Professor comes home after African journey

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When David Blumenkrantz developed his very first photo and saw the image begin to appear, something in him clicked, and he knew he found a calling in photography.

“As soon as I made my first print (and) saw (it) come up in the darkroom, I just fell in love with it,” Blumenkrantz said. “I thought it was an amazing process.”

Growing up, Blumenkrantz said he was interested in art. His career objective in junior high and middle school was to be a cartoonist.

“I didn’t have that much talent at it. I was good, but not good enough. I didn’t rise to another level,” Blumenkrantz said.

Blumenkrantz became interested in photography at the age of 21 through one of his good friends, Armando Aguirre. They remain friends to this day.

He took photo classes at Valley College and transferred to CSUN, where he received a bachelor’s degree in art in 1985. He received a master’s degree in art at CSUN in 2003.

Photojournalists such as W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, and the portraits of Diane Arbus inspired Blumenkrantz to want to become a photojournalist.

The first camera he ever bought was a Nikon FM when he was 21 years old. He used that camera for the first ten years he worked as a photographer.

Blumenkrantz worked as a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Daily News, and InterAid International, a non-profit organization based out of Camarillo, CA.

The transition from photojournalist to teacher occurred during his time in Africa. He made three trips to Africa in 1987, and moved there in 1988. He lived in Africa for eight years as a documentarian and a freelancer. He has been to Uganda, Kenya, Zaire, and Sudan.

“During that time, I felt really good that I was able to use all the skills that I had learned in school,” said Blumenkrantz. “I wasn’t just taking photographs, but I was also interviewing people, writing stories, (and) I was doing layout design and even making videos.”

While in Africa, he learned how to speak Swahili. He later met and married an African woman, who he has two daughters with. He thought he would never leave Africa since he had already established a small farm in which he raised animals.

“The pace of life suited me, something about the stage of development that the countries were in, and the amazing grace of people that were generally poorer than us,” Blumenkrantz said.

Near the end of his experience in Africa, Blumenkrantz felt that he did not belong there even though he had been a part of some of Africa’s incredible events such as seeing a refugee camp or working with street children when he was in Kenya.

“I had this nagging feeling that I’m just a visitor no matter how long I stay here, no matter how intimate my photographs are, I’m still just coming in, observing, and moving on,” Blumenkrantz said. “After years of doing that I felt a little bit of emptiness, and I felt I wanted to be part of something (and) that I was actually a part of that thing and not an observer of it.”

Blumenkrantz worked with schools while he was in Africa. He said he found the educational environment interesting and thought about becoming a teacher someday.

He left Africa in 1994 and returned to California where he freelanced once again, working full time for two years.

“But all that time I felt like my heart wasn’t as in it as it was in Africa,” Blumenkrantz said. “It was hard for me to get excited about the assignments that they were giving me even though they were interesting and it was a nice thing to do. I felt a little bit unfulfilled.”

Blumenkrantz took the opportunity to teach at various elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He taught history and English honors courses at Millikan Middle School Performing Arts Magnet in Sherman Oaks. He also taught third, fourth, and fifth grade classes at Kittridge St. Elementary School in Van Nuys.

“My elementary students were predominately Hispanic, from poorer immigrant families in Van Nuys,” Blumenkrantz said. “I loved working there, it was extremely rewarding, and I was embraced and welcomed by all of the families in the community, many of whom I’m still in touch with today.”

The difference between teaching kids and teaching college students is that you only have to explain things once to college students, Blumenkrantz said.

“I’ve found that whatever age students are, they’re going to respond to a curriculum that seems relevant to their interests,” Blumenkrantz said. “So the teacher has the responsibility to design activities and lessons that meets that standard.”

As a professor at CSUN, Blumenkrantz has worked with the Journalism and Art Department, mainly working in photography classes in both departments.

He also taught Visual Literacy (Art 400) which is the final class senior Liberal Arts majors have to take if they want to become a teacher. Nowadays he teaches mainly in the Journalism Department.

Blumenkrantz tries to keep a balance in his classes by being serious about the curriculum but also by making the class feel light.

He said bringing humor into the classroom helps because people respond well to it.

“Professor Blumenkrantz is one of my favorite professors at CSUN,” said Crystal Samuelian, former anthropology and journalism student.

“He is always going out of his way to help students and provide them with the best information possible,” said Samuelian. “Discussions with him . . . have provided me with a much clearer view of the types of classes I need to take to reach my career goals.”

In his tenure at CSUN, he acknowledges how the other journalism professors have supported him from the beginning.

“I think we have a fantastic (Journalism) department , and in that sense Dave is just one among many excellent teachers,” said Ezra Shapiro, a colleague of Blumenkrantz’s in the Journalism Department. “But if I were to pick one quality of his that I admire, it’s his work ethic. He really pours himself into planning, researching, pulling together class materials, and then refining, refining, refining. He loves what he’s doing, and he’s always thinking about making his classes better. For me, that’s pretty inspirational.”

In terms of his photography, Blumenkrantz sees himself as a portrait photographer. He is fascinated by people and attracted to people’s faces.

“He’s a brilliant portrait photographer,” Shapiro said. “His images of Africa are amazing. He’s very controlled. The pictures are careful and emotional. There are a few clunkers in his portfolio, mostly when he’s trying to shoot on the run or to make some sort of poetic point. But give him a person, and a little time to set up, and he’ll capture that person’s soul. And you’ll be able to see into that soul when you look at the picture later. It’s a rare gift. He’s very talented.”

“His photography is inspirational, which is why I enjoyed helping him on his website (www.daveblumenkrantz.com)” said Linda Quiquivix, who worked as a lab technician for Blumenkrantz in the photo lab last year, she received her MA from CSUN in Geography in 2005. “I love learning all I can from him.”

Blumenkrantz’s has seen the plight of African societies as well as the shocking reality of death. He has photographed monuments of human skulls and dead bodies washing up on Lake Victoria, which was published in Time Magazine. He has seen villages where people were dying of AIDS. He has also captured basic human life.

There are two pictures he has taken of a leper woman on the streets of Juba in South Sudan. One photo has her scowling at him. The other has her smiling at him seconds later.

“These two photographs together are very significant because one of the reasons it goes to show that pictures aren’t necessarily are as truthful as people think. If I had taken the first picture the impression would be that she was an angry bitter person. But then after the first picture I must have taken the camera
down and smiled at her and then she broke out in this beautiful smile, and she is still holding the same salute out. Which photograph is the truth. That’s the question. Which one should be used to tell the story. Photographers have to keep that in mind. This whole issue about is there such thing as real objective photography. I think not.”

With the knowledge that he has over the years as being a photojournalist, Blumenkrantz has the ability to parlay his knowledge to his students that are thriving to someday become future photojournalists.

“It’s the photographer not the camera,” he said.” Do not get caught up with the technical. Its good to get access of moments. Access is the most important factor. You have to be ambitious. You have to be compassionate. You take pictures so that people can care about something. There are lots of ways to use your camera. You have to be realistic with your prospects.”

John Barundia can be reached at ane@sundial.csun.edu