Holga image of Red Rock National Park, near the site of the 2016 SPE National Conference. Photo by Andrew Thompson

A Pictorial Reminiscence of the 2016 SPE National Conference

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On Thursday March 10th I loaded up my 1995 Chevy Astro Van and began the four-hour trek from Chino Hills, CA to Las Vegas, NV. It will be my first time in Las Vegas in over twenty years. The allure of casinos and non-stop alcohol is not why I went in that direction. I went to attend my second national conference held by the Society for Photo Education whose theme for this year was Constructed Realities.

Image 2Packed with me on my solo drive were no less than several cameras. I had my trusty Nikon n6006 SLR held together with rubber bands and hair ties, my shockproof Olympus Tough TG-320, a relatively new Olympus Stylus SH-1, a Fuji 67, a Holga 3D Pinhole, a Lytro Red Hot 16gb and, of course, my iPhone. Needless to say I was prepared to take some photos on the journey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hit the road and started cruising. My vehicle was running strong, my radio was blasting and driver’s elbow was in full effect.


Following Sant Khalsa’s advice, I stopped by the Mad Greek Café while on the way. As a one-time New Yorker, I am always searching for a proper Gyro, which is very difficult to come by in California. Most restaurants in this region will make Gyros with chicken or beef, but real Gyros are made with lamb (a meat I hardly eat except for in Gyros). Thankfully the Mad Greek Café makes authentic Greek food that’s worth driving through the middle of nowhere to get.

4a_McDonald's depth of field 2

4_McDonald's depth of field 1

I was inspired to pick up the Lytro Red Hot 16gb after seeing an impressive Lytro display at a Medium Festival in San Diego and I looked forward to discovering all of its possibilities. The Lytro uses MegaRay technology to create what they call “living images” which can re-focus images at any given time. Unfortunately, I kept running into incompatibility issues with the Lytro Desktop imaging software but I was determined to make the best of my new tool.


The other unfortunate aspect of the trip was that by the time I arrived at the Red Rock Resort, the host location of the conference, my driver side window had completely fallen off its tracks. My trusty chariot had turned into a janky jalopy and there is nothing that screams “adjunct lecturer in debt” like towels in your window.


The good news was that I had arrived in time to sign up for career mentoring! This was one of the major reasons I wanted to attend the conference. SPE conferences are vital locations for portfolio reviews, peer reviews, mentoring, and networking. As a newly minted photography lecturer it is important for me to gather all of the information that I can and seek professional advice from anyone willing to give it. I eventually met with photographer Steven Benson who reviewed my application packets and gave me a lot of practical advice, leaving me inspired to forge ahead.


Upon registration I was inundated with fliers, catalogs, handouts, and sponsor leaflets. It took at least a half hour to weed out the necessary materials from the junk. Ugh. A Lot of trees gave their life for this.


Thursday night Gregory Crewdson spoke and signed copies of his book. His presentation was oddly incoherent and ended abruptly. Thankfully, I had no interest in his book or getting it signed which allowed me to arrive at the after party early. There were free hor d’oeuvres and a cash bar. While I ordered a whiskey and coke I heard the silky voice of Jeff Curto behind me. Professor Curto is the voice behind the History of Photography and Camera Positions podcasts. I got to speak with him briefly and it was a little like meeting a star.


One of the catches to my trip was that Thursday night I didn’t have a place to stay. I had left California under the impression that I would be able to camp in the Red Rock National Park the first night but I had made an error. I hadn’t gone early enough to secure a spot and by the time I had arrived at the campground it was filled to capacity. So I drove around at eleven in the evening looking for a safe place to park my windowless van. I found a little offshoot off the road that had evidence of illegal activities.

9c_Holga Depth of field 2

9b_Holga Depth of field 1

Not feeling particularly safe in my makeshift campsite, I set up the Holga pinhole camera and began taking night exposures. I set the alarm on my phone for an hour or so and slept in-between exposures, waking up periodically to advance the film. I did this until dawn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA9d_Red Rock Nation ParkAt sunrise I took a few pictures and drove off as quickly as possible just in case some park ranger was out and about looking for troublemakers or squatters like myself.


There was no rest to be found on Friday. The conference had kicked into gear with talks starting at 9AM until 7PM followed by the big curator walkthrough event later that evening. The Exhibit Fair had also opened hosting a bunch of exciting vendors. Here, the representatives for the New55 Company were showing off their instant positive/negative 4×5 film. I also got to sit in on a talk about the new Adobe Lightroom app for smartphones hosted by Julieanne Kost. Anybody who has looked up Lightroom tutorials online should be familiar with Julieanne and true to her style, she did not disappoint. She was more informative than any book and twice as funny as her online videos. It was a treat to listen to her in person.


The other good thing about Friday was I got to move into a room in the Red Rock Resort. Professor Tom McGovern was gracious enough to allow me to share a room with him so I didn’t have to sleep in my cold van anymore. It didn’t take long for me to notice the eerie Kubrickian hallways. I began to refer to the hotel as the Redrum Resort.


Friday night was the big curator walkthrough event. This is where nearly half of the conference attendees set up their artworks onto tables while the other half of those in attendance walk around and look. This was my first time showing my work to the group and I was nervous. Thankfully, people who were interested in my photographs engaged me in a lot of positive conversations.


The next morning I spotted many of the conference goers at the Starbucks downstairs.


But I found solace in the breakfast buffet with all the donuts I could eat.


Saturday was my big day with the portfolio reviewers. I had the opportunity to show my images to three well-respected members of SPE. Much like the career mentoring I received earlier, the portfolio reviewers left me inspired to push forward.


I also got to listen to Professor McGovern’s lecture about Dotphotozine and all of the positive results that come from students participating with the publication. It made me proud of my fellow CSUSB photographers because all of their works looked so professional.


Saturday evening marked the closing of the Exhibit Fair with the annual SPE raffle. Countless raffle tickets were sold to raise money for SPE and there were some excellent prizes available, most notably two authentic Aaron Siskind prints.


All of that was only a pre-cursor to the epic Saturday night dance party. SPE sets up two photo areas, a cash bar and a dance floor inviting the conference goers to get rowdy. At the beginning of the party, Sant wrangled as many of the artists from her exhibition Being Here and There that she could for a group photo. Afterwards, Tony Maher bought me a Jack on the rocks and we compared our conference experiences. I heard the dance floor was jumping until two in the morning but I was sound asleep by midnight because I had every intention to leave Las Vegas early Sunday morning.


Despite the Daylight Saving Time change that Sunday morning, I was on the road by 9AM. With my window still down I felt every bit of the temperature changes as I drove through raised and lowered elevations. It seemed to take twice as long to get back home but once I did, I started making plans to go to the next SPE function, which is the regional conference in Tucson, Arizona later this year.