Humans At Sam: Rebecca Finley

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Rebecca Finley has been taking photos since she was 8 years old when her mom bought her a purple Avon camera.

“I immediately started taking pictures of everything. My dolls, the toilet flushing, I even dressed my little brother up and took pictures of him,” Finley said. “I’m pretty lucky that my parents would just take the film to the drug store and get it developed without event looking at it, because I think a lot of parents would have said ‘We’re wasting money, this is a picture of the toilet flushing.’”

Finley lived in Tennessee with her parents until she went to graduate school. She recently got a phone call from her dad about all the photos she had taken when she was younger.

“He had just cleaned out a closet with a bunch of my stuff in it, and he said, ‘I tell you there’s got to be 200,000 photos in this closet,’” Finley said. “And that was just from when I was young until I started my undergraduate years. I took my camera with me everywhere I went, even to school.”

Before her college years, Finley only took one art class. She went to a low-income school that did not have a good art program. Although her schooling didn’t provide much of an outlet for her photography, Finley was convinced that she wanted to be a photographer.

“When I went to college it wasn’t a question,” Finley said. “At freshman orientation, I said I wanted to major in photography and didn’t ever question it.”

Finley went to the University of Tennessee where she got a BA in Studio Art with a concentration in Media Art. There was no major for photography at the university at that time.

“The University of Tennessee didn’t put money into art. It’s funny because I hear my students complain, but they have no idea. Here at Sam you get great support for the art program from the upper administration.” Finley said.

Baldwin Lee was Finley’s only photography professor at the University of Tennessee, but had one of the greatest influences on her work.

“He was amazing, like Buddha. I still hear him in my head when I’m teaching and even taking photos. I think ‘What would Baldwin do, how would he handle this?’” Finley said. “He made me see that I was an artist. I never saw myself as that, I just saw myself as a photographer.”

Another person who influenced Finley was a cinematography professor and photographer who was the visiting artist at the University of Tennessee.

“He was the one that encouraged me to go to graduate school. He was important in that push,” Finley said. “Graduate school was a way of testing what he and Baldwin said, I had heard it from them, but I needed to hear it from someone else too.”

Finley went to the San Francisco Art Institute where she was surrounded by well-known photographers such as Henry Wessel, Jim Goldberg, and Linda Connor.

“That’s why I went to grad school, I wanted to work with big time people. I only had that one professor during my undergrad, so I wanted different feedback and a school that had money for a program. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a really great experience.” Finley said.

Finley’s first year of graduate school wasn’t easy, but it shaped her to become even better and more confident.

“In my first review, I got slashed down. Everybody goes through that – you get your ego kicked out from under you,” Finley said. “By the time I graduated, I felt like I got what I wanted. Not that I feel like I’m a good photographer, I still have a lot to learn. But I was more confident with myself, and able to better defend my work.”

Finley’s photography was not only influenced by her education and professors, but by things that she enjoyed in everyday life, such as music.

“Music was the doorway into art for me. If you take one of my classes you’re going to see music videos. I am still influenced by what I liked when I was younger: pop culture and fashion,” Finley said. “I look at a lot of photographers also, and in my classes I show my students a lot of photographers. I can remember the first time I saw a Sally Mann photo, I was mind-blown. I really love looking at other photographers but I try to fall back on music, film and pop culture.”

Although Finley didn’t go to graduate school with the intention to teach, she was able to be a teacher’s assistant for her photography professors. This is where she developed an interest in teaching.

“I really enjoyed working with the students,” Finley said. “The professors were so serious about their research that they weren’t there all the time. One of my professors was working on a project about prostitutes in Asia, so while he was gone I would teach his class.”

After Finley graduated, she went back to Tennessee to visit her parents and stopped by to see Baldwin Lee, her first photography professor from the University of Tennessee. He asked her if she had thought about moving back to Tennessee, and offered her a job to teach a photography class at the University. This was her first job as a teacher of photography, and she taught there for 5 years. Soon she was teaching 5 classes at 3 different schools while also assisting a commercial photographer. From there, she decided to apply for a “real job”, and landed herself in Texas, teaching at Sam Houston State University.

“I didn’t think I would stay here, because it was so far from home. I thought I would teach here a couple of years to get some experience and move on,” Finley said. “But I really liked it here, and I liked the students. I can relate to students who don’t have an art background. Schools in Texas don’t have a lot of great art programs, and I didn’t either.”

Finley started working in the art department at SHSU in 2005. She has watched the department develop and change over the years.

“It’s been exciting to be a part of the changes. That’s one of the reasons I took the job,” Finley said. “They had all these things that they were starting to think about, and photography had just become part of the art department. I got the opportunity to create classes, and have a real voice in the direction of the program.”

The spirit of Finley’s work is in capturing reality. She has done street photography for years, and

has many other long-term, ongoing projects.

“I always photograph people. I’ll stop people on the street and talk to them. I think the photos are better when I collaborate with people. I don’t feel that I get a very good connection with them unless I stop and talk to them,” Finley said. “I have also been photographing men in Texas for a few years, I am interested in the ideas of masculinity in Texas.”

More recently, Finely has been creating art as a response to the political climate. Some of her recent work was shown during the 57th Annual Faculty Exhibit last month.

“The work I put in the art gallery is really different for me. It is a response to a lot of things that are going on politically, locally, statewide, and nationally. I am also working on photographing construction in The Woodlands.” Finely said.

Finley said she is always inspired by her student’s work in the same way she gets inspired by well-known photographers.

“I’ve had students that see something in their head, and they want to make it work so they keep trying until it’s perfect. That really inspires me, and it’s exciting when people try something that I never thought of,” Finley said. “I always try to inspire my students to do new things, and I need to do that too. If they have to put themselves out there, I need to put myself out there also.”

Finley wants art students to know that it’s okay to pursue art in school, even though parents can be discouraging.

“I know it’s hard for art students, because a lot of them are fighting against their parents who want them to be something else. But you will find your way. You can’t really know where you’re going to end up,” Finley said. “I didn’t know I was going to end up teaching, I thought I was going to be a rock photographer for magazines. Once I was an adult I never entertained the thought of taking that route. You would be surprised how your skills as an artist can be beneficial in other areas besides just the arts.”