Sparkman art teacher instills passion for photography


When photographer Eric Mittman moved to Madison in 2002, he brought with him a passion for the arts and experience teaching in a top-notch scholastic photography program.

“I was an art teacher for a large school in Orlando, Florida. It had nearly 4000 students. I was part of a visual arts program that had five art teachers, each with their own expertise in a different medium,” Mittman said. “I taught all the intro classes –drawing, 2D design, ceramics, art history, landscape design and, of course, photography.”

It did not take Mittman long to find a high school in the area seeking his expertise. Steve Holland, principal of Sparkman High School at the time, hired Mittman as an art teacher. He taught drawing and Art 2D for the first year, and then several students asked him to teach a class on black and white photography. Holland agreed to allow Mittman to venture into photograph, and the rest is history. Sparkman has one of the largest scholastic photography departments in the state.

“Students can take up to six levels of photography during their high school career,” Mittman explained. “They can get certified in Adobe Photoshop as an Adobe Certified Associate, take the Advanced Placement Photography class and/or sit for the national Professional Photographers of America Certified Professional Photographer Exam. Students study all aspects of photography, including studio portraiture, natural lighting, digital manipulation, DSLR camera techniques and more.”

Mittman does not limit his students to the classroom or to the campus to perfect their technique. He takes his students to different places throughout Alabama and Tennessee to capture photo subjects like animals, people, landscapes, motion and architecture. They also take an international trip each year, with the most recent being to Greece, England, Scotland and Costa Rica.

“We visited the Greek island called Santorini. It’s really well-known for its sunsets and can be quite touristy, but I managed to get my students to a small village at the top of the island away from the crowds,” Mittman said. “We climbed to the top of a 16th century monastery and photographed the sun setting into the Aegean. I remember looking around at all of my students, who were intensely focused on setting up their cameras and tripods for the right composition, and thinking this was what teaching is all about.”

Like his students, Mittman became hooked on photography after taking a class on black and white photography while earning his master’s degree in art education from Florida State University. He said he began as an avid landscape photographer but went on to perfect his craft by attending private workshops and conferences, including the Professional Photographers of America, which offers classes in all types of portrait photography. “At this stage of my career, I would say portrait photography is my favorite,” he said. “Capturing a special moment, look, smile or expression is really exciting and is never the same twice, so my mind is always active and engaged.”

In addition to teaching high school students, Mittman holds photography classes for individuals who just want to learn how to use their cameras effectively. He also has a private business photographing seniors, weddings, families and special events. He said what he learns in his business, he uses in the classroom–and with a 100 percent passing rate on the Advanced Placement Photography exam for the past five years, his application of professional standards shows.

Mittman not only teaches his students photography, he ensures their hard work in the classroom can be viewed by the community. Students present their work in the school’s bi-annual photo show held at the end of each semester.“We have over 700 photos on display, and their work is judged by a panel of three professional photographers. We also have many works on display at the Madison County School Board and Career Tech Center, plus a summer show at the Huntsville Museum of Art Children’s Gallery,” Mittman said.

His students have won numerous awards from art organizations, like the Alabama Congressional Art, Alabama State Visual Arts Achievement, National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and Alabama State Superintendent Visual Arts, and he has had National Nikon Photographers Forum finalists. To Mittman, though, the little things matter the most when it comes to achievement.

“One very touching memory is when we first started building the darkroom labs in January 2003,” Mittman said. “It was so much fun to see the students working so hard to create a space together. It took us nearly three months to build the first darkroom. When it was finished, and we exposed our first black and white print together, it was truly magical.”

Mittman’s courses at Sparkman are centered on both print and digital. With major construction in progress on campus, students are shooting strictly digital this year. Mittman said since digital images are instant and do not incur the cost of prints, people sometimes don’t take the time to think about their shots. To him, that is the good thing about film.

“You’d think that with the invention of amazing photo technology, every photograph would look perfect and amazing –but that’s not the case,” Mittman said. “You still need to compose an image to get people to want to look at it, and that takes practice. The cool thing now is that you can practice and see your images instantly, so you can advance along the learning curve a lot faster in some respects.”

Mittman’s wife Kym is a kindergarten teacher at Madison Elementary, and they have three biological children and two adopted girls. With family life, teaching and running a part-time business, Mittman said he does not get to shoot for pleasure as much as he used to do. Client-driven work has replaced his travel landscapes. Yet, he knows that to properly teach his passion, he must allow students to find theirs.

“I learned pretty quickly that most subjects need to be taught in a way that is fun and relevant. That’s not to say it can’t be hard –part of the fun is the challenge,” Mittman said. “Photography can be taught in a way that pushes students to physically explore their neighborhood and community. In this manner, it becomes personally relevant to them.