Friday, April 28, 2017

Capturing the Intangible

As a child growing up in Oregon, Terry Abrams was inspired by the beauty just outside his window – or at least what he thought was there.

He remembers gazing from his bedroom at Mount Hood and marveling at the way his window framed the volcanic peaks. But years later, his sister shut that memory down, insisting Mount Hood wasn’t actually visible from their childhood home.

“I’m not sure if we really could see Mount Hood from my window,” he said. “But it’s something I always imagined as a little kid and it really drove my life in some odd way.”

Incorrect or not, the memory pushed Abrams to a career photographing landscapes and teaching others about photography. He currently teaches at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was former Chair of the School of Digital Media Arts.

His love of photography grew when he and his childhood friends started developing their own pictures in a makeshift darkroom. But, Terry said, he never imagined it as a career until his family moved to Arizona and he started taking photography classes at a local community college.

“A picture can say things words can’t describe,” he said. “It’s like another language.”

After transferring to the Maryland Institute College of Art and Design, he began teaching photography as a volunteer in an inner-city Baltimore school.

“I liked this idea of showing people whatever I knew that would be interesting and turning them on to it,” he said. “I loved to teach, I discovered that.”

After college, he joined a group of teachers traveling to Europe, where he taught photography to soldiers as part of a local college’s overseas education program and ended up staying for 13 years.

He said teaching lets him set his own schedule and have time to pursue his passion of photography and conduct various workshops, like the two he’ll host in Ecuador and Maine this spring and summer. He also loves bringing out creativity in his students and watching them blossom.

“I believe everyone has a creative part of their personality that is looking for release,” he said.

Terry expresses his own creativity by training his lens on colorful canyons, lush green forests and ornate Turkish architecture. But, he says, he’s most inspired by deserts and sand dunes. He travels to California’s Death Valley multiple times a year to photograph the barren landscape.

“Some people would describe it as desolate,” he said. “But to me, that’s beautiful. My true place on the planet is there, because the landscape is so huge, and it’s so harsh and it’s driven by forces other than humans. I realize how insignificant I really am, and how little my ego has to do with anything else. How I’m just a little speck of dust on the planet. I love having that reminder and just being in awe of the natural forces of our planet.”

He said he is drawn to photographing landscapes because it allows him to capture what he calls “the intangible.”

“I try to photograph the spirit… the soul of something,” he said. “We all know what everything looks like, but to photograph what it feels like….to me, that’s what I try to do and that’s what I try to teach my students to accomplish.”

He said he also teaches his students that a career in the arts may not make them rich, but will reward them in other ways.

“If it’s not your passion, you might as well have a different job,” he said.  “Because this job is not going to reward you financially. But if it’s what motivates you to do what you do every day, maybe the other things aren’t so important.”

As for Terry, expect him to keep expressing his passion by aiming his lens at whatever inspires him, whether outside his window or halfway around the world. 

Learn more about Terry Abrams and see his art at

Listen to Terry Abrams on the American Frame Podcast here.


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