Philadelphia Photo Arts Center captures student progression

Area high school students exhibit their photography skills

After an idea she had for an organization that would focus on the different elements of photography, Sarah Stolfa founded the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center in August 2009 and immediately knew she wanted to incorporate an educational component. Thus, along with the practice and appreciation of photography, PPAC has come to offer a free afterschool program for area high school students, whose work is being exhibited through Saturday, July 8.

“At the time [I founded PPAC] there was a shift in photography to more digital practices, and nowhere in the city was addressing this new technology,” Stolfa, the organization’s CEO and artistic director, said. “I wanted to create a space that could accommodate both artists and students, and it started as an idea for a digital lab for both to create work in.”

Initially, she came up with the idea for this center based on her experience having worked in an art gallery and taught art education while attending Yale University and working toward her master’s of fine arts. During this time, Stolfa was influenced leading her to later wishing to continue involving students in the international and national dialogue about art and photography that exists, while also showcasing and highlighting regional photography.

As her ideas developed into reality, Stolfa established a full education department at the PPAC, located at 1400 N. American St., through which students could create and exhibit pieces of artwork. Realizing that not everyone owned the technology necessary to produce quality photos, nor did they possess an understanding of how to fully operate the equipment, her organization provides each student with a state-of-the-art digital SLR camera, along with training on how to maximize its use.

“I wanted students to be educated in making art as well as its history,” Stolfa, a photographer herself, who is best known for her work while a bartender at Philadelphia’s McGlinchey’s Tavern where she began to photograph her regulars, said. “First coming into the program, most students’ expertise is pretty basic or with no experience at all. If anything, they might have taken a class before, or are self-taught and familiar with a camera.”

Therefore, to maximize the potential for learning to occur, students will enter the program in early September and come to class one day a week for two hours. Throughout this past school year, the program accepted 62 students and, because PPAC only has one classroom, two instructors and a teaching assistant, classes were spread from Monday through Thursday to ensure students receive adequate individual guidance.

“To me, Teen Photo is a sanctuary space. Not only have my teachers, Michelle Wallace and Erik Montgomery, helped me hone my photography skills, but my peers have as well. This program has opened so many doors and granted me with opportunities that I am forever grateful for,” Makeda Robinson, a homeschooled junior, resident of Kingsessing in South West Philly and participant in the 2016–2017 Teen Photo Program, said.

In addition to their classes, Teen Photo Program students have access to PPAC whenever they want to use the lab if it’s open, which is from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ultimately, all students are encouraged to use this additional time to explore their own self-interests and take full advantage of the resources the program has to offer.

“The main difference over the years has been the sheer size of the students we’re able to serve,” Stolfa said. “At first we had 10 to 12 students per year, then 21, then 40, and now we’re at 62. When we started this year we had 120 students register, and ended with a waitlist of 42 students.”

Moving forward, Stolfa said that her goal is to never have students left waitlisted again. This is because, from year to year, she has seen firsthand how monumentally far each student has come through the Teen Photo Program and its individualized relationship building and education.

“We started the [Teen Photo Program] in 2010 and in the first year partnered with the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where we met KCAPA teacher, Josh Kleiman, who is now an instructor at PPAC,” Stolfa said. “We worked there for two years and when the school moved to its new building and got even higher-grade equipment, we felt that they no longer needed us in the same way, so at that point we opened the program up to other schools and began recruiting.”

Since expanding, PPAC has enrolled students from schools across the city such as William W. Bodine High School for International Affairs, George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, Central High School, Franklin Learning Center, Academy at Palumbo and even home schooled students. Now, they too are able to learn about history of photography, elements of art and composition, visual literacy, how to use Photoshop and Lightroom, how to print and ultimately to create an end-of-the-year exhibit for which they install their work themselves.

“It is at this exhibit when friends and family are able to come out and see the pictures on the wall and the amazing student [photography] transformations,” Stolfa said. “We strongly believe in this individual transformation and the impact it has, rather than just on the number of students we’re able to teach. That’s why the program is so long.”

She added that, regardless of whether or not people know friends or family involved in the program, they should come out to witness the exhibit due to the prevalence of images in everyday society. Rather than constantly looking at phone screens and intercepting images as messages, the exhibit provides a new way of looking at and understanding these messages in such a visually rich world.

“Teen Photo [has given] us the ability to express our ideas through photography. I am able to execute my vision in the way I imagine it, and I have the freedom to make it happen with the help of my instructors,” Andre Pak, a program participant, sophomore at Central High School and a resident of Pennsport in South Philly, said. “Now, when I go out into the city, I see things in images. Teen Photo has helped me to see.”

Stolfa also noted that, as the primary time throughout the year where the PPAC students are able to showcase their work, this is an exciting event through which others can find inspiration. Plus, being able to see photos physically hanging on a wall is a unique experience and provides a much different outlook than presented by images on a screen.

“I came into Teen Photo with a few ideas of what I wanted to do with photography, but I didn’t know how to get my message out through this medium,” Yiovanny Pagan, a junior at Franklin Learning Center and a Port Richmond resident, said. “Teen Photo has helped me express my creativity and make art in a style of my own.”

Visitors can witness the teen’s work during regular gallery hours, which are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. PRISM will remain on display through June 17. Then, on June 22 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., there will be an opening reception for advanced Teen Photo’s A Romantic Youth, which will remain on display (during regular gallery hours) through July 8.