Zachary Stephens's photo project explores fatherhood
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BRATTLEBORO — Zachary Stephens will open an exhibit of his most recent photographic work at the Catherine Dianich Gallery, 139 Main St., Brattleboro on March 2, during Gallery Walk, with the opening reception taking place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibit, entitled "Are We There Yet?," is the result of two years of study Stephens completed for his Master of Fine Arts degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

"I mainly wanted to explore my experience as a father," Stephens said. "I did a lot of reading about fatherhood and domesticity, and what the traditions of the American family are or are not."

One book that influenced his thinking is "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," (1992) by Stephanie Coontz.

"She looks at the stereotypes and myths of the 1950s," he said, "which is the standard North American heterosexual white couple with two-and-a-half kids, a trope that never really existed."

He's studying what affects him in particular, Stephens said, noting he can't speak for all fathers.

"I'm looking at my own masculinity in the home and in the community," he said. "The stereotypes are the product of advertising and propaganda from the government. Am I fulfilling these stereotypes? Going against them?"

The photos in the show are tableaux, Stephens said.

"These are all constructed realities," he explained. "I'm pushing at the tensions of life, the expectations of fatherhood, and trying to live up to them."

Stephens worked as the Brattleboro Reformer's staff photographer for six years.

"Because of my photojournalism and documentary background," he said, "I had imposed strict rules on myself: no manipulating the image, always striving for objective reality. Grad school helped me realize — although it took me a long time — that despite all these rules, I'm always influencing the image or framing the world, by what I'm pointing the camera at or not pointing the camera at."

Once freed artistically from the restrictions of photo-reporting, Stephens was able to let go of some control. For example, in his photo "Stuffies," the whole frame is filled with stuffed animals, under which he is buried. His eyes are all the viewer can see of him.

The genesis of this photo came about because he and his wife and children were in the car, and he was feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all his responsibilities. So when they arrived home, he told the children to cover him with their stuffed animals.

"For the first time, I let go of some control," he said. "Always before, I had had the camera in my hand. I saw myself as the image-maker and the director. This time, it was a collaboration. I told the kids to pile all their stuffed animals on top of me. I had set up the camera and the lights. Although my wife made the final exposure, I still see myself as the author of the image."

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This experience broke through a wall in his understanding, Stephens said.

"I began to ask myself in what other ways I could explore story telling with this medium," he said. "I carry a tiny notebook, and I might write one line, that may become a sketch, and then a diagram where I work out the general visual image and the lighting. I'm specifically lighting with studio lights.

"The tableau photographs are multiple images manipulated in Photoshop," he continued. "For example, the photo ("BBQ") required exposures of the house, and exposures of me in the chair, and exposures of the kids, and exposures of the fire, and exposures of the gas tank. There are multiple variations per image. And I can't really control any of it. I capture what I can capture; then I assemble all these pieces intentionally in the final image. Note that the book on my chest (a copy of "The Way We Never Were") directly contradicts the situation."

Stephens sort of wandered into photography as a student at Brattleboro Union High School. As he tells the story, "I had a free class block when (Judy Unger-Clark's) photography class was happening. A girl I was interested in signed up for the course, so I did, too. After two weeks, she dropped the course, but I stayed. Turned out I was much more interested in photography than in the girl."

Encouraged by Unger-Clark, Stephens joined the In-Sight Photography Project, 45 Flat St., Suite 1, Brattleboro, an after-school, not-for-profit program co-founded by John Willis and Bill Ledger that teaches photography to youth ages 11-18, regardless of their ability to pay. Stephens is now program director at In-Sight.

After graduating from high school (class of '02), Stephens enrolled in the Hallmark Institute of Photography, which was located in Turners Falls, Mass. (The institute closed in October 2016.)

"The day I graduated from Hallmark, I got my first freelance assignment for the Brattleboro Reformer," Stephens said. "I started my career that night."

Stephens was staff photographer at the Reformer for six years.

Working at In-Sight, and having taught photography as an adjunct professor at both Landmark College in Putney and Keene State College in New Hampshire, Stephens realized he has a passion for teaching. However, to continue to teach at the college level, he knew he'd need an advanced degree.

"I never thought graduate school was a possibility for me," Stephens said. "I don't have an undergraduate degree even though I have years of experience as a photographer. I have a job and a family and obligations. But John Willis persuaded me to apply to VCFA, and I was accepted."

Stephens sees his exploration of fatherhood as open-ended and plans to add to the images. In addition, he is planning other photo projects.

"I'm interested in a research-based practice grounded in knowledge and scholarship," he said. "It's not only about aesthetics. I want the layers in these images to unfold for the viewer over time. I want to engage all minds."

Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at