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The Power of Recognition: Jeff Fitlow’s 2022 PhotoShelter UPAA Grant Win

At PhotoShelter, we have a special place in our hearts for university photographers. These talented folks tirelessly produce breathtaking images da...

At PhotoShelter, we have a special place in our hearts for university photographers. These talented folks tirelessly produce breathtaking images day in and day out, often working under intense pressure to deliver top-notch visuals. That’s because on a college campus, there’s a constant drive to learn new things and come up with fresh ideas. 

Each year, the University Photographers’ Association of America (UPAA) Symposium brings together university photographers from around the world, giving them a platform to share their experiences and learn from one another. A highlight of the event is the PhotoShelter grant, which is just one way we show our support to this incredible community. In 2022, we recognized Jeff Fitlow, accomplished Senior University Photographer for Rice University known for his love of documenting the Houston blues community. Below, we delve into Jeff’s journey, his plans for the grant money and the impact the grant has had on his life.

What does the UPAA Symposium and community mean to you as a university photographer?

Having these conferences every summer is great. It refreshes you for the year and gives you something to look forward to all year long. With the conference being a full week long, you network and build relationships with creative people all over the country.

The Facebook page is also a great way for everyone to stay in touch throughout the school year. Members talk about a wide variety of topics. For example, when I needed advice on a macro photo for the cover of Science magazine, colleagues jumped in to give ideas and hands-on experience. There are also great discussions about equipment, lighting and new advances in our field. This is such a collaborative group. We all develop such close relationships that we feel like we’re talking to friends on the Facebook page. 

Could you elaborate on the value and impact of the PhotoShelter grant?

First, I’m so thankful that I won. It helped me see that others value my blues music project as much as I do. Receiving this grant gave me the confidence to take the project further than I originally planned. I have been making some great contacts in the Houston music scene as well as with historians in Houston and in the communities where the photos were taken.

What did you submit for the grant application, and did you know you were going to win?

I spent a lot of time at local blues clubs in Houston during the 90’s, and now I want to share these images as a way to remember all these Houston legends. For the grant application, I submitted a project proposal centered around my collection of Houston blues community photographs. My goal is to organize, digitize and donate these images to the Houston Blues Archives, preserving their historical value.

Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Photo by Jeff Fitlow

I did not think I would win but submitted the proposal anyway. I was happy the judges were more interested in my project than my grammar. 

How do you plan to utilize the grant money?

My original goal was to make large prints of select images. I have now decided to make a portfolio or book. From there I would love to find ways to share these memories with the art, music and historical communities of Houston.

Can you share more about your passion for documenting the Houston blues community?

During my early years as a photographer in Houston, I loved going out to tiny clubs and listening to the blues. I wanted to give something back and enjoyed the challenge of shooting black and white film with available light. I always returned with prints for the musicians. The Houston blues community was very welcoming and I have made some lifelong friends. 

Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Photo by Jeff Fitlow

A few years later I went to a talk by Jazz photographer Herman Leonard. I always loved his Jazz photos from New York in the 40’s and 50’s. He talked about how he had all those negatives put away for many years before he started really doing anything with them. I decided to do the same and now I am ready to print and share my unseen work.

What are your plans for the Houston blues project?

We have an archivist on campus, Norie Guthrie. Guthrie started the Houston Blues Archive housing all things Houston Blues here on campus. They have had many donations of photos, books, recordings, etc. All of my negatives are locked up in a vault there. I go over whenever I have free time and look through one box at a time on their lightables. When I have finished selecting negatives they will scan them for me. I would like to create a really nice portfolio with the PhotoShelter grant money. I can then take the portfolio around to come up with other ways to share and use these images.

How do you envision your project benefiting the Houston blues community and preserving its legacy?

By digitizing and donating my collection to the Houston Blues Archives, I’m really excited to create a resource for researchers, historians and anyone who’s into the Houston blues scene. It’s all about preserving the legacy of this community and making sure we truly understand the cultural impact of the blues on Houston’s history. We’re talking about honoring these incredible musicians, their contributions and the profound influence they’ve had on the city’s cultural fabric.

Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Jeff has truly captured the essence of the Houston blues community, and with the PhotoShelter UPAA grant, he’s making sure their legacy lives on. It’s not just about making beautiful images, but also preserving the impact these musicians had on Houston. Jeff’s story is a kick of inspiration for photographers and artists everywhere, reminding us how important it is to celebrate and protect our cultural heritage. 

To learn more about Jeff’s work, check out his website: Jeff Fitlow Photography

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