Questions with an Educator: Chip Williams

by | Jan 7, 2019 | Questions with an Educator, Strictly Business Blog

Graduation Day — Boone, NC 2018

This week’s Questions with an Educator features Chip Williams.

Chip is a North Carolina-based photographer, filmmaker and educator at Appalachian State University. He has over 20 years of experience in the industry, which he shares with his students in the classroom. Here, Chip outlines his path to becoming a professor of photography, his philosophy about storytelling, and his most successful business and teaching strategies.

We asked: What inspired you to become a professor of photography? How did you go about obtaining your teaching position at Appalachian State University?

Chip said: Before I became a professor in the Commercial Photography program at Appalachian State University, I had been a freelance editorial and corporate photographer in Chicago for twenty-some years. After graduating from Knox College with a degree in English/Creative Writing, I moved to Chicago to get a Masters in Fine Art in Film/Video Production from Columbia College. I loved living in Chicago and my first job out of film school was at a video production company where I produced, shot and edited corporate films and documentaries. It was a great experience working with clients and in particular, this job afforded me the opportunity to travel internationally for a documentary project. Before the production travel started, I purchased a Nikon F100 body with a few prime lenses knowing I would be traveling extensively for the next two years on this project. During the international travel, I shot a lot of b&w and Kodachrome film of the incredible locations and people we met in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Indonesia, Australia, Brazil, Guatemala and India. It was then I realized how much I loved still photography and decided to shift gears career-wise. I first started working as a photo assistant for several photographers in the Chicago area and slowly moved into working full-time as a freelance photographer by developing my own client-base, which included regional and national publications, as well as many corporate clients and design firms.

I enjoyed working with my clients and embraced those opportunities for collaboration and designing custom photography to meet their editorial or marketing/branding needs. When not shooting, I would work out of my home-office, developing estimates, invoicing, editing and delivering images to the clients, creating self-promotional materials and of course, constantly finding new clients. Working at home in my pajamas, close to the coffee maker was awesome when I was younger, but solitary. As I got older, I found myself wanting to connect my professional experience with younger photographers and so as a trial, I taught a business practices class for aspiring photographers, in the Chicago area. I was immediately hooked. The proverbial light bulb went off and I realized teaching might present an interesting and rewarding mid-career change for me.

When I saw a position posted at Appalachian State University for a “commercial photographer with at least ten years of experience working in the industry,” I applied immediately. After a lengthy interviewing process, I was hired as an assistant professor. At that time, Appalachian State was making an effort to hire photography faculty with industry experience in the hope of developing an applied and commercially focused photography curriculum. They also were interested in developing video/motion curricula within the photography program for the benefit of the students who would eventually be working in the industry as photographers and media producers and they saw that my MFA in film/video and my video production experience would be helpful in developing video courses for students studying still photography. I accepted the position and we moved the family from Chicago to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, NC. Since 2011, I have been teaching photography, studio and location lighting, editorial, business and video production courses to our young aspiring commercial photographers.

We asked: What stories do you work to convey through your photography work? How does your goal of storytelling shape the way you set up a shot?

Chip said: Well for me, story is king. I challenge my students to develop concise and universal themes in the visual stories they pursue. The cameras, audio recorders and editing tools are constantly changing and will likely be very different in 15 years; the ability to effectively construct compelling and engaging stories is what will really matter. Mastering the art of visual storytelling will help our graduates differentiate themselves in the industry as professionals, both as still photographers and/or filmmakers.

With my own work, I look for both a balance and juxtaposition of elements within the frame when designing a single, photographic image. This can come in the form of props, wardrobe, characters, simple geometric shapes or structures. The hope is to create something unexpected that will make the viewer pause and ponder what is happening within the frame. If you can suggest a story or compel the viewers to insert their own interpretation of a narrative within your single photographic frame, you have achieved the highest form of artistry I can think of. If you can make your audience pause for a moment on your photo when flipping pages through the magazine, you have succeeded in your job as a visual communicator and storyteller.

Thematically, my personal work gravitates towards the exploration of outsiders—people living and working outside of what is considered the “mainstream” society. I am also interested in people obsessed with a particular passion. My interest in the outsider started many years ago with my award-winning documentary on Chicago bicycle messengers, titled Concrete Rodeo. I have pursued this same theme in past photographic series such as Cyclocross where I set out to document participants involved in a fringe bicycle racing discipline. In this series, I highlighted the theatrical nature of these racing events, the relationship between the spectators and racers and their mutual obsession with the sport.

Most recently, my wife and my creative partner, Anne Ward, and I finished a video documentary, A Father’s Dream, about a local violin-maker, David Finck We were attracted to both his dedication to his handcrafted violins and his family’s story attached to his passion for his craft. I am interested in stories about people like David who are creating and producing beautiful and functional objects in this age of mass-production and disposability. His story filtered down into one single theme, “legacy.”

Presently, Anne and I are working on a new documentary project with an artist-couple and their lives on their organic farm and the legacy they are leaving behind with their Civil War-era farmhouse, acreage and organic practices they have stewarded for over thirty years.

We are also in preproduction for a multimedia story that will document our local Appalachian county and the people who live here. Since moving here in 2011, we’ve been struck by how the reality of life in Appalachia is no way reflected by the Appalachian stereotypes we see promoted in the news, films and stories. With this project, we want to present a more nuanced look at life in Appalachia.

We asked: What teaching technique have you found to be most useful when working to illustrate a complex concept in the classroom? Please explain.

Chip said: My main mission as a photography educator and mentor within the context of our Commercial Photography program at Appalachian State is to help my students develop their own voices and style as visual communicators and storytellers. I’m a big believer in writing your story ideas or visual concepts out in a written narrative or film treatment format. I insist that the students formulate and develop their semester’s final photo and video projects in writing before shooting and present their concepts and stories to the class for peer-to-peer feedback. The formality of organizing and writing down their concepts forces them to pre-visualize and articulate their concepts and ideas. This process often exposes glaring imperfections in how their concept may translate into the visual medium or successfully communicate their ideas to a universal audience.

Visualizing concepts and storytelling are the most difficult skills for our students to develop and master. Learning the technical side of the camera and lighting gear and software is fairly easy in comparison. When I went to film school for my post-graduate work, we learned to shoot on 16mm film and edited our films on Steenbeck flatbed editing machines. We literally made our film edits with a razor blade and spliced the shots together with tape. My students cannot fathom that mechanical and tactile process in today’s digital era.

Flash forward twenty-five years later from my days of film school and the technical landscape has completely changed with the introduction of non-linear editing and the mirrorless and DSLR cameras that now shoot 4k video and record audio. The technical side of image creation, sound acquisition and editing have completely changed since I began my career in video production and photography but the principals of good storytelling and basic editing and shooting techniques have not. These foundations translate regardless of what tools we are using to create successful stories. I warn my students about my own experience with this and suggest that they have no idea how they will be recording their media 15 years from now. They must remain nimble and be willing to learn the new technology and equipment, but the storytelling techniques will remain the same. The success of a three-act structure and the foundational concepts for composing and framing an outstanding image will remain constant, regardless of the technical tools we use.

We asked: What strategies have you found beneficial throughout your career? How do you advise your students as they enter the industry?

Chip said: Persistence and knowing who your audience is – based on your own photographic interests and style of shooting – are absolutely essential as you plan for a successful career as a photographer, filmmaker or media production professional. Our Commercial Photography program is focused on challenging the students to develop their own visual style, develop their understanding of the business side of their future practice and develop a professional body of work and website upon graduation. Our philosophy is that we want our graduates’ websites and work to look like they have already been in the business for five plus years. This is not always possible, but some of our graduates have successfully put together a body of work that is quite impressive and meets this standard. After the hard work and preparation of their portfolios and brand, they need to be persistent and pursue the right venues and clients that match their own aesthetic.

We asked: How did you go about incorporating video/motion into your curricula? How has it affected the business?

Chip said: The demand for video driven content is everywhere now. Look at the stats on YouTube viewership and explore how many Fortune 500 companies are using YouTube and other internet driven social media as channels for promoting and broadcasting their brands.

The writing was on the wall ten years ago in regard to our industry; clients were starting to ask still photographers to also produce short promotional videos for them. The release of Canon’s 5D Mark II was a big game changer for still photographers back in 2008-2009. As mentioned, I was hired by the university in 2011 in part to start developing a motion/video curricula for our photography students. It was becoming obvious more than eight years ago that this thing called “video” or “motion” was one more visual communication tool for clients to employ and that still photographers would have to have in their tool kit if they were going to grow their businesses and client lists. Many of today’s clients expect photographers to be able to shoot, edit and produce videos, in addition to still photography. Our students are trained to offer both. Many have primarily concentrated on video production after graduating from our program.

My approach to teaching motion to photography students is fairly straight-forward but there is a lot to cover in one 15-week semester. Half of my focus is spent on teaching the students to become aware of and understand cinematic language and how it is employed in cinematography and editing techniques. We also focus on story development utilizing treatment writing and recognition of the three-act structure. The other half of my curriculum is devoted to the technical side of video production, mastering the cameras, camera support, the microphones and good audio acquisition. The need and importance for well-recorded audio is a component of video production I find our still photographers often underestimate in their final productions. We also work on good editing techniques that produce that seamless experience for the viewer. We presently use Adobe Premiere Pro for our post-production and our students shoot their videos on either mirrorless or HDSLR platforms.

Find more of Chip’s work on his website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with an Educator and Questions with a Pro series.