Justin Kimball
Justin Kimball, professor of art

Justin Kimball, professor of art, received a photography fellowship five years ago to support a project of his choosing. Building on a previous body of work, he decided to document in photographs some of the effects of the nation’s economic downturn. 

Visiting small towns brought to the brink of obsolescence by the financial downturn, and capturing their streets, residents and landscapes in photographs both sensitive to their subjects and compositionally striking, Kimball’s recent work examines a growing, yet often overlooked, portion of the American landscape, providing an impressive portrait of the present day.

This latest project was also supported by a 2015 CENTER Project Development Grant and Amherst's Faculty Research Awards Program

In his own work and in the courses he teaches at Amherst, Kimball says he encourages himself and his students to examine the concept of what it means to be human in the world today, and to find the tools necessary to bring ideas to fruition.

What made you decide to tackle this topic of economic prosperity, or lack thereof?

I started thinking about it when I was finishing my last project, Pieces of String, where I was looking for abandoned homes and photographing the vestiges of the individuals who had lived there in order to piece together what I imagined were their stories. Through that process, I kept finding myself in towns that were somewhat defunct.

It was right around the last presidential election, and I remember listening to the news as I was driving through these places where there’s no real economy left—where the only things left are bars, dollar stores and pizza joints—and I realized there was little to no national discussion of how these people are really living. Economically speaking, they’re really struggling. And so I just started photographing.

Do you consider the project, or the photographs, to be political?

The undercurrents are certainly political, as well as regional, but in the broader sense they look at how we as humans in these kinds of situations, and maybe specifically Americans, persevere.

I’ve compiled many of the photographs into a book, titled Elegy, which will be released in November. While the book itself is sort of political, because it can’t help but be, it’s really meant to be a series about struggle in a broad sense, and what it means to be a person living in today’s world. 

When and why did you begin to study photography?

I started taking photographs when I was 12 or 13. My parents would drive my siblings and me all over the country each summer. My mom, who was a printmaker, gave me this old camera. Every day was different, every day I saw so many new things, and the camera became a tool for me to stop the world from spinning, to digest everything going on around me. For me, photography has always been a way to organize the world, a world that is amazingly beautiful but can also be difficult to navigate.

As a student, I was always interested in art, but I thought I would never go to college. Then at one point when I was painting houses for a living, I thought, I should go to community college, maybe there’s something there. I started taking art classes and was able to transfer to the Rhode Island School of Design. That changed everything for me. It was the first place I felt like there were people who had similar concerns to mine, who were seeing the world in a similar way.

How did you decide to become a teacher?

I found that I love being in the classroom. I love seeing what young people are doing and thinking about, and it helps me keep in touch with what’s going on in the world. I love teaching because, not only am I teaching students to think critically, I’m able to guide them through projects that are directed by their own interests. Photography allows students to open themselves up to experiences they’ve never had before.

Justin Kimball photo course
As part of Kimball's spring 2015 course "Eight People, One Place and a Book, II," students constructed custom, hand-made boxes to house their individual photography books.

What leads a student take one of your courses? 

There’s a core group who are art majors, but I teach students from many other departments as well. I think a lot of students take art courses to find their voice in some way. 

There’s a lot of room in a photography class to have conversations about identity, which is something students at Amherst have always been interested in. My goals are to help students understand how to ask hard questions of themselves, as well as of the medium, and to ask themselves what they want the thing they’re making to be about. It’s my job and privilege to give them the tools, or help them find the tools, to do that. 

What would you say to a student who’s considering taking an art class for the first time?

One of the first things I tell them is, I can’t weigh you against each other, I can only weigh you against yourself. That is, I can measure their level at the start of the class and at the end. And I tell them that should be their barometer as well.

Art can change the way you perceive not only the world around you, but also yourself. Being an artist can be just as interesting and rewarding as being a lawyer or a physicist or anything else. Art isn’t an extracurricular activity. It’s place where you can find yourself.