An alum and teacher sparked a love of photography in Keith Walters ’11, leading him to Geneseo and his life’s work.
By Keith Walters ’11
The idea of ripple effects has always intrigued me: how one action can have a profound impact on the future. My ripple effect began in the early 1990s. I was only 5, but I like to think that’s when my journey to Geneseo began.
During that time, 1995, a man named Gregory Ahlquist graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a degree in history and a minor in medieval studies. His undergraduate education was shaped by some legendary professors — Bill Cook, Ron Herzman and Wes Kennison, to name a few. His experience at Geneseo called him to become a teacher, and by stroke of luck, he taught high school history and humanities at my hometown high school, Webster Thomas.
You know where this is going, right?
Fast forward to 2007. Mr. Ahlquist tells our senior humanities class we have guest speakers scheduled. In walk professors Cook and Herzman to share Dante’s works. I’d be lying if I said I remembered anything they talked about that day. I do recall the eccentric colors of Professor Cook’s outfit and the immaculate “drip” of Herzman’s three-piece (if you know, you know). More importantly, I remember how impressive it was that college professors would visit their former student’s class.
How weird it is to think that I would be colleagues (and neighbors!) with these people one day, but that comes in a bit.
As we rounded out senior year, Mr. Ahlquist assigned a project that consisted of three components — a research paper, a presentation and community service. He flapped a transparency paper onto a projector, and I scanned the list of artists, writers and musicians to choose from. None of the names resonated with me, until I saw the “photography” category — and Ansel Adams.
I knew nothing about Adams, but Mr. Ahlquist suggested I see his exhibition at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. What impressed me most about Adams’ images was not so much the photos themselves (of course, they were beautiful) but the impact they had on society. From that visit, and my own research, I learned that in the late 19th and early 20th century, photography was primarily used as a tool for documentation and not so much as a form of artistic expression. Adams worked for years to flip that narrative and became one of America’s most beloved landscape photographers. His work and advocacy for the natural lands that he loved to photograph were instrumental in some of the first preservation actions by the federal government.
The idea that photography as art could lead to change inspired me to pick up a camera.
I convinced my parents to expedite my graduation gift in the form of a point-and-shoot camera, so I could photograph local lands recently designated as forever wild by a land trust and host a public showing to get the word out about these amazing spaces. With help from a local pro photographer, we selected a series of my images and proudly displayed them at our local community center. It was my first exhibition!
Looking back, it’s quite clear to me that Mr. Ahlquist’s senior project changed the trajectory of my life.
I carried my newfound passion for photography to Geneseo. Though I was a business administration major, photography consumed my free time. I photographed for The Lamron and the college’s Office of Communications and Marketing, covering events campuswide. Just about every time I saw the blood-red glow of the sunset through my room window, I would rush to the gazebo, camera in hand. I completed a photojournalism internship at a local newspaper that summer, and that experience helped me land a job as Geneseo’s college photographer nearly 11 years ago.
This job allows me to photograph many things, but my passion is still rooted in capturing the beauty around us and sharing it with others so they, too, may appreciate and protect it.
The ripple that started long ago has brought me much more than a career and a passion. It’s brought me a family and a community, and I cherish that most of all. I met my wife Joanna and some of my closest friends at Geneseo. Since graduating, Joanna and I have settled into the village and started a family. We’ve become involved in the community, and now we’re sending out ripples of our own. Who knows where they’ll lead, or who they’ll inspire?
Keith Walters ’11 has been the college photographer since 2011 and runs an art gallery with his wife, Joanna Duell Walters ’13, on Main Street in the Village of Geneseo. He loves exploring the outdoors and sharing what he finds.