Holly Through the Lens

Student photography informs architectural design in a joint venture between RTA and the Holly School District in rural Colorado.

Holly is a wind-swept rural farming town on the border of Kansas and Colorado. The tiny community has survived devastating tornadoes and long dry seasons. Last year, Holly chose RTA to master plan and design their brand new school facility. As a joint venture between RTA Inc. and the Holly School District, RTA Intern, Allison Johnson, taught a short course in photography to students who will one day walk the halls of a new RTA-designed Holly School Campus.

Why Photography?
In addition to her work as an Architectural Intern, Allison has a passion for capturing life with her camera. She explains, "What I love about photography is that ability to capture something and demonstrate the way you see the world. Photography is not just learning how to expose, compose and frame a shot. Photography is seeing what is around you, and learning how to capture it. The Holly students learned how to see, and in turn, helped RTA see the Holly community through their eyes."

The Goal.
Twelve junior high and high school students, and two faculty from the school participated in a voluntary class that met 3 times during RTA's Design Advisory Group process. Allison's goal for the class was two-fold:

  • To teach students and review fundamentals of photography and to inspire them as young photographers.
  • For Holly students to teach the RTA design team about Holly, Colorado and ultimately give regional insight to the team about Holly culture, architecture, traditions and community.

The class began by exploring the fundamentals of photography. On March 25, they set out down the streets and sidewalks. The group took a photo walk of Holly.

Story Walk.
Allison describes their photo walk as an unfolding of stories. "Armed with our cameras and tennis shoes, we walked the streets of Holly. The students pointed out their homes and I met some of their grandparents; we visited a new foal at the large animal vet clinic and we walked the path of the tornado that devastated Holly three years prior. I was told to go to “Jack’s” for the best chicken fried steak in the country.

I learned of their resilience and how the town had banded together in the face of tragedy.

They told these stories and, when asked, began to see the places in town that are regularly overlooked because they never change. Rarely are people asked to look. That happens to us all, doesn’t it? Though there is irony in this, we rarely see the things we look at every day."

Insight for the Architects.
The photos taken by the photography class helped the RTA team to see deeper into the community. Allison observed the way the stories and images brought insight to the group of "outsiders" in a way that would help them understand and create a building that is appropriate, sensitive, and inspired by the community and culture of Holly. "These photographs, along with the residents of Holly, welcome us in to a place of familiarity and comfort. In this process, Holly now feels like an old friend, rather than a new acquaintance. I am confident this familiarity only helps us serve our client better."

A New Way of Seeing.
For the last class in this series, Allison pinned up each student’s 10 photos and had a class conversation. She explains, "We discussed what was artistically strong about certain images, and what might improve others. We discussed the subjects of the photos and what stories the photos told us about their community. We divided up these topics and each student presented two to three photos to the Design Advisory Group."

In the end, the students came to understand more than just the mechanics of their cameras. Allison sums it all up this way:

"They continued to amaze me. One student said, “I didn’t realize how much we have here.” They stepped back and saw how much their town had to offer. They saw the beauty in the seemingly mundane. They saw their town with new eyes.

They discovered this through a lens."