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Artist-in-residence encouraging students to re-imagine 'stock' photos

Ben Aqua's "The Fourth Dimension," 2008
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Ben Aqua

"The Fourth Dimension"

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3/1/2011 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts & Humanities Editor | 217-.333-0568;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The first time Ben Aqua was offered the chance to sell one of his photographs as a “stock” illustration, he wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted. After all, in the publishing trade, the term “stock photography” has traditionally referred not to fine art but rather to generic images that can be used to illustrate “soft” news articles, such as stories about lifestyle trends, season events, or health advice. Aqua, a photographer and new media artist, has participated in exhibitions in Paris, Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia. Did he really want to sell his artistic photographs to illustrate a lifestyle story in a German fashion magazine?

He decided the answer was yes.

“I took it as a bizarre compliment,” he says. “In a way, I was flattered that they would want to juxtapose my images with content that is so contextually far-fetched from my original intention.”

Aqua, who lives in Austin, Texas, is coaching photography students at the University of Illinois in the art of stock photography. He is the inaugural artist-in-residence at Figure One, in collaboration with the School of Art and Design’s annual lecture series. Residents are asked to give a public lecture, run a workshop with students, and produce new work while they are in Champaign.

Aqua’s workshop is in conjunction with a “special topics” class taught by photography professor Linda Robbennolt. The class includes 12 photographers and six graphic design students. To simulate a real-world professional situation, the students have taken on the College of Applied Health Sciences as a “client.”

Jimmy Luu, a professor of graphic design, says the students are assigned a different theme every week – “aging, or beauty, or people being active, things like that.” Each photographer shoots 500 images, and the designers edit the photographs. “They are building up an image bank for that college, to be displayed in the hallways or used in their publications.”

Since Feb. 22, Aqua has been working with the students at various locations around Champaign-Urbana on an assignment to shoot portraits.  He is encouraging them to think beyond conventional catalog-style images, to explore what he sees as new trends in stock photography.

 “In the past three or four years, I’ve seen some interesting work that was called stock photography, but to me it was just beautiful photography,” Aqua says. “It’s not all just someone holding a computer and looking frustrated. There are stock photography websites geared toward designers that are more modern, cutting edge, a little avant-garde.”

He mentions fashion-forward companies like Nike that might not even show the product in their advertisement, but rely instead on the image of an athlete. “That’s the kind of anti-marketing marketing that I feel like might really be an asset for the students to work on,” Aqua says. “It’s still stock photography, but it expands that notion.”

The portraits they compose, along with some of Aqua’s work, will be on display Friday (March 4) through April 1 at Figure One, 116 N. Walnut St. in downtown Champaign, with an opening reception 6 to 10 p.m. Friday. The exhibition space is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 6 to 9 p.m. on Fridays. For more information, visit

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