography. She’s taught students who have gone on to open their own photography companies or photograph for magazine or even become forensic photographers. Lynn knows and expresses that photography can yield a pursuable career, it just takes the right amount of passion.
“I remember thinking back to when I was talking to Ms. Lynn as a senior about to graduate, and she was really disappointed that I wasn’t going to do anything with photography,” says former student Rachel Kimber, who now owns her own photography business. “Normally I would think she was just saying that to be nice but she was really distraught. She’s not the type to tell you things that aren’t true.”
Over the years, Lynn has seen photography evolve and change as an art form.Technological advances have made editing easier, more digital, more modern and less black and white. Photos can be altered and flipped and inverted to create a whole new meaning and genre to the art community. This constant change is what continues to inspire Lynn.
“I think I’m still just teaching like I always have despite having won an award. I’m the kind of teacher that’s always trying new things,” Lynn explains. “Photographs can move now. It’s a still image but parts of it can move. That sort of thing, more than an award, inspires me. For me, retiring at this time is crazy because so much is changing and so many new things are happening and they can all be a part of what I’m doing here just in this little classroom.”
That little classroom is a reflection of so much more to Lynn. It’s her spirit and enthusiasm for photography that gets her students excited about what they’re making, it’s her spirit and enthusiasm that motivates them to continue and it’s her spirit and enthusiasm that made her the photographic educator of the year in 2015.