For David Oxton, award-winning photographer and beloved Govs teacher, it’s not just about the trains in Trackside, his latest project recently profiled in Marblehead Magazine. “The thing I’m interested in is celebrating these people,” says Oxton.
For Oxton, the trains are background to the real subject of his work—the normal things people do in their backyards as trains scream past: play, garden, work, watch the sunset. “I first wondered who lived so close to the tracks, what their lives were like. I wanted unscripted performances, a celebration of the people, not the trains, a semblance of ordinariness.”
The images are magnificent—cross-sections of lives in shadows and light, juxtapositions of daily existence feet away from the rush of metal.
To create them, Oxton drove through trackside towns, gathered addresses, and wrote letters asking strangers to help him ‘make a picture.’
“I don’t get it,” he laughs, “I’m slightly shy, but I’ve always taken pictures this way, celebrating people, asking strangers to help.”
Thirty years ago as a freelance commercial photographer, he captured portraits of VIPs of banks and hospitals and other “people of position.”
“I used all my tricks to flatter them and make them look just right.”
While he enjoyed the work, he wanted to show people differently. “I wanted to capture people doing regular things,” he says. “I’d approach strangers on the street and ask to ‘borrow’ them. I’d say, ‘Would you help me make this portrait?’ And they’d perform their own portrait. It was wonderful and endearing.”
Oxton makes art by connecting with people. For every photograph he takes, there’s a story. When shooting Trackside, he met a man who insisted on buying a house next to the train, as its sound and regularity brought him comfort.
He applies the same philosophy to his students at the Academy—one of narrative and connection. “Kids fall in love with photography,” he says. “All the pictures they take tell stories.”
The key to teaching photography to students, according to Oxton, is to let students tell the stories they want to tell.
“Often, they don’t even know what stories they want to tell. So I start with a question: do you want to photograph people or landscapes? We take it from there.”
Oxton chuckles as he recalls a student who walked into class having no idea what he wanted to do and left at the end feeling confident and excited about shooting empty wet city streets at dawn.
He wants his students to follow their curiosity, to learn what draws them in.
“They all enjoy it,” he says, “even the more reluctant ones. I give them cameras, some of them use their phones. We have a dark room. I offer the opportunity to learn the more technical parts of photography, but I don’t always focus on it.”
That’s a lesson he learned early in his career from some of his best students.
“I’m self-taught. When I started in the classroom 28 years ago, I was ill-equipped to teach so I focused on technical things: f-stops, shutter speeds, lighting. All those things are important, sure, but the kids who did the best on the tests didn’t always take the best pictures.”
One of his best photography students tested poorly because she stressed too much about the technical pieces. “She knew what pictures she wanted to take though,” says Oxton. At Govs, she made pictures that earned her two Scholastic Art Awards.
Another, who went to the Yale Graduate School of Photography, understood the technical pieces perfectly but chose to focus only on timing and framing, so he could take active shots.
These experiences stayed with Oxton—he doesn’t let the technical parts of photography bog students down and often teaches the timing and framing concepts first. It’s proven not only an effective teaching strategy but an exemplary one.
“When I first started teaching here, Govs was not known for the arts. As more students took fine arts classes, we established a bit of a name for ourselves. For twenty years, we won a lot of Scholastic Art Awards and other national photography awards. We had a ten-year stretch (still in it, actually) when we consistently won more awards than any other independent high school in Massachusetts. Lots of famous photographers have spoken to my students,” he says.
He rattles off a list of big names in the field including Pulitzer Prize winners, Guggenheim Fellowship winners, and prolific authors.
Last year, Oxton says he “lucked out” when Pete Souza, President Obama’s White House photographer, and Matt Eich agreed to Zoom with his students. “They really got a sense of what these high-profile photographers do, which is something that not many high school students have the opportunity to hear about first-hand,” he says.
Even during the pandemic, Oxton has already contacted several acclaimed photographers to speak to his classes this year, one a Govs grad who has published work in The New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Oxton remains committed to encouraging his students “to produce good, honest, bold work regardless of the devices they use or the way their images are presented to the world.” He’ll likely stick with digital photography until it’s safe to get students into the dark room again.
He also has another personal project in the works: chapels in cemeteries. “I started visiting cemeteries and noticed these little structures,” he says. “They’re fascinating.” He smiles.
“These projects—Trackside, the cemeteries—they keep me fresh. I love the teaching. I love having my own thing. I like to explain to my students that we’re all doing the same thing here, we’re all just trying to help each other create work that we can respond to.”
He shares a story of a recent student critique. “The student’s photo went up on the screen and the air went out of the room. You could feel the brief jealousy, which happens when classmates see work that they really admire. And then they lavished praise. That one went ‘Bang!’ It made a noise,” he says.
“I love that. We all live for those moments, in photography, in the classroom and in life, the ‘oh wow, would you look at that!’ moments. We feel things from images, we want to do that, to feel that, to move others.”
Oxton certainly does.