Student Union: Room 620

Room 620
Joliet Central High School
Joliet, Illinois

Class Acts
It’s a small magazine—51⁄2x41⁄4 inches, 16 black-and-white pages—handmade, unpretentious and totally engaging, charming even. Room 620 is published quarterly during the school year by the students in Joe Baltz’s third-year photography class at Joliet Central High.

Years ago when the budget for photo magazines in the classroom was cut to nothing, Joe thought up Room 620. “I wanted the students to be familiar with magazines so they’d submit their photos,” Joe says, “so I set them to work doing everything—generating ideas, interviewing, writing, photographing—to produce a theme-related magazine once each quarter as a showcase for their work.” The magazine was also a way of showing them how all the elements come together and how photographs work with text, layout, and design to make a magazine.

Crossed Hands © Amanda Hauser

Room 620 was designed so that each copy consists of only two pieces of paper, printed both sides on classroom printers, cut, folded, and hand stapled. The entire production of 300 copies is done by the students. The original design for the magazine was created by Joe’s daughter, Emilie, a graphic designer.

Esperame (Wait For Me) © Claudia Melendez

The theme of the March, 2011, issue was “Hands.” Normally for the four issues of a school year Joe will contribute two theme ideas, the students likewise, but the 2010-2011 class—“a very forceful group,” Joe says—came up with all four. “We started by going to Google Images and searching ‘hands.’ We talked about the clichés. I said, ‘This is what everyone automatically thinks when they hear the word ‘hands,’ so this is what I don’t want to see. We have to think beyond the cliché.’ I asked them to give me some thoughts on the concept and then write out an explanation of an image. They started to explore different images and image ideas.”

Creepy Crawler © Damaris Hernandez

In fact, for each issue the students explore a creative process that brings images, words, graphics, and designs together. “My premise is that you can have the most brilliant idea, but until you put that idea into physical form, you have nothing,” Joe says. “Art doesn’t become real until it’s viewed by others. You have to have an audience.”

The audience for Room 620 is the students and faculty of Joliet Central High, of course, but Joe has the wider world in mind as well. He sends every issue to, among others, the governor of Illinois, the state’s senators, the Archbishop of Chicago, the President of the United States, and the Pope. He even sent one issue to the editors of Shutterbug. “I send it everywhere,” he says. “Do they read it, or even see it? I don’t know, but I want the students to know they should do good work because look who’s getting the magazine.”

Barred Out © Kristin Barnhardt

Photo courses at the school start with black-and-white darkroom and move on to pinhole cameras, 35mm, medium format, 4x5, and digital. About 450 students each year go through the photo program.

For students who are interested in pursuing photography beyond high school, Joe has some real-world advice. “I tell them to look at it realistically in terms of what college courses cost. What they can do is take courses at local junior colleges—the expenses are not as great and the photo courses are quite good; get a minor in photography at least, and if they’re really serious, go to Chicago or New York and start hanging out with cool people. Networking is more important than anything.”

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