In the past two years, life has tested Shane Booth. His grandmother died, cancer attacked his father, a tumor burrowed into a friend’s brain, and HIV invaded yet another.
These are the things which inspire Booth’s photographic works.
Booth is a professor of visual arts at Fayetteville State University where he teaches art history and photography to impressionable and willing minds. Although the 30-year-old enjoys the life of a popular professor, Booth has special plans for his photography, plans molded by the suffering of family and friends.
Booth creates what one local art critic called “raw and gritty” photographs that illuminate the ravages of disease. His work is profound and thought-provoking, and he doubts some of them will ever be shown in what he considers to be a conservative community. However, the result he achieves through the medium of photography is much more important to him than any of the technical aspects of photography itself. Booth uses photography as a tool to create art designed to raise the consciousness about issues that are important to him.
Booth wants to be a well-known photographer, enough so that he can raise money, not for personal gain but to benefit and heighten awareness. Booth’s current series of self-portraiture focuses on HIV, a disease that affects millions worldwide.
One of his works, “Dunce Hat,” illustrates the stupidity of acquiring a disease that is easily preventable. Another, “Cover Face,” depicts what many viewers may consider a symbolic crucifixion. A red shroud covers the face and arms. Booth often uses red in his otherwise austere and gray-tone settings to symbolize that HIV is a blood disease.
“I want to raise money, to raise awareness. Your next-door neighbor may have it (HIV) and you would never know,” he said. Booth, whose works have been exhibited from California to Virginia, exhibited his work in Atlanta last summer to raise money for a friend’s cause, an Ethiopian home for children orphaned by AIDS.
It’s the type of event Booth wants his photographs to focus on. “My ultimate goal is to get a book published,” he said. “I won’t stop until I get it. Not a self-published book, anyone can do that. My dream is to go to a bookstore and see a book of my work.”
The book, he said, would contain a photographic biography of a simple, naïve farm boy who moved from the prairies of Nebraska to the Southern port city of Savannah; it’s a journey that altered and shaped the life of Booth the man and Booth the artist.
Booth grew up on a farm near a town of roughly 380 people. Early on, he realized he did not fit the mold of a Nebraska farm boy and stood apart from others his age in that agrarian environment.
In 1996, an art scholarship allowed Booth to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University, a pricey private four-year liberal arts college in the historic section of Lincoln. He took a painting class his freshman year, loved it and envisioned becoming a painter. A photography class the following year, however, changed his mind. With his trusty secondhand Minolta 35mm camera, Booth found himself creating what he calls realistic art. He took a photograph of two friends dressed in 1960s-era bridesmaid dresses in front of his grandmother’s house. Although admittedly not a great photograph, he liked what he saw, what he created and the potential to express himself through art.
“I love the fact that I can make my own little world in photography and it still seems like reality,” he said. “With painting there is a separation between what you paint on a canvas and reality.”
After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan, Booth attended the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design to earn a master’s degree in fine arts. It was an era that Booth calls both excruciating and “the best time of my life” despite his personal and financial struggles.
Unlike Nebraska Wesleyan, where the undergraduate population consists mostly of native Nebraskans, Savannah College of Art and Design has a more diverse student body as well as faculty. Ironically, fellow SCAD students stereotyped him as a Nebraska farm boy. Again, Booth felt he did not fit in.
In Savannah, Booth learned about the darker side of life. Thieves burglarized his home and car, and his 6-foot plus frame dropped to 150 pounds when food became a luxury rather than a necessity. “All my money went to pay for photo supplies. After Savannah, I didn’t have my rose-colored glasses anymore.” The experience in Savannah, Booth said, helped him grow and lose his naivety about the world and life in general.
Booth credits his grandmother, Tillie Silas, for inspiring him and nurturing his love of art. However, Mike Disfarmer played a significant role in influencing Booth’s creative eye for stark portraiture. Disfarmer plied his trade in rural Herber Springs, Ark., in the late 1930s through the 1950s. Born Mike Meyer, he changed his name to Disfarmer to reject and distance himself from his family’s agrarian roots. The eccentric Disfarmer’s use of direct northern lighting is evident in many of Booth’s photographs. Disfarmer’s unflattering portraits of rural Americana inspired Booth, who compiled portraits of what he called “stereotypes” as part of his master’s thesis.
Booth came to Fayetteville from Waynesboro, Ga., to teach a weekly photo class at Fayetteville Technical Community College. His commitment to teaching photography on a college level prompted him to commute to Fayetteville for his weekly class. He picked up additional part-time work so that he could afford the move to Fayetteville where he now shares his home with a “psycho” cat named Bullet.
Fayetteville State University art professor Soni Martin hired Booth to establish a strong photography curriculum. In reviewing his work, Martin saw something she liked in the tall, lanky Booth. “I could tell he was technically proficient and knowledgeable about photography, but he also had a voice, a personal voice,” she said of his work. “He has great ideas and his work is highly original.”
Michele Horn, assistant director and curator of the Fayetteville Museum of Art, agrees there is something special about his work.
As someone who sees thousands of pieces of art displayed in the museum’s galleries, Horn says she is drawn to work that at a first glance has a certain aesthetic and appeal, but on second glance reveals something deeper. “His work does that,” Horn said of Booth’s photographs that have won notice in several juried art competitions at the museum.
For now, Booth enjoys his tenure as professor at FSU, writing new photography curricula that will eventually expand that department’s offerings in the visual arts media.
“I love it there,” he said. “The students are amazing. We’re able to talk about social issues and we get into some real heated discussions.”