Remembrance of Concrete Pasts

Proust had the madeleines.  I have concrete.  We’ll get back to it.  Promise.  But first, join me on a journey back in time.

I’ve spent the better part of the past two months going through all my old negatives.  I shot and shot and shot until I put the camera down for five years.  But before that I shot a lot of pictures.

As I have mentioned before, I got into the photography seriously in college.  I joined the school yearbook staff.  We’d have weekly assignments or we would just figure out what to photograph on our own.  I look at the college year books now and they have this hard 1990s edge to them.

I ended up at college at the University at Albany, where these pictures were taken almost by accident.  I had a hard time in high school with the people I went to school with.  Everything I said was wrong.  Everything I did was wrong.  When it came time to take the SATs, I didn’t do well on them at first.  A lot of people I went to school with would say things to me like “oh you didn’t get a perfect score.  I thought you were smart.”  I kind of started thinking I was stupid.  

My SAT score was high enough to get me into a lot of really good universities but not high enough for me to get any scholarships.  I still remember have to write these letters to all of these universities I had gotten into to say that I wouldn’t be able to attend.  I remember what a failure I felt like.  

I had gotten into the University at Albany early on in the process.  Truth be told I really did not want to go to that school for a myriad of reasons.  I wanted to be away from the type of people I went to high school with and that place was teeming with those kinds of people.  I wanted a fresh start.  

I remember thinking back then that college was like high school without parents, at least in the first few years.  When I was a freshman, nobody ever slept.  There was this lawless kind of environment everywhere.  Drugs and alcohol was everywhere.  To me even then it all seemed really overblown.  College would go by in a flash.  It would be over before you knew it and you had to start your life.  But everyone around me was just focused on the here and now.  I remember hearing a lot of stories about how drunk how one of them was last night or the night before and it was funny, I guess but I kept wondering — are you going to keep doing this once this whole thing was over?  College isn’t forever.  It’s really not that long of a period of time in your life, in fact. 

I really remember feeling like everyone around me had it all figured out and I didn’t have anything figured out.  So many people went around talking about how smart they were or how the people around them were so smart.  I remember one girl telling me that a guy in our dorm was so smart he knew he didn’t have to be in school.  Another guy told me that he knew he could do so much more not being in college.  I kind of felt like a chump for sticking it out in college.

Now it sounds like adolescent chatter.  I mean we weren’t that far removed from that part of our lives so it is to be expected.  Everything seemed so important at the time.

Now back to the yearbook thing.  I was on the staff and spent many an hour picking the brain of everyone on the staff on how to take good pictures.  The pictures they wanted was really focused on the social life in the school, something that I really did not feel like participating in and which made me just this side of uncomfortable.  

As is frequently the case when I tell these stories, I was off in another world.  I sat at my class in the Brookings Institute and all I did was try to figure out how the pictures hanging on the wall had been taken.  It was the same at college.  They wanted us to photograph drinking and drugging and I’m up there photographing the architecture of the college.  I photographed it constantly.  Now in hindsight, I wish I had photographed it even more.    

Albany had this really unique architecture.  It was another thing I hated about the school, I’ll just say right here.  All of these concrete and this weird looking 1960s space age fantasy.  It was all too much.  To me college was red brick buildings and ivy.  What was all of this?

But as with everything from that time in my life, somehow the passage of years has really given me a new appreciation for it.  The campus really had this futuristic kind of cool to it.  I really wish I had appreciated it at the time.   There was something about it that was out of date and yet modern at the same time.  Downtown Albany had that same feel to it too.  Futuristic and yet out of date at the same time.

What has really struck me over the past few years is that I’m now working as an instructor in the universities I couldn’t afford to attend as an undergraduate.  Now those places that I wouldn’t help me with tuition ask me if students should be admitted.  I’ve been working at Boston University for the past two years and it never ceased to amaze me that the school isn’t actually a leafy green campus.  It’s a city campus.  I always think college is what you make of it and it isn’t just one kind of campus or one kind of experience.  Pretty soon I will have spent as much time teaching the undergraduates as I actually was one.

The college experience gave me things I didn’t really except either.  My own was far from the stereotypical one from movies and television.  Now as an instructor, I try to guide the students and help them in ways I was never really helped when I was their age.  And for what it’s worth, I never really heard about the people who were much too smart for school or could achieve more without it.  Funny how that works.

Here’s to the modern out of date futurism of the University at Albany and Albany, New York.  One small corner of my heart is in fact made of concrete.



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