Longtime Lansing Community College photography Professor Steve Beck was famous for being easygoing, but there´s one thing he hated to hear: “I´ll fix that in post.” Beck´s directive, “do it in the camera now,” went beyond technical advice to become a life lesson for hundreds of students. Like a frosty spider web poised to melt at sunrise, life gives you one exposure at best.
LCC´s photography guru from 1975 to 2008 died at 67 on Feb. 13. Many of his devoted, far-flung students pay tribute with an exhibit of prints inspired by Beck at Lansing´s John Bean building Friday.
“He was the king,” Lansing photographer and former Beck student Kurt Gordon said. “Nobody held a candle to him.”
The second-floor display of photography by Beck´s academic progeny is part of the second annual open house at the hulking 500,000-square-foot building. Built in 1936 as a warehouse, it’s an eclectic warren of businesses and artist studios, including several photographers trained by Beck.
This time last year, Beck was battling cancer, but he came to the first John Bean open house to kibitz. More than 200 people showed up and more are expected this year.
“Everybody was in awe: ‘Steve´s here,’” photographer Monique Goch said.
Beck was tickled to see many of his former students ensconced in professional studios.
“I knew you´d have your own studio some day,” Beck told Goch, who took his rule of doing it right “in the camera” to heart in more ways than one. Before digital photography, lazy students tried to cover their mistakes in the darkroom. Later, they counted on digital wizardry to bail them out. Beck would have none of that. He pushed his students to get the exposure right when it counted most, behind the camera, or crucial details would be lost forever.
“I’m a nut about proper exposure, and I learned it from him,” Goch said. “Don´t blow out your highlight. Expose for shadow.”
After taking classes with Beck, Goch decided not to wait for post to get her life right, either. After selling insurance for 20 years, she retired and went into photography full time.
“I felt like I wanted to live authentically, and that principle was inspired by people like Steve,” she said.
Lansing photographer Tom Gennara was an LCC student from 1979 to 1981, the heyday of Beck´s freewheeling field trips.
In 1979, Beck piled Gennara and seven other students into a van for a camping and photography trip out West, hitting Arches National Park, the Tetons and Yellowstone. The next year, he took the students to New England, stopping at his parents’ house in New Hampshire.
“We had an eclectic mix of people at close quarters, but we had a blast,” Gennara said. Blues, country and folk music, especially Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” rolled continuously with the wheels. Beck, a fine guitar player, loved music as much as he loved photography.
In the classroom and in the field, Beck taught his students to take care at every step, from exposure to final print.
“He taught us that everything in the image mattered, not just the focal point,” said Gordon, one of the tribute’s co-organizers. “He was so accurate and precise in his instructions that if you just listened in his class, you´d learn. You didn´t have to look at books. He was just that good.”
Gennara said he saw Beck angry “once or twice,” but never at a student and only when LCC’s administrative politics got in the way of his students´ goals.
“It didn´t matter how bad your image was, he was able to correct you without bringing you down,” Gordon said. “You walked out laughing about your mistakes.”
Last year, when it was clear that Beck was battling serious illness, Gordon put together a series of lunches reuniting Beck with former students. Gordon put out the call for one last lunch at Tripper’s in early February, just before Beck died. More than 20 former students from around the country came to talk about art and life and thank Beck for all he’d done for them.
“He meant a lot to a bunch of us,” Gordon said.
About 15 of Beck´s former students from the early ‘80s to his retirement in 2007 have contributed prints to Friday´s tribute. Most of the photographers still live in the area, but some are sending work from Oregon and Georgia. The artists donated the prints, which Gennara said would be “affordably” priced. The proceeds will go to charities favored by Beck: The Capital Area Humane Society, the American Cancer Society and the Littleton Studio School Scholarship Fund in New Hampshire. (During his LCC years, Beck often summered in his native Bethlehem, N.H., and was an advocate for the arts there.)
Gordon’s contribution is a large fiberbased print of a covered bridge near Lowell in Ionia County. It seems like an idiot-proof subject, but Beck urged his students to reach beyond the obvious calendar shot.
“He´d tell us to lay on the ground, go to the top of the parking ramp, take a different perspective,” Gordon recalled. “Don´t just stand there and take the picture.”
Instead of sitting pretty, Gordon´s covered bridge scene makes the eye want to explore further.
“My image was totally influenced by Steve,” he said. “The shadows of the branches across the road in front, the angle of the road — it´s not a straight shot.”
Goch´s contribution to Friday´s tribute is a moody nature study Beck would have loved: fog rolling in over Lake Charlevoix. It´s the kind of picture that makes you think of what isn´t there, along with what is.
"It was in the middle of summer, but when the fog rolled in, it suddenly looked like fall," Goch said. "It´s very lonely image."
2nd Annual John Bean Creative
Community Open House 5-9 p.m. Friday, May 2 John Bean Building 1305 S. Cedar St., Lansing FREE facebook.com/ johnbeancreativecommunity