Depth of field 

click to enlarge Mark J. Watts has been teaching photography at Flower City Arts Center for 20 years.


Mark J. Watts has been teaching photography at Flower City Arts Center for 20 years.

Mark J. Watts is dressed in black, lugging around two bursting laptop bags, as he talks about his sticker collection.

“It’s in my will,” he said of the tokens he’s been gathering since the 70s, little pieces of art.

Beyond this lesser-known passion, Mark is a photographer and educator. When referring to Rochester as a ‘photo city,’ it’s impossible to do so without considering the education community that supports it.

Watts got his first camera when he was 13, after his father won a contest for a 35 millimeter single-lens reflex. He started taking classes in junior high, where his negatives came back riddled with dust from the ceramics class his photo teacher, Burt Grimes, also taught. After that, it was onto college in Wisconsin where Professor Rodger Grant prioritized technique and precision. Then, to the Rochester Institute of Technology to learn about tonality and color under the tutelage of Owen Butler.

What Watts loves about photography is simple.

“Just being able to show people the world that I saw,” he said. “Let me make an image that represents this thing in a way that can convey how beautiful it is.”

click to enlarge Watts in the darkroom at Flower City Arts Center. - RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ.
  • Watts in the darkroom at Flower City Arts Center.
Watts first started teaching while working at RIT’s School of Printing, and early on, he began collaborating with Flower City Arts Center’s youth program, turning student prints into books. He’s now taught at the center for about 20 years.

“There’s nothing like teaching,” said Watts. “When I see that light bulb go off — and I have that opportunity plenty of times where people are walking in never seeing a darkroom before, and then they get it because I’ve helped them — that’s so rewarding for me.”

Being dressed in black seems ironic, for all this mention of light. His face glows under a black beanie when he talks about the moment students break through, the moment a photo appears out of nothing.

“It’s magic,” he said of developing prints. “Yeah, I can explain the chemical reactions that are occurring, but I have never lost that excitement.”

Watts refers to photography — analog or digital, which he stresses are equally valid artforms — as a sort of jungle. It’s his job to hand the student a machete, and every week, they cut a bit more through the overgrowth to the root.

Vivian Rivers was one of these students. She took Watts’s ‘Go Retro with Film: Introduction to Photography’ class with no prior experience, once in the fall, and then again in the winter. Recently, her own show, “Back of House,” which focused on the oft-overlooked positions in the hospitality industry, was exhibited at Aldaskeller Wine Co. in the South Wedge.

“I really don’t think I would have had the confidence to produce those darkroom pictures, or feel empowered to continue this process that does feel inaccessible, without having the arts center and Mark,” said Rivers.

As an instructor, Watts is patient and knowledgeable — and when it comes to film, he’s a resource that’s dying out.

“It was very full and cramped in that little darkroom,” said Rivers. “But he was still giving everyone the attention they wanted to get.”

click to enlarge An image from Watts's rocks show. - MARK J. WATTS.
  • An image from Watts's rocks show.

Beyond his work as an educator, Watts is a talented photographer. Mixing digital and film, his images are full of contrast and stark narratives. The cut between stones and their background, a fire that splits a field of wheat and the blue sky above. Dogs and their dog owners, strangers he stopped on the street.

“Don’t regret the picture you don’t take,” he said. “This exists right now, for maybe only a few moments, and then it may never be back.”

Even with Watts’s archive, some of his favorite photographs are made right on Monroe Avenue after finishing class. The night falling around him, freshly inspired by his students and their excitement, he takes out his phone and waits for something beautiful to unfold.

Jessica L. Pavia is a contributor to CITY.
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