Jerry Lake

lake Professor Jerry Lake once disassembled a log cabin in Pennsylvania to remove a five-foot-tall coal-fired furnace. He brought it back to Virginia, where it now heats his house. The one he built himself.

A few years ago, Lake drove all the way to Minnesota to buy an enlarger that uses 8×10 photographic negatives. “It barely fit into the pick-up and it weighed 1,200 pounds, so the pick-up truck is driving S-curves all the way back,” Lake remembers.

Lake built his house with a 14-foot ceiling in the second-floor darkroom so that the enlarger would fit properly. What he didn’t take into account, however, was getting the machine into the house. He and some friends had to take a chainsaw to the railing on the porch before they could get it inside.

In addition to the beautiful house that has taken about 15 years to complete, Lake also has embellished his environmentally-friendly farm with a greenhouse and two lakes stocked with numerous types of fish. He and his wife Toni grow spinach, corn, collards and six different types of hybrid tomatoes in the garden.

Lake also created orchards, hay fields and pastures where a dozen beef cattle graze. He tells people he once traded one of his cows for 63 pieces of safety glass.

“It’s a self-sustaining farm,” Lake says.

While finishing the house, Lake lived first in a tent, then moved into a trailer. It took him 10 years to make the house livable. In an attempt to justify the lengthy building time, Lake says he was imitating Frank Lloyd Wright; “getting to know the land before I built my house.”

To pay for the property, Lake worked two jobs. He taught photography at both the Corcoran School of Art and GW.


Now the head of the photography department at GW, Lake has worked with students for more than 20 years.

Lake says that he stopped working at Corcoran because it was “too chaotic.” He was disappointed that the Corcoran was “taking the students’ money and putting it into the (Corcoran) Gallery,” he says.

“I thought, `I’m going to go to an institution where I’ll have less problems, where things will work better,’ ” he recalls. “I found out that there’s no real difference in any of the institutions. They’re basically all the same.”

According to Lake, it was the generosity of the (Robert and Clarice) Smiths that gave him and his students a “phenomenal institution to work in.” The fine arts building in the Academic Center took its name from the family.

Lake started teaching at GW before the construction of the new building. He had a vision for the building’s design and safety systems, so he drew a set of blueprints and plans. The contractor, who tried to incorporate everything Lake wanted, eventually bought Lake’s blueprints for the second-floor photo department.

In 1976 Lake had a great group of students, he says, but today he enjoys teaching more than ever before.

“The students I have now are the best students I’ve ever had,” he says. “They’re really dedicated to their work and, in my mind, they’re really pushing the visual frontiers.”

Student of the Succession

Lake, too, was once a student. He took his first photography course from a man named George Nan at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I didn’t have any interest in photography until I took this course,” Lake explains. He adds that it was Nan who had the “greatest impact” on him.

Nan studied photography at the Chicago Institute of Art with such prominent photographers as Aaron Siskand and Harry Callahan.

While Nan was able to provide Lake with the art portion of photography, it was Clarence White Jr. who taught Lake the technical side.

Lake earned his master’s degree at Ohio University, where White was a professor. White taught the photography process, photo chemistry and a theory called the Zone System.

White also relayed stories of photographers like Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen and his father, Clarence White. Together, the photographers brewed an important movement called the Photo Secession.

“Clarence White Jr. was sitting on Stieglitz’s lap when the Photo Secession was actually being hatched out,” Lake says. “He knew exactly what they were thinking about, what they were saying, what their reservations were and how strongly they felt about it.”

The other side of the podium

Decades later, Lake has earned high words from his own students.

“Jerry’s the reason I came to school here,” senior Rob Granoff says. “He’s a true artist.”

Professor Ronald Beverly now works side-by-side with Lake, but once upon a time he too was a student of Lake’s. “He takes his profession very seriously and puts his students above all else,” Beverly says. “He gives 200 percent to every student.”

When describing their professor, Lake’s students mention the vast amount of knowledge the teacher has packed into his head.

In one breath Lake can rattle off the exact amounts of ingredients used to make D-25 film developer. In the next, Lake may expound on Maryland’s water problems. Lake, incidentally, knew the cause of the contamination – chicken manure – months before The Washington Post reported on it.

“I tend to remember certain things, but I forget many others,” Lake says.

“Like people’s names?” asks senior Robyn Twomey.

“That’s exactly right,” Lake says.

In his urban classroom, country creeps into Lake’s speech. “You should shoot where you live,” he tells his class. He says morosely that students here “wake up and there’s snow on their concrete.”

Zooming ahead

Lake wants his students to understand two things before they leave GW. First, they must appreciate photography as art.

Second, his students should understand the photographic process. “No matter what happens concerning technology, you will never be shut-out if you understand the process,” Lake lectures. “If you know how to, you can take any idea and reach it.

“Technique and knowledge is the photographer’s palette. If you can’t control the palette, you won’t be a great artist,” Lake adds.

Lake doesn’t believe computers will replace photography. “As computers replace the silver/color prints as a means for communication, these prints will be more highly valued,” he predicts.

Lake says teaching is the most important thing to him, but he still has time for projects on his farm. In the next year or two, he plans to build an air conditioning system using the spring-fed lake behind his house.

Since the most expensive part of regular air conditioning is the electric compressor, Lake plans to use a small pump that will push 60 degree air into his house from the lake. At the same time the pump would aerate dead water in the lake.

The pump will adhere to his standards of efficiency and energy conservation. It will be a “two-for,” something Lake gets excited just talking about.

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