As her career would have it, Jill Barber Marsh has climbed ladders to get the perfect shot. She has also waited patiently behind basketball hoops and learned more than she ever thought she needed to know about muscle cars.
Marsh, born and raised in Johnstown, has been a photographer since she fell in love with the medium during a darkroom photography class at the University of Houston in 1991. At the time, she was majoring in education.
“My printmaking professor said, ‘You should try darkroom photography. I think you would really enjoy it,’” Marsh said. “I tried it and said, ‘Holy cow — I so love this. I’m not going to be a teacher, I’m going for the fine art degree!”
Marsh gained valuable experience shooting weddings and even accepted a freelance position with the Houston Chronicle. Her human interest photography for the newspaper gave her an opportunity to mingle with people of all different backgrounds and personalities, including those who didn’t quite trust the media.
“One time I had to shoot a carnival — one of those old carnivals that moves from place to place,” she said. “At the time, there was a big thing about how unsafe the rides were. So I’m taking pictures and I have my ‘Houston Chronicle’ thing around my neck and this guy tells me I can’t take pictures there. I said, ‘Let me talk to your boss.’ My dad used to work for the carnival when he was a kid and he knew carny talk, so I started talking to the boss in carny talk. He couldn’t believe it. Then he said, ‘Lady, you go take all the pictures you want.’”
In addition to her work for the Houston Chronicle, Marsh also did all the PR photography for Randalls (a large southern grocery store chain), shot muscle cars for a car sales newspaper and took on sports coverage for a local sports paper.
It was hard for Marsh not to get a kick out of the muscle car gig: “The guys wanted to tell me that they had imported the seats from Italy and they were this kind of leather and the steering wheel came from this place . . .”
While Marsh took on some fun assignments, she also agreed to take on a challenging opportunity.
“As I was finishing my degree, my darkroom professor told me about a volunteer opportunity, Literacy Through Photography, being done in Houston. Houston schools were taking at-risk children from their classrooms and having a photographer and a resident poet from California work with them,” she said.
“My school was Edison Middle School in Houston’s barrio district, which had such poverty and crime and drug use that many times I feared for my life driving there. My first day there, I was filled with trepidation. I was the only blonde person in the building. The principal and vice principal were both armed and wore handcuffs on their belts. I wasn’t sure just what I was getting into.”
Marsh soon found, however, that she had come to the right place.
“I had the only school that had a darkroom, which was wonderful. I had 12 children — all from Mexico — who spoke very little English and I spoke a tiny bit of Spanish. But once we all got into that little darkroom and they started learning how to develop their own film in complete darkness and how to make their own prints, everyone fell into a special friendship based on creativity and love of the medium,” she said.
“The stories those children told me about their lives were heart-crushing. I wanted so much for them to succeed with their photography and writing; they astounded me with their creativity and love. As the school year wound down, they were told that their photos and writing were going to be displayed at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston during the International PhotoFest held there every year. They had never heard of the convention center, nor did they know what an important photography show it is every year and how many famous, world-renowned photographers show their work there. The school districts brought all of the photography students from all the (participating) schools for the opening. My students were spellbound. The kids were so excited when they got to see their work and see photographers’ work from all over the world. Their mouths were just hanging open.”
Marsh was proud to say that the Literacy Through Photography program still exists within the Houston school district.
“It’s still going strong to this day,” she said. “I was lucky to have been involved.”
After approximately 20 years spent in Houston, plus a few in Arizona and Florida, Marsh and her husband, John, decided to move back to Johnstown. Four out of their five children were already living here, and they figured that the cost of living would be much cheaper. That, however, didn’t make the transition any easier for her.
“I enjoyed everything about Houston. There were things to do culturally: museums, art galleries, festivals. I just loved the whole big city thing,” Marsh said. “When we first returned to Johnstown (six years ago), I felt as though I’d made a major mistake moving back. I thought this town was still going downhill fast, and that there was nothing here for the youth of this city, or anyone else for that matter. I was so wrong.”
So wrong, in fact, that she now considers living in Johnstown “a huge blessing.” What’s ironic, too, is that she’s currently doing in Johnstown almost the exact same thing she was doing in Houston.
“I was asked to speak at The Greater Johnstown Camera Club about my experience with the children in Texas and later was asked to be a volunteer through AmeriCorps, setting up a photography program for children in Johnstown similar to Literacy through Photography in Houston,” she said.
The result is the Goodwill GoodGuides Camera and Creative Writing Club, which meets on Wednesday evenings over the course of six weeks. This Wednesday marked the beginning of a new six-week session. While the two previous sessions were held in Moxham and Johnstown, the new sessions are to take place primarily in Steve Purich’s “Tranquility Gardens Nature Retreat and Learning Center.” Part of the center’s mission statement states that the place strives to “create a unique retreat in the woods for teaching young children the meaning of life and the opportunity for self-discovery through nature and the arts.”
One evening, Marsh even plans to take the children to a creative writing class at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.