He also described a favored technique: Compose a picture then wait for something to happen, preferably something unusuala tip he learned from his father.
So to demonstrate, Abell now crouched beside a street lamp outside a Starbucks. Using a borrowed camera, he framed a sidewalk scene of traffic lights and pedestrians, explaining that skateboarders would come, followed by midgets on skateboards, to complete the picture.
"Look," he said, with a dash of theater. "There's a couple having a fight." A student begged to differ. "They're happy," Abell asked in mock disbelief, playing to his audience.
Still, his lesson was clear: Even an ordinary sidewalk becomes an ever-changing stage cast with surprising characters. The trick is to stop and watch for itand have your camera ready.
The group then walked several blocks north to Dupont Circle, a broad park at the center of a busy traffic roundabout that draws dog-walkers, chess-players, idle bench-sitters, and harried pedestrians.
Abell bid students to approach the marble fountain that anchors the center of the park. Then he blocked out an imaginary frame with his hands, much like a director or tai chi master, and enjoined the class to walk backward with him until branches of the overarching willow oaks dipped pleasingly into the top of scene.
A moment passed. Then a woman in a powder blue, polyester pantsuit carrying a black umbrella strode through the imaginary frame.
"If I were doing this assignment, I'd make this my headquarters," Abell said approvingly. "There is a world happening off this circle."
Abell, who never took a photography course in his life, said he would have "given anything" to attend the LEAP photo camp at the start of his career nearly 35 years ago. Now, it hardly seems necessary.
Students in the LEAP initiative are rather accomplished themselves. The seniors and college-bound freshmen come from public high schools that rank among the city's best academic and arts magnet programs. Students' extra-curricular activities include stints on high school newspapers, debating societies, soccer and basketball teams, student government, and honor societies.
Richardson starts classes at Stanford University this fall. Fellow graduates will attend the University of Virginia, Amherst College, and other leading schools around the country.
Asked what he thought of the photo camp, Johnny Valdez, 16, a keen science student who says he would like to study "anything ending in 'ology'" at a New York City college next year, answered: "I love it."
Lindsay Totty, 17, an aspiring writer and fan of Japanese animation who draws his own comic strip, "Lucky and Guy," said of the program: "It's been a pretty interesting experience, especially with the photojournalism camp."
"Sam Abell brought an interesting look at photography," said Totty, who heads to Amherst College this fall. "I didn't think that much was involved before. Now I know."
Kirsten Elstner served as the program's full-time instructor during its five-week run. A working freelance photographer herself, Elstner brought experience to the job, both as a photojournalist and as a teacher.
For the past two years, she's run Vision Workshops, an Annapolis, Maryland-based program she founded two years ago with New York Times colleagues Paul Hosefros and Stephen Crowley. The program teaches photography and writing skills to inner-city and minority youth from low-income and at-risk families.
Crowley said the LEAP photo camp can teach students skills that apply to how they live and view the world since "everything is a composition."
"If they can discover their inner creativity, find their own creative self through this program, they can take it anywhere," he said.
The admittedly shy Richardson said later she's learned a lot from the program: "I personally gained more courage to go up to people and say, OK, I'm going to take your picture [then] sit down and talk to people I'd normally walk by."
One can only wait to see what skills develop among next year's class.
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