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Brennan Cavanaugh

Type: Workshop, Residency

Art Form: Digital Media, Photography

Grade Level: K-12 

Brennan Cavanaugh is a professional photographer and photography educator based in NYC. From making documentary stories, to creating portraits of luminaries of hip hop and rock and the literary world, he also takes his experiences in learning photography at Bard College to share the development of visual language with students ages 5 to 95.


Brennan Cavanaugh started photographing his friends in his neighborhood when he was a kid, using a plastic camera. In high school he got a Pentax K1000 SLR, took a photography class and was hooked; he entered and won contests, worked for the yearbook, and started getting paying photography jobs.


At Bard College he studied street photography under Stephen Shore. Every week he'd go into New York City for a full day to practice capturing the movement on the streets, cultivating a skill to "see everything" and trying to create film stills of his day. Professor Shore onetime stated to the class that we might not become photographers, but for instance Brennan's practice might lead him to become a Detective. At Shore's suggestion he took his first teaching job, as a tutor to the au pair of President Leon Botstein, for school credit. Brennan was awarded the grade of Honors twice during his college career.


Eventually he moved to New York City to work with Mark Seliger, the second chief photographer (after Annie Liebowitz) for Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone and US Magazines. In two and half years they flew all over the world, landing in Los Angeles once a week to make portraits of the luminaries of music and film for the covers and stories of these magazines.


Going out on his own, he began to get jobs photographing his heroes in culture, mostly for music magazines, and is still making portraits of musicians and writers. He also uses his street photography skills to professionally document events.


About 10 years ago he started his career in photography education with Telem Center for the African Child, after bringing a camera to a birthday party and being propositioned to lead workshops. This led to work with Nah We Yone, an organization that also worked with children affected by the West African diaspora, as well as Pablove Shutterbugs, an organization that paired tutors with children with cancer in New York City.


After a panel for Bard Works, talking to college juniors and seniors about the realities of being a real-world artist, former YANY director Eileen Doyle and Brennan had a conversation and within a few weeks Brennan was in front of a class of soon-to-be photographers at The Bronx's PS205x school; he is now teaching there for a 6th year, and is continuing to teach in schools in Harlem with the YANY Link program for a 4th year. 


In teaching photography with YANY, Brennan really believes he is teaching visual literacy skills that can save lives. Whether teaching 7 or 70 year olds, he believes that photography teaches students to be in command of how they detect and intake the visual world surrounding them, and so can navigate themselves through their worlds with deeper understanding. When one notices more of the visual clues around them, they can make wiser decisions on how to react and act.


Brennan's approach to teaching different ages differs as to their maturity. Children up to 4th grade often are asked to imagine the world outside as if it's a different planet and must collect visual information to tell people about this world they are seeing. Older students may be asked to choose one tree right outside their school to make a picture of on each of our outings. They may be tasked to become reporters, in a "press corps", telling the documentary story of their after-school peers and programs. High School students are often treated to historical classes and guest lecturers in the artistic and commercial field; they are also guided to follow their photographic passions, to settle into a portfolio project, and write an Artist Statement they must defend as a dissertation. We have found that often high school-aged students are helped more fully with one-on-one critiques, leading them to more deeply consider their craft and art. Older folks may be presented with a Family Portrait session, where they learn the skills to pose and interact with their subjects, their family, to make powerful portraits of their time, and make prints to keep and give. People in senior centers have been asked to share pictures of their past lives, and are led to making new pictures of their current lives, as a practice in realizing continuum.


In this digital world, as well, Brennan thinks it is extremely important for all students to receive prints of their work weekly, and to look at the pictures deeply, to learn command of their entire visual field, their story. There are two general parts of photography, both equal: the making of the photograph, and the looking at the photograph. Then comes the next step of sharing the photograph, opening up to the world outside, which we do in class, in preparation for an exhibit of their photographs to their larger community. 


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