Christopher Otten is a professional photographer teaching film at the University of Tampa. He was born in 1984 in Altus, Oklahoma. Some of his work is exhibited in Tampa, Wichita, Minneapolis, Long Beach, and Annapolis. Otten agreed to an interview with me to talk about the subject he loves most.
Question: First and foremost, what made you want to choose a career in photography and teach it to college students?
Chris Otten: It is said that photography has the ability to reveal truth and myth. I find that thought fascinating. I chose photography because of its versatility. As a tool, the camera can record life by seizing a moment in time and it can blur reality. I have the option to focus on documenting things as they appear to the human eye, or I can contrive things by altering their original context. I can increase clarity of the scene by stopping the lens opening down, or I can throw the scene out-of-focus beyond the main subject. There are endless options to manipulate imagery via double camera exposures, creating combination prints in the darkroom, solarizing prints, using partial development, and more.
I enjoy teaching all aspects of photography. When I have the opportunity to witness a student’s visual journey there is a rewarding moment at the end revealing how much they have learned. They understand that the visual arts contribute to our everyday life. Students understand that there is so much more to learn beyond the academic institution. I also feel more well-rounded every semester because I learn new things from students. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and we all have unique perspectives that are worth sharing.
Q: Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken and if so why is it your favorite?
CO: That is a tough question. When I first started photography, I usually liked everything that I photographed, but over time I have grown to not become attached to anything that I have made. I imagine that is a result of being consumed with so many images on a daily basis. If I were to select one photograph, it would be the portrait of my great grandmother, Dorothy. In that image the viewer witnesses her authoritative expression as her dog sleeps by her feet and lined along the wall are remnants of a rural life. This particular photograph reminds me of home.
Q: To the people who want to have a career in photography, what advice would you give to them?
CO: Be honest with yourself. Being a photographer takes a lot of patience and hard work. You have to be willing to push yourself to make your own imagery, especially once you are out of school. Being a photographer is a lifestyle where you have to be hungry for it in order to prosper. You should also be open to many realms of photography. If you are up for the challenge, then I say go for it and don’t let anything distract you. When someone gives you advice or an honest opinion, take it as an opportunity to mature your work.
Q: Why do you teach classes in film photography when the world seems to have already embraced the digital age?
CO: Working with film is a precious and rewarding process. There is something about not knowing exactly what the image will look like until after it has been processed that has always satisfied me. For better or worse, we are in an age where instant gratification is the norm. In the arts, having students work with early photographic processes trains them to slow down and consider the importance of design, light, and how those elements inform one another to make a thoughtful image. In my opinion taking a foundation course such as analog photography allows students to build an appreciation for the photographic medium, and they become more versed in the arts. The process of working in the darkroom can help them become a better photographer.
Q: How do you find the best places to take pictures?
CO: It really stems from the photographer’s vision. I don’t think that there are better places than others when taking pictures. It is all how you choose to look at a place. Sometimes the most interesting pictures are of subtle, fleeting moments. Those particular subjects require a keen and observant eye. Other times the process is more involved in that it requires building everything from scratch, much like a writer or director. Being thoughtful about what you are doing inevitably reveals a sense of purpose in the pictures. After I have established an idea I try not to complicate things by overthinking them. I just start shooting. I will add to the scene or take away from it depending on what feels right. From there I may or may not use the picture. Similar to storytelling, I sort through several images to discover what works best to imply a narrative. With other images I set them to the side where they may be used at another time.
All photos were featured with Chris Otten’s knowledge and consent. To explore more of Otten’s work, click here.