Last week I had the pleasure of photographing the esteemed president of USC, Steven B. Sample, for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Sample will be retiring later this year after nearly two decades of leadership during which time he has been credited with converting the institution from the “University of Second Choice,” to the premier university in Los Angeles. He has also helped the school shake the stigma it has for being located in a rougher part of the city, just three miles south of downtown.
This portrait idea was that of the photo editor, who was inspired by the powerful simplicity of the recent portrait of Roger Ebert for Esquire magazine, which ran last month. There was some concern that Mr. Sample wouldn’t be willing to sit for it because he is battling Parkinson’s disease, a condition he’s had since 2001. However, once I met him and saw the glint in his eye I knew this portrait would be a great way to convey his personality and intelligence and, with only the tiniest bit of convincing, he was happy to sit for me. The rest of the article was about the campus’s relationship with its urban environment. USC was right in the middle of the area most affected by the Rodney King riots in 1992 and, despite being largely unscathed by the destruction, was known for being situated in a dangerous area. I recall this from my own research when considering schools in the mid-90s. UCLA was known for its gorgeous surroundings, and USC was in the ghetto. As I ultimately went to the University of Pittsburgh, it didn’t much affect my decision making, but I can see the obstacle the campus has overcome. To shoot this I spent a good deal of time walking around the campus trying to find angles that show its relationship to the city. Not as easy as it sounds. Like many universities, the school campus is fairly self-contained, so there are only a few angles, at least from ground level, that show the school buildings in relation to its urban surroundings. After several hours of hiking around the campus, I ended up finding this angle from the median of Figueroa Street and was able to show the Galen Center set against part of the downtown skyline.
Oh, and another fun thing that I found out from the accompanying article, was that Sample, who was an electrical engineer, is the guy who invented the keypad that is now on pretty much every microwave in the world. Pretty cool.