I ascended a flight of stairs in a back hallway of a building on my college campus that I never even knew existed. The interior of the building felt like a tiny maze of cubicles, small offices, stairs and short hallways. After two flights of stairs and three wrong turns into offices of unsuspecting employees perplexed by my presence I finally reached the door next to a marker labeled “207 Steve Jessmore”. I ignored knot in my stomach formed by muscles tensed with nervousness and lightly knocked on the open door to announce my arrival and politely (and awkwardly) asked if I may enter. The man I presumed to be Steve Jessmore offered me a seat and seemed delighted to meet me but not over enthusiastic, it was apparent that he often acts as a mentor to students.
He sat at a desk that held a large Mac, a small macbook, stacks of papers and other miscellaneous office and photography items. A huge cork board held amazing photos and copies of newspaper segments. When I arrived he was going through a contact sheet of portraits of professional people wearing attire adorned with the Central Michigan University logo shot with a shallow depth of field which gave the autumn-yellow leaves in the background a lovely abstracted feel to them and perfectly complimented the maroon and gold of CMU shirts. He began by asking me about my assignment and explaining some of what his job entails. I learn that he is responsible for shooting practically all CMU events and providing photos for the university’s social media accounts, brochures, catalogs, flyers and whatever else the University design team wants to slap a photo on. He showed me some of the materials his photos have been used for and it amazes me how circulated his photos are and how great they are despite the mediocre subject matter of some of them.
As he returns to the task he was tackling when I arrived he explains that though most of his work is documenting what is happening on campus every so often he has to do a posed portrait. The one he was currently working on was staff portraits of one of the university’s departments that he did last year. They were so pleased with those they asked him to do a replication of that for another department recently. However, they didn’t realize that because of the difference in seasons it would not be the same but Jessmore worked with them and made a similar series of photos the only difference being the color of the leaves in the background. The portraits still turned out to be great and worked well with the others. He explained what type of lens he used and that he simply shot the photos in front of a tree right outside his office. I was really impressed by how he took a simple, dull portrait assignment and used his daily environment and creativity to make such aesthetically pleasing photos in which the background was virtually the same but looked unique in each frame because of the different placements and shapes of the blurred leaves. Once he finished he spoke to me about his past work.
Jessmore worked for Saginaw News a few years after receiving his photojournalism degree from CMU in 1981, he started as a freelancer and eventually served as their Chief Photographer. Following that position he worked for Flint Journal. For a while he ran his own column “Sense of Community” which highlighted positive members within Flint communities. Samples of articles from the column were posted on the board above his desk. The pieces included intriguing photos of interesting people. the photos were all unique and aesthetically pleasing but the first one to catch my eye was a eccentric saxophone player in a long trench coat raising his instrument has he plays in a classroom full of empty desk. I was also able to view a copy of Jessmore’s first full story to be published; Blind Faith, a story about an elementary class caring for and helping raise an seeing eye dog, named ‘Carl’, from a puppy to an adult. The feature focuses on Carl, his 11- month stay at the elementary school, his interaction with the children as well as his graduation from obedience training and placement with a blind student in Kansas City, Mo. through the non-profit organization Leader Dogs for the Blind. The photos and the story were heartwarming and inspiring, not only did I enjoy the story but it made me want to focus even harder on finding interesting stories such as this.
Jessmore spent approximately 30 years as a photojournalist and says that his background in journalism is how he is able to produce such great images for the university. His approach is different than those who have held his job in the past, he doesn’t recreate situations or instruct people he just documents. Even though his job is somewhat considered Public Relations when he is shooting he is still a journalist before anything else.
“It’s a nice change of pace compared to some of the things I used to photograph.” he says after telling me of the crime and tragedy he has seen and shot in Flint when he worked for the Journal and he says he always preferred to capture positive moments and focus on the good in people. It seems his photography now hovers in between PR and Journalism in a spectrum I call Positive Photojournalism.
I learned so much from just our initial meeting it made me excited for the chance to see him in the field. The following week I was permitted to follow Jessmore as he worked throughout the day. We started our day by covering the annual CMU and You event in which prospective and/or future students visit the academic college of their choice to collect information and speak to department heads and faculty members. The first college we visited was the College of Health Professions. Tables were set up for each concentration with a few faculty members and/or upperclassmen there to provide information and brochures, refreshments were made available at the entrance and families circulated through maroon and gold adorned hallways talking to representatives and amongst themselves.
Almost immediately Jessmore was greeted by someone he seemed to know but hadn’t seen in a long time. The person turned out to be Rene Shingles director and professor of Athletic training. They spoke for awhile asking each other how they’ve been and other polite small talk. After concluding their conversation he explained that because of the nature of his position he is often acquainted with many of the university professionals and forms good relationships with them which is a surprisingly large portion of his job. Faculty members would greet him with a smile and show him some of the pamphlets, flyers or in one case a stack a notepads in which his photos were featured. He was also very helpful with families and prospective students, giving directions or offering information regarding the university. He even ran into a family that he spoke to and photographed during last years CMU and You day and recognized them right away and struck up a conversation, the family was delighted to see him and though they remembered him they were delightfully surprised that he also remembered them well.
It was great to see how personable Jessmore is and how well he built relationships. Every academic college we went to he knew most of the staff there and absolute everyone told me how great he is to learn from, how awesome of a photographer he is and/or how funny he is. With everyone singing his praises it made me feel even luckier to be learning from him.
Following the first event we returned to his office and I observed has he edited and uploaded the day’s photos. He described his editing process and archive procedures to me and told me more about some of his job duties. He is not only responsible for shooting everything for CMU but also pulling photos from the archives whenever they are requested (which from the looks of his email inbox is probably over a dozen a day). He also has to organize shoots, communicate with other departments and colleges, stay on top of campus events and happenings and mentor interns.
“It can be hard to exercise creativity and focus on my photography when tied to so many other duties and responsibilities.” Jessmore said when I asked him what the least favorite part of his job was. For the most part he seems to truly love what he does and never shys away from his journalistic approach/style, which was extremely inspiring.
After editing and archiving we were off to shoot the football game, CMU v. UNLV. He gave me a press pass (the first I’ve ever been issued) and we headed to the field. This was my first time attending a football game at CMU and it was an amazing experience not to mention being able to get right on the field and shoot (also a first for me). We shot Tailgate Village a sea of maroon and gold, cars and coolers. The property was full of rowdy fans, kids playing and there was even a karaoke area. I never knew how amazing tailgating was around here so it was great to capture all the energy and school spirit of students and alumni. Once we arrived at the field I was not able to go benchside with my mentor because of my restricted pass but I still had an amazing view so I focused more on capturing photos.
I really enjoyed learning from Steve and being able to see his daily routine. It even left me considering obtaining a position similar to his, I think working for a University’s communication department would be quite fun. I prefer documentary photography and doing photo essays so I probably couldn’t do it for more than a few years but I think it would be a wonderful job to have.