In a crowded classroom equipped with a makeshift darkroom and worn-out photography equipment, Venice High School instructor Larry Shapiro teaches the art of "visual literacy."
Visual literacy is more than learning how to take a picture.
"It is getting students to think about why they want to take a picture--the purpose and concept," Shapiro said. "They have to have a reason why they want to take a photo. That is what we mean by concept. Don't go down and bring me back a picture of an old man on the beach. Everybody has seen that before. I want you to work on new ideas."
By focusing on concepts, Shapiro, 45, said he has transformed a classroom of amateur photographers into one of the best high school photography departments in the county, one that has won local, state and national awards.
"I don't want to sound egotistical, but we dominate the field," said Shapiro, who is a self-taught photographer and is working on his master's degree in fine arts.
This year his students won several honors from the Eastman Kodak Co. and took first and third place and five other awards at the California State Fair in Sacramento. And 11 students won awards at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.
Shapiro's class is one of the most popular on campus. His 33 advanced students spend two periods a day, five days a week, learning the skills of picture taking. Many have gone on to the top fine arts colleges in the country.
"We try to emphasize that students know what they are taking," he said. "We start out with an idea. They talk about it, write about it and then they go out and take pictures. We never just go out and shoot buildings and people."
The Polaroid Co. has donated $1,000 to the class for a project using Polaroid cameras. As part of the project, student Jeff Selp took a series of photographs along Ocean Front Walk. On the east side of the walk, he photographed vendors selling souvenirs and on the west side he took pictures of people displaying their muscles and athletic abilities.
"On one side, people are selling merchandise and on the other side, they are selling themselves," he said. "No one ever said it had to be that way, it just happened."
Sandy Allen, another student, said that when she signed up for the class, she considered photography a hobby.
"I thought it would be good to learn how to take pictures for vacations," she said. "But now I have learned to express myself through pictures. With pictures I can show how I feel and how others feel." One of Allen's works is being displayed by Eastman Kodak in New York City. She has been accepted by California Institute of Fine Arts for next year.
Allen took a series of photographs of the Beverly Hills Hotel, showing it from different sides.
"I took shots all around the building, even the back side where the laundry was being done by all the workers," she said. "Laid out, the pictures present a view of the hotel that is rarely seen, sort of peeled open like an orange."
Barbara Jones, another award-winning student, said grades are not important. "We all get A's," she said with a smile. "What is important is that we learn how to express ourselves through pictures."