Meet the man who started WMU's photography program

Posted by Courtney Clancy on Feb 23, 2017 1:28:07 PM

Jack Carney's R-R Crossing, NE, 2015.jpg


Artist, professor emeritus, Western Michigan University photography pioneer and long-time supporter, Jack Carney is truly a living legend. We sat down with him to hear his story and learn more about his role in the creation of WMU’s photography program. 

Fifty years ago right now, Carney was in his second semester of teaching at Western Michigan University. Just a twenty-five-year-old “hot shot kid full of energy,” he was brought in as a member of WMU’s largest hire class, a group tasked with widening the curricular offerings at an institution known only at the time as a college for teachers.

“We newbies were given the charge by the president and provost to create a university,” Carney remembered. “The students needed more major alternatives than education.”

Carney and his peers in the Department of Art eagerly took the reins in fulfilling this lofty assignment. But no one at the time could ever have imagined just how much Carney would actually contribute. In fact, his work would ultimately earn him the moniker “founding father” of Western’s photography program.

In the late 1960s, it was Carney who created and taught WMU’s first photography course. It was also Carney who built the school’s first darkroom. He’ll tell you the story of how he physically constructed it, sourcing and fashioning unused furniture from classrooms all around (old) Sangren Hall, the Department of Art’s then home.

John M. "Jack" Carney

“The first darkroom, well that’s a funny story,” Carney chuckled. “I’d ask faculty, ‘You want that cabinet? You need that counter?’ And if they said ‘no, you can have it,’ I’d go over there at night and unbolt cabinets and slide them down the hall. And that’s how I built the darkroom. It was quite an adventure.”

Carney describes these years as unique and exciting, as it was a time of tremendous growth for both the university and the art offerings in particular. But it was also a time of great tumult for the country and the world.

“There was Vietnam. There were riots on campus. Martin Luther King was killed. Bobby Kennedy was killed. It was very traumatic,” Carney said. At the same time, though, this era allowed for much camaraderie among students and faculty.

“You grew close to your students. At our property, we had big cookouts and trail rides through the woods,” Carney shared. “Some of my best friends, lifelong friends, were my students.”

He sat back in his chair and listed at least half a dozen names of students he still keeps in touch with. He continued, rattling off each of their current career paths and pursuits. From accomplished photographers to art school administrators and executives at major visual arts museums, these students are an impressive bunch, pointing to Carney’s strength as a mentor and teacher.

Interestingly, despite his extensive influence and career in photography, Carney wasn’t always a photographer. In fact, he earned both his BFA and MFA degrees in graphic design from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. In 1970, he even took a two-year leave of absence from Western to work for the Brown Company as a Design Manager, a role working in package design for regional and national corporations. During this time, he not only realized that he missed the university setting and all the art-making and intellectual exploration that it afforded him, but he also became aware of his true artistic passion: photography.

“As time went on, I began to realize that I was using graphic design as a way to make a photograph. When you’re always thinking of a photographic solution versus a typographic solution, you knew where your heart really was.”

What was it about photography that he fell in love with? Many things. “Seeing relationships and learning to become more aware of your world,” Carney began. “Being able to image a moment, being able to respond to a moment, the ability to create a narrative with a body of work.”

 Carney’s “Night Light: The Aesthetics of Time by Events in Space,” is a prime example of such storytelling. Made up of night images taken across America, this body of work tells the story of things you can’t see.

“You can’t see time. You can’t smell time, touch time, taste time, or replace time, but you exist in time.” The long exposures and nighttime light in these photographs allow for an incredible representation of this invisible yet omnipresent force.

Carney also understands his work as a theatrical production. “I create the stage set: the site; the location,” Carney explained. “The play is carried out by time and space. They’re the actors.”

Photos from his “Night Light” series are currently on view at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts, where students and the public can enjoy and study the striking imagery and the “aesthetics of time” that the show visually communicates. Carney will also be offering a lecture this evening, Thursday, February 23 at 5:30 p.m. in room 2008 of the Richmond Center. There, he’ll discuss his photography, his inspirations and his processes.


Lunar-Eclipse-over-Marsh,-MI version 3 lighter.jpg
Lunar Eclipse over Marsh, MI


Lectures and shows like these aren’t the only way Carney continues to influence student artists. For eleven years, Carney has been contributing $7,500 annually to the photography program, funds that provide scholarship awards for three students each year. Through a recently-established endowment, Carney Award scholarships will continue to benefit photography students at WMU in perpetuity. Carney initiated the endowment with a $150,000 gift and a commitment to sustain his $7,500 contributions for the next five years.

“I’ve had over a decade to see the benefit to the students, so I know it’s worth continuing. It was just a way of finding a vehicle to be able to do that.”

For Carney, these awards are a way to give current students the same sort of acknowledgement that he enjoyed as an aspiring artist.

“I remember as a student, a faculty [member] wanted to retain one of my pieces for a showcase. I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “I think it’s that thrill of being recognized. It was important to me, and with these awards, I can encourage students for their talent and hard work too.”

His combined monetary contributions to the photography program amount to more than a quarter million dollars, but it’s clear that Jack Carney has contributed so much more. From delivering the first photography offerings at WMU and assembling an improvised darkroom to leaving an impression on countless students, Jack Carney will forever be a most important character in the story of photography at Western Michigan University.

Together with compositions by fellow Professor Emeritus, Curtis Rhodes, Carney’s work will be on view at the Monroe-Brown Gallery through March 24 as a part of the Richmond Center for Visual Arts’ 10th anniversary year.



thumbnail_Goblin-Valley,-UT-1997 copy.jpg

Goblin Valley, UT, 1997


Topics: Richmond Center for Visual Arts, Frostic School of Art, Faculty feature

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