Getting the picture 

Photo gallery opening at Austin Polytech commemorates school’s founders.

June 01, 2009

Photo by Peter LeGrand


When Austin Polytech opened in the fall of 2007, Principal Bill Gerstein had a dilemma. The school, on the second floor of the old Austin High School campus, had large blank walls. The architect who did the redesign suggested some large-scale photographs, and Gerstein had an idea.


“As part of how we wanted to create a positive space on the second floor, we wanted to have these photographs of people who helped found the school – including students,” Gerstein said.


That idea became “The Austin Portraits,” a photo gallery, that will have its formal opening Thursday, June 4, with a dedication ceremony at 6 p.m.


The project took off because Gerstein was acquainted with Peter LeGrand, a photographer who is also on the faculty at Columbia College. Gerstein’s daughter went to high school with LeGrand’s stepdaughter, and LeGrand’s son also taught at Austin Polytech. As a result, Gerstein was familiar with a project LeGrand had done where he took 20-by-24-inch Polaroid photos of people who had made an impact on the culture of Columbia. He had a similar idea in mind for Austin Polytech, and called LeGrand, who agreed to do the work pro bono.


“It sounded like a fascinating project,” LeGrand said.


A small committee led by Gerstein selected about 40 people, including students, faculty and staff members of the Center for Community and Labor Research, which helped found the school. LeGrand started taking photographs in the fall of 2007 in Austin Polytech’s auditorium, and ended up taking about 75 pictures of each person. Every person LeGrand photographed is represented in the Austin Portraits.


“I had a ball with it,” LeGrand said. “The kids were probably the most fun. They were voguing and acting out, but then you’ve got to get them to a place where you’ve got to get them to work with you.”


After a long editing process to select which photos would be used, the pictures went up last spring, but Gerstein said the school had always intended to have a formal opening.


The color photos are posed, but allow their subjects’ natural personalities to shine through. Response to the pictures has been positive.


“Visitors love them,” Gerstein said. “The students are very proud, and there are some community people in there who feel like they were thanked for their involvement with the school.”


Still, there is more empty wall space at Austin Polytech, and LeGrand has talked about taking more photos.


“We hope so,” Gerstein said.