Airport Art

Last week, I had occasion to drop in to the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport’s Art Museum Gallery. A small space on the retail level of the terminal, the Gallery currently houses a striking show of photographs by students at South Mountain High School.

The Phoenix Airport Art Museum is one of the largest in the nation. The collection ranges from murals to paintings to sculptures and is house in six different buildings in the Valley’s three airports. The airport is funded by a policy called “Percent for Art,” in which up to one percent of all Phoenix capital improvement funds must be allocated to public art projects.

Anyway, the photos at the Gallery were amazing, both in their complexity of subject and in the technical skill involved in the photographs. The students at South Mountain who participate in the photography program (I believe it’s over twenty years old now) are trained on elements of composition, lighting, and production. At the end of the term, they produce a portfolio of work—one copy is given over to the Phoenix Airport Art Museum and the other is retained in South Mountain’s archives.

The students who attend South Mountain are part of a diverse student body and many of them live in lower income neighborhoods in that part of town. Their photography explores the world around them—most of the collection featured portraits of people in the students’ lives, including friends, sisters, boyfriends, and grandparents shot in their homes or in a studio setting—while others give little peeks into the vibrant social neighborhoods in which they live. A few pieces in the collection demonstrated a real concern for pattern—with so much sun in Phoenix, the play of light and shadow among various structures becomes something truly beautiful.

The lighting design in these photographs was especially memorable to me. The degree to which these young photographers demonstrated a talent for innovative light sources and shadow was nearly haunting. In the Gallery, twenty years of faces stare back at you, most without smiling. It was a real pleasure to participate in their work, and I hope the project continues to be successful

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