August Jennewein got his first camera (a Canon XT) as a high school graduation gift from his parents. Years later, it proved a gift to the University of Missouri–St. Louis as well when he became the official campus photographer.
Recently, Jennewein’s photographs for UMSL were recognized by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which honored him with the gold award for “Excellence in Photography” in the platinum category for Division VI.
Jennewein shared his thoughts with UMSL Daily on the nine photos that won him his award – and a little of his philosophy on the art form he loves.
How did you come to be a photographer?
Though I never took a photography class while I was a student at Notre Dame, I used my camera on a daily basis. I taught myself by trial and error, and I quickly learned that I had a God-given talent when it came to making pictures. I didn’t know an aperture from a focal length, but I could make pictures that people responded to, pictures that spoke volumes without me ever uttering a word. I began to realize the power of an image and that images are the world’s currency today.
I tended to shoot a series of photographs along one theme, that told one story. In my junior year when I took a film course, “From Script to Screen,” I discovered a new path for my photography. I always thought in images; now I could “write” a whole movie with my photographs.
After I graduated from Notre Dame I moved out to Los Angeles. In time, I got a job in the Paramount Pictures story department. For the next 10 years I put my cameras aside and taught myself the craft of screenwriting. I found words for all the pictures dancing in my head.
But the movie business eventually burned me out. Creatively it left me feeling very empty. And that’s when I picked up my camera once again. And I started making pictures, still images that once again told stories.
What is your relationship with your camera?
When I hold a camera in my hand it feels like an extension of my arm and of my whole being. When I’m really locked into a moment, looking through the viewfinder, I forget the camera is even in my hands. I only see and feel the moment, the picture I’m making. And my best pictures are the ones that are revealed to me. I’m not looking for anything special. I’m more in a listening mode, and I do that not only with my eyes but my spirit as well. It’s as if my spirit dances out before me, ahead of me, and yells back to me, “Hey, check this out,” or, “Over here. Get a load of this.” It helps me see and recognize a special moment at hand.
What is it like to practice art as a profession?
Most days I don’t have the luxury to wander campus “looking” for my photographs. I’ve got assignments based on certain needs for an upcoming story in UMSL Daily or UMSL Magazine or for a brochure, like the university’s Viewbook. I’m always under some sort of time constraint, whether it be dictated by the subject of my shoot or my need to get to the next job.
But to make good pictures, you first need to show up. And I don’t mean just getting to the shoot on time. I mean you need to be present in the moment. Be attentive. Be a good listener. Be aware of the light as well as the mood of your subject. Try new ideas, and be willing to fail. Take a leap of faith. You’ll be surprised how often your subject will leap with you.
Every day is different for me, and that’s one aspect of my job that makes it special and fun. I constantly meet and get to photograph some amazing and wonderful people, whether they are students, alumni, staff, faculty or friends of the university. It’s such a pleasure to meet them all and to share their stories with all of you.
See what Jennewein sees and feels in these nine award-winning photos below.
I was wandering through The Quad shortly after 9 a.m. on one of the first days of the new fall semester. There was much activity with students racing to their classes. My eyes initially were pulled from one spot to another following all the busyness. But my spirit quieted within me, which allowed me to see Robert Perks all by himself, in his own peaceful moment of serenity within all the chaos of activity.
I was initially drawn in by the concentration of freshman computer science major Omar Ismail as he recited the digits of pi. His concentration was captivating. His whole body became one force, whose only goal was to recite digits of pi. He set a record by naming 2,020 digits of pi. He never saw all the faces that gathered around him to listen and be amazed by his feat.
You know what it’s like at the ballpark the night of a baseball game… Sure there is the game itself out on the field, and for the most part we are attentive to it, but there is a cornucopia of activity for our eyes in all corners of the stadium. Whether it be one of the scoreboards, the skyline, the food vendors or possibly the adorable baby sitting in the row next to you, the ballpark is full of life and color. So how do I find, let alone make, one photograph that shouts out “UMSL Night at the Ballpark!” in the midst of all that eye-catching activity? Once again I let my spirit wander before me, and before I knew it I heard within me, “How about this? This is a perfect moment. Don’t miss it.”
When I photograph a commencement ceremony, I’m looking for moments of joy. They can occur from a myriad of directions, and there is no warning when it will unfold. Sometimes they happen all at once. So I need to be ready. I find a good vantage point that will give me good sightlines in various directions. Then I crouch (don’t want to block the view of family and friends waiting for those moments too!) and wait.
Will the graduate who just got her certificate burst into a joyous shout or will it be the one who just sat back down with his fellow graduates? Will the moment occur right away or will it unfold during their walk past the families seated in the stands? The latter usually offers up some special moments. I might follow one graduate with my camera when a shout of happiness shoots out from another. It’s in those moments that I need to stay calm. I missed a moment. It’s gone. But I know another moment will be revealed. And then there it is. Joy!
I really wanted to use available light for my portrait shoot with Andrea Schmidt for the UMSL Magazine story, “Voices of Ferguson.” She was a street medic during the protests, so I wanted to capture her out in her element. However, by the time we met up at our location, dusk had settled in, and it was cold. But a glimmer of a new idea hit me as I parked my car: Maybe I could use the headlights and taillights of the passing cars to my benefit. The former could illuminate Andrea’s face and the latter could create the visual setting and colors of those nights of protest she witnessed. So I shared my idea with Andrea, and she was willing to give it a try. Now you be the judge of how well we succeeded.
Every photo shoot has its challenges. The trick is to embrace the challenges. My portrait shoot with Hannah Perryman had too much light with the sun overhead at midday. However, I remembered the portrait I shot of Robert nestled in amongst the trees in The Quad, and I felt those same trees might give Hannah and me a wonderful umbrella of soft shade to work underneath. And for the most part I was right. But trees have leaves that move in unpredictable ways at the slightest breeze, so dappled light can become a problem, throwing unwanted shafts of light on your subject. However, Hannah was a pro and made the slightest of adjustments in her pose to avoid such annoyances, all the while retaining her calm confidence.
When I photographed Ben Poremba, it was for a new iteration of the “I Chose UMSL” billboards. I met up with him at his restaurant, Olio. We had great natural light to work with, so that was not a problem. However, after making a few pictures I just felt something was missing. They all looked good, but something wasn’t right. What was it?
Food. Food was missing. Ben is a wonderful chef. We needed food. We needed to put Ben more squarely in his element. So he quickly suggested a simple “meal” setup, and he opened up a bottle of wine to make it sing. Cheers!
Sometimes obstacles to a successful shoot pop up at the last minute. And yet you still need to make your pictures. Case in point was a UMSL Daily shoot with alumni Jason Bockmann and Corey Smale, the Strange Donuts founders. The first time I met Jason and Corey my 30 minutes of portrait time shrunk to less than five minutes due to some miscommunication. (It happens. Embrace the challenge, remember?) And to compound the situation it was bitter cold outside, so once again my first idea was out the proverbial window. I quickly ran through idea number two and three, one worse than the other, until I noticed two brothers picking out there favorite donuts. I asked their mom whether it would be okay if they joined Jason and Corey for their portrait and in the next instant I had my winning picture.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that a good story, a good picture, has legs. It will have uses beyond the initial reason you are shooting the assignment. That means that during the shoot you need to push your creative envelope as far as you can. If you have a second or third idea for the portrait, shoot it. Push those 10 minutes to 15 or 20 if possible. Explore the ideas you have bouncing around in you. Go for it!
A good example of this in practice was my portrait shoot with student Joanne Lee, the UMSL Concerto Competition winner. I needed to make a portrait of her and her cello for UMSL Daily. I had a simple idea, and within the first few minutes of our shoot I knew it worked – I had my portrait. And yet seeing her interact with her cello, I had new ideas for photos, ideas that deserved exploration. Joanne was game, so we spent extra time making more portraits in a new location within the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Lo and behold, multiple portraits were used from our shoot for both the UMSL Daily story and an “I Chose UMSL” billboard. The photo above is from those extra outtakes, and while it wasn’t in the story, it did appear on a billboard.