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Q&A: Janet Fine, Lab Tech


Janet Fine

Janet Fine, Portrait of Janet, dreaming of her late dog Dodie

As teachers, we may feel that we are the most important part of a students’ school experience. But at many schools, there is someone who may be just as important. That’s the lab technician. He or she is almost always around and available to the students — for technical assistance, cheerleading, therapy, and so much more. The way a photo tech sets up and runs the lab contributes significantly to the overall feeling and atmosphere of a program.

To acknowledge and celebrate this underappreciated role, Teaching Photography will interview a photo tech from time to time, and get his or her views on their role and how they accomplish it. At the same time, we get to learn a little more about their photography program. For our first profile, managing editor Samantha Fields caught up with Janet Fine of Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, CA.

What’s your official title?

JF: Photography lab technician.

How long have you been at Cabrillo?

JF: Ten years. I started working there in 1998.

Can you tell me about Cabrillo as a college and as a place to do art?

Cabrillo College logoJF: Cabrillo is an excellent community college with a fantastic art department. I attended the University in Santa Cruz, and worked in the art department there for about five years, and when I got the job at Cabrillo I found it to be an equally vibrant (if not more so, in some ways) art experience. It has a great faculty, interesting courses and a more diverse student population. The age and skill of the students vary quite a bit. We have a mix from very young — even including some high schoolers — to seniors. And many artists in the community are regulars, enjoying the facilities and honing their skills. Last semester more than once I noticed that all the students using both the traditional and digital lab were women over 50.

What’s the photography program like? Is it primarily black and white? Digital? A mix?

JF: Our photo program is strong. We offer a wide variety of courses — black & white, traditional color (RA-4), alternative process, studio lighting, medium and large format, and digital. At this point digital and traditional are pretty separate, but we are working on that bridge. We are incorporating digital transparencies for alternative process, and we’ve added a combined process class, which does the same with gum bichromate and screen-printing. We also offer more specialized short-course during summer and wintersession: digital color management, digital bookmaking, personal narrative are some of my favorites.

The most exciting addition to the Cabrillo art scene is the cabrilloArts summer workshops we started 3 summers ago. I have been part of the “leadership team” since the beginning and it is a fabulous program. If there is anyone out there interested, take a look at the website and email me. You can’t go wrong with 2 weeks in beautiful Santa Cruz!

What’s a sample day-in-the-life like at Cabrillo and in the Cage?

Janet Fine in Cabrillo cage

Janet Fine in Cabrillo cage

JF: There’s a checkout window, but my job is not really about being in a Cage (as exotic as that sounds). Rather, it involves a lot of running around a large lab facility. It’s about managing the facility, managing student workers, making sure everything else is working, making sure that all of the supplies are ordered, and that all of the teachers have everything they need. A huge part of the job is interacting with students, and giving them feedback. It’s a pretty social job.

How do you run the Cage?

JF: I run it with an iron fist! No really … I kid. Making the lab a fun place makes my job more enjoyable.

What’s your teaching style with students?

JF: I usually begin by asking questions. Often they already know the answers they are they need. I also like to ask questions to try and flesh out their ideas and vision — things like why they even picked up a camera in the first place.

What’s the best part of the job for you?

"Seven & Seven," © Janet Fine

“Seven & Seven,” © Janet Fine
from a show on the Seven Deadly Sins, media: shrinky-dinks, wood and metal.

JF: I get to be creative in how I do my job. I like to instigate outside-of-class student involvement and enthusiasm—like organizing student exhibits in the lab and collaborative projects. I really like working one-on-one with the students, especially with students who are particularly excited and motivated. I love bouncing ideas around and giving them the tools and information they need to go wild.

The other best part of my job is just having this huge facility where I feel comfortable to work on my own art. It is amazing to have access to the screen-printing room, digital lab, woodshop/tool room and of course the photolab. It’s like a dream job in that way. My car is here more than any other car in the parking lot. It also helps makes me a more versatile resource for students interested in a variety of media.

What’s your photography and educational background? How would you describe your own artistic style? What are your particular interests or areas of focus?

Janet Fine

Janet Fine

JF: As an undergrad, I majored in art with an emphasis on photography. I like to play with multiple images and I enjoy the surprises generated by juxtaposing disparate photos. I use whatever I can get my hands on to start the process, including toy and stereo cameras. I am interested in layering images and a multitude of media from printmaking to photography, bookmaking to digital mural — to my latest passion, shrinky-dinks (shrunken moments). Also lately I have been working with digital collage transparencies exposed onto solar printing plates. I like to color outside the lines.

What are some of your interests outside of art?

JF: Dogs, music, playing cards, playing music, playing softball, playing, radio shows, walking in the woods and on the beach with dogs, making shrinky-dinks, making books, silk-screening, cooking, graphic novels, coffee, humor, humorous dogs.

What kind of music do you like? Do you play at the lab?

JF: Lots. Old country, alt country and much more: Neko Case, Wilco, Dave Alvin, The Knitters, Ella Fitzgerald, Los Lobos, The Avett Brothers, Devil Makes Three, Tom Waits, Calexico, Hank Williams, Hank III, Al Green, Fats Waller, X, Old 97′s, Johnny Cash, The Jackson 5, etc. I play piano, guitar, a little banjo and accordion.

Janet Fine on Designing the Lab

I think it’s very important to make the lab environment—its “décor”—alive.

One way to do this is with constantly changing “galleries,” really glorified bulletin boards. Here are some of my contributions:

The Eye Wall Gallery. This one features photos of any eyeballs I would find floating in the fixer or wash at the end of the night. It started with an eyeball anatomy poster, maybe discarded from the biology department, and grew from there.

The Belt Gallery. This is an exhibition that hangs around the lab’s perimeter—its “waist.” I took pictures of any interesting belt buckles that walked through the lab (on students and faculty, as well as my own collection) and hung them up.

The Blink Gallery. This is a kind of open-mike gallery, where students can sign up for one week shows — on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Stare Gallery. Here, we have longer shows and special exhibits (juried, group, or solo).

Side Spaces. This is where each class has a two-week exhibition throughout the semester.

Some other things I do to organize the lab and create a welcoming atmosphere:

Lab cards are different colors for each class. Instead of asking for Social Security number, or some such, we ask a variety of questions: favorite odor, favorite band when you were 13, if you could live in any movie what would it be, your super-hero name, your spirit animal. Things like that to add humor and help us to get to know students a little more personally. Sometimes their answer becomes their new nickname—like Peaches (Charlie) and Home-Grown Tomatoes (Scott).

We sometime have end-of-the-year talent shows and bowling parties with other departments and staff.

We hijacked a piano leaving an office, and borrowed it long term to add sounds in the photo lab.

We have a disco ball made of burned out enlarger bulbs, and also a variety of filed negative carriers, each with a unique name and example images students can look at when choosing (rainbow blowfish or drummer bear, etc.).

Basically, it comes down to making a fun, encouraging environment . . . with free exchange of ideas and humor. I’m always trying to add “fuel to the creative fire.” And I don’t really mind if that sounds corny.

Some of Janet Fine’s work:

"Fruit 2004,," © Janet Fine

“Fruit 2004,,” © Janet Fine
media: stereo camera/C-print

These two images are digital collages, exposed with UV light onto a Solarplate, a light sensitized, steel-backed polymer material. Then they were printed with inks (intaglio). I made two plate prints to produce the duotone effect.

"Elephant in the Rooms," 2007 © Janet Fine

“Elephant in the Rooms,” 2007 © Janet Fine
media: solar plate prints

"Bull in the China Shop 2007," © Janet Fine

“Bull in the China Shop 2007,” © Janet Fine
media: solar plate prints

Janet Fine is a noted artist, photographer, and dog lover. Email her at: jafine (at) cabrillo (dot) edu.

Samantha Fields served as Managing Editor for Teachingphoto.com, the original version of this website. She is currently a Professor of Art at California State University, Northridge. Her work is represented by Western Project in Los Angeles. She has an extensive exhibition history. With her husband, artist Andre Yi, she co-founded the Los Angeles-based website zerodegreesart.com, which documents their community of artists and critics. Visit her website.

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