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Spotlight On: John Halpern, Photographer and Discovery Festival Volunteer

John Halpern is a photographer and repeat volunteer at RSF’s Discovery Festival. His Camera Obscura activity is a perennial favorite.

John HalpernTell us about yourself: where you are from, your background, education, how you came to Rhinebeck and what you do here.
I grew up in northern westchester county a very long time ago. I attended college in rural Ohio (Kenyon College) where I was a Fine Arts Major. The wide open spaces of rural Ohio influenced my artistic vision. I grew up in an area similar to Rhinebeck, trees in every direction. The Ohio landscape of clear-cut large farms offered wide sweeping vistas where you could see for miles in any direction.

When I returned to the NYC area after college I began to show my landscape photography in galleries in the NYC metro area. Based on my landscape work record companies began to hire me to shoot album covers and tour books for rock + roll bands and performers. After the birth of our son, Jake (who is a sophomore at RHS), my wife Liz and I moved north from NYC, first to Cold Spring NY, and in 2008 to Rhinebeck. Most of my work continues to be based in NYC, but locally I photograph for the area hospitals including Vassar Brothers, Northern Dutchess and Benedictine Hospital.

How long have you been involved with the RSF and how did you get involved?
Liz and I got involved almost from the very start of the RSF. Jen and Ali Hammoud’s son Jed is a classmate of Jake’s. We were excited when the Hammouds started the RSF and we’ve tried our best to support the RSF through volunteering at various events. For several years Liz created posters for the early RSF galas and newsletters; I’ve presented my Camera Obscura demo at all the RSF Discovery Festivals since the first.

Tell us about the Camera Obscura demo. How did the idea for it come about? How many years have you done it?
I wanted to present something photography-related that would be exciting and eye-opening and relate on a scientific level, not just an artistic one. The phenomena of observing an image projected through a small hole into a dark room can be traced back over 2,000 years! And it’s perfect for Discovery Festival: no fancy equipment, batteries, or expensive lenses needed. Just a darkened room with a small hole facing outdoors. I believe this will be the 5th time I’ve presented the Camera Obscura at “Disco” and I still get excited each time I do it. Even I can’t believe that it actually works! A full color, upside-down image of the outside faintly appears on the wall of our darkened classroom. It’s like looking at a strange, real-time movie of the high school parking lot.

What kind of reactions have you gotten from kids over the years? Any consistencies? Any surprises?
I’d like to think that the kids come away from the demo with a better understanding about how cameras – and their iPhones – work, as well as their own eyes. In our age of electronic instant magic, this is a simple and bare-bones demonstration of the natural properties of light. The parents are always the ones whose jaws drop to the floor first when they see and realize what they’re viewing. Their amusement transfers to the kids as well, especially if they see an upside-down car or person moving across the wall.

What inspires you to come back each year?
While I always enjoy showing my demo, Liz and I want to do whatever we can to support the RSF. Our son loves science and is a direct recipient of all the wonderful things the foundation has brought to our schools; the tech classroom and clubs, the computers and scientific instruments that have been bought with the money raised. We’re glad that our small school district is able to provide kids with a first-rate science experience and equipment.