Professor VanderMey’s colloquium explores intersection of photography and poetry

Kelly Vivanco, Guest Writer

On Thursday, Feb. 17, Westmont English professor and poet Dr. Randall VanderMey presented “Photography and Poetry: Against My Will” at the Community Arts Workshop on Garden St. in Santa Barbara.

VanderMey, who will retire this May after thirty-two years at Westmont, said it was the last phrase of the presentation’s title, “Against My Will,” that “intrigued” him the most.

Throughout the talk, VanderMey interwove photographs with stories and poetry. For the last five years, he explained, he has woken at 5 a.m., edited a photo for half an hour and waited for words to come. He usually rejects the first lines that come to mind, noting that his poems “aren’t explanations of what’s perfectly obvious to the eye already — that bores me silly.”

Instead, VanderMey said, “Words come … that, together with the image, constitute some new and fuller, different and unforeseen reality.”

In regards to his involuntary discovery of photography, VanderMey said, “I had this medium [an iPhone] in my pocket the whole time, and I didn’t want to use it!” He didn’t want to be distracted from an experience by taking a photo.

His mindset shifted, however, when he noticed a Westmont student’s photo “[rich in] implicit meaning,” depicting the Biblical story of David and Goliath through only four stones. Afterward, he began to notice images around him, like reflections in mirrors.

“I discovered I was not very good at paying attention,” VanderMey said, “even though I had spent a lifetime of paying attention to things a poet might think about … I was not very good at paying attention to the world [and] objects around me. [To do photography], I had to slow down.”

VanderMey decided to live his life with “expectancy.” He realized, “Anywhere I turn, I might see something in the next moment that might change me, that I’m not prepared to see. Something that is more interesting than I was looking for!”

Before presenting his photos to the audience, VanderMey prefaced, “I’ll say the things you wouldn’t guess.”

From locations that included Saigon, California beaches, LotusLand in Montecito, Lazy Acres and Westmont’s campus, VanderMey’s shot fried eggs and eucalyptus tree trunks as well as patterns of cleaner fluid and disintegrating marker on his classroom whiteboard. VanderMey’s work also highlighted circles, reflections and faces, which he constantly “recognizes” unexpectedly in nature.

VanderMey expressed commitment to capturing “decisive moments … things that would not have been had they not been seen” that exist in limited time: sunbeams, shadows and people in motion, like his mother, a friend or a stranger on the street.

He named his endeavor to find these images “researching the moment” — a phrase that titles one of his two photography and poetry books and also appears in his photography Instagram bio.

“I would use the word ‘generosity’ to sum up the change in me,” VanderMey reflected. “To become more generous is to go out of yourself, to give birth to a new creation, to … treat things like family.”

This generosity and wonder fuel VanderMey’s art: “I say, ‘Hold it!’ and I snap a shot, and this is what I see. Nobody else, I think, has ever seen that, and that’s why it thrills me.”

Follow VanderMey on Instagram @rvandermey to view his photography and read the poetry which accompanies it.

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