Kathryn Mayo, Cosumnes River College
Photo professor uses sabbatical for storytelling, understanding of Selma

Teacher Talk
Photo professor Kathryn Mayo seen in a black and white, wet plate collodion ambrotype photo.

The first thing that gets you is the eyes. A woman stares back at you from a photo taken from what seems like 150 years ago. Instead, it’s the latest masterwork of Kathryn Mayo, a professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.

Mayo, a CalSTRS member since 2001, teaches photography, photo history and alternative imaging processes, among other things. Last year, she took her interest in wet plate collodion, a photographic process from the Civil War era, with her on sabbatical to Selma, Alabama. We Are Selma: The Portrait Project was the result: “A large-scale photographic exploration of the connection between home and identity through portraiture and storytelling.”

Mayo grew up in a small rural farming community just outside Selma. “I had to go to school in town, to the grocery store, the library. I had a huge connection to the town.” But she says there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the place that stands as a symbol and ground zero in the fight for civil rights.

“Selma has such a huge place in American history, and I realized my students didn’t have as great an understanding of where it fits in our history. I felt if I could go back and do some sort of project to give people a better understanding of this place–it would be interesting to investigate.”

Mayo wanted to teach her students about where she was from, incorporating portraiture and storytelling. “I didn’t know how to do it. I did a lot of research, talked to photographers and looked at art to reach the aesthetics of what I wanted to do.”

“There’s so much pain involved in being from a place like Selma. There’s still a lot of work to be done there to bring the white and African American community together,” Mayo said.

The process

Photo professor Kathryn Mayo gets ready to take a portrait.

Advances in digital photography have made taking images a lot more affordable and accessible, Mayo said. When her younger stepbrother was a little boy, he was “just shooting up a storm and he was taking these beautiful images. … (Digital) was cheaper and easier (than film).” Similarly, wet plate collodion opened the door for women and people of color to be photographers. “So I thought it was important to use a process that allowed for greater equity in my discipline.”

Mayo said the advancement of digital photography was comparable to what it was like in the 1850s with the introduction of the wet plate collodion process. The photographic process was used during the Civil War and helped document the Battle of Selma in 1865. So it wasn’t a stretch to use a motto of Civil War to civil rights to connect the battles in Selma.

The wet plate collodion process uses photographic chemicals poured onto a plate of glass. The plate is then placed into a solution of silver nitrate and water, making the plate light sensitive. Once the photo is taken, it has to be processed quickly. Think of it as the 1850s version of instant photography—her subjects can see the images right away.

Mayo uses a large-format camera and an antique lens, which means her subjects—as in the early days of photography—need to sit still due to long exposure times and she can’t take as many images. “It’s the difference of taking 100 photos today and taking an hour to take two photographs. You have to be deliberate about taking your photograph and making it the best it can be.”

One woman she photographed saw her own portrait and compared it to images she saw during a visit to the Selma Interpretive History Center, where visitors get to experience what it was like coming to America on a slave ship. “She said it was like looking at her future ancestors. I wanted to incorporate the sense of history, and to hear her say that, it made me happy.”

Mayo accompanied the photos with audio recordings from her studio portrait sessions. She intended the audio to be heard in the background as viewers looked at her portraits in a gallery.

She had several showings during her sabbatical and gave lectures and a demonstration to an art class. At a Selma exhibition, she invited the community and all the people she photographed. Most of her subjects came and brought their families.

“The project did help in some ways to bring communities together and bring some understanding. I was able to see people reacting to the images and reacting to the audio they heard. It was making a connection with them, creating a little more understanding about the person they were looking at.”

Now she’s back in California, Mayo said she would like to exhibit the project a few more times, and maybe make it a traveling exhibit. “I’m excited to have made work I can see touches people. I would love for there to be a book. But books are hard to get going.”

How did you end up in California? 

Mayo came to California to teach in 2001, first as a sabbatical replacement and then as an adjunct professor at a few community colleges. She was hired full time at Cosumnes River College in 2007.

“When the opportunity came to come to California after grad school, I jumped on it. I think my family was a little scared for me. It was right before I turned 26. But I landed in some really good places, and I found some great mentors who helped me along, and that made the transition easier. Plus I was up for an adventure.”

Mayo thought she would end up teaching on the East Coast or maybe in Atlanta. “I never thought about California. I had the opportunity to interview and I thought why not just interview? When they offered me the job, I felt like I had to make good on it. I’m glad I did.”

Mayo knew she wanted to teach–she didn’t always know what. Studying art, she thought she could’ve been an art teacher in K-12. She even went through the teaching credential program at Sacramento State, intending to teach elementary school. “But plans change,” she said. “I learned I was more suited for teaching older students.”

“One thing the sabbatical taught me is I realized how much I love making art every day, and I don’t want to stop doing that. Going from here, I do love teaching but I want a balance between my work and the students,” Mayo said.

On returning back to the college after her sabbatical: “I was happy to see my students and they were happy to see me. And there were new students. It was a long time. It made me a little nervous. But I felt like I was back in the game after two classes.”

What’s one thing you’re proud of as a professor?

“I care about my students a lot, maybe sometimes too much. I’m proud of the fact they trust me. There’s a mutual respect that leads to trust. I teach my students in a casual manner. I don’t think they realize how much information they’re getting. I like to tell stories.”

Did you have an educator who inspired you?

“I had a lot of really good teachers and I think that’s why I wanted to be a teacher. I had a hard time in school and I was bullied and my teachers were like a refuge for me. I connected with them more than I did with other students.”

Mayo remains connected with some of her former teachers—she was able to photograph her former French teacher for the Selma project. She lost a good friend, her former photo professor, while she was on sabbatical. And she’s close with her middle school guidance counselor. “She’s been my friend since I was 12 years old. I always connected with and respected my teachers. I admired them so much and they made such a difference.”

She also was inspired by the teachers who “wouldn’t give me the time of day. It made me compelled to do a good job. I thought I would never do that to anyone—never make them feel insignificant. Even a bad teacher, that inspired me.”

What’s one thing people don’t know about you?

Mayo started springboard diving a handful of years ago, and the small diving community means everything to her.

“I feel like I became the person I’m supposed to be. I’m not great at it, so I have to work hard. I feel teaching is something I can do and I work hard to be good at it. But with this I have to work really hard to do the basics. I love to be able to do something that’s super challenging. It makes me face my fears every single time I get on that diving board. One of the things I tell my students is when you get comfortable, it’s time to change things up. When you’re uncertain, it means your brain is working and problem solving.”

Something else people might not know: After she got back from sabbatical, her husband said she needed to do something nice for herself, like buy a piece of nice jewelry. Instead, Mayo bought roller skates. “I can’t dive year-round, so I need to do something that’s healthy, not just pining away for warm weather.”

Tell us about your family

Mayo has been married for 13 years to fellow photographer, Doug Winter, who helped during the sabbatical. She also has a stepdaughter in the Navy, and officially adopted her in 2016. “She’s mine now.”

What will you do in retirement?

“I have a really long time, but I’ve already started thinking about what I would like to do in retirement, or what I will do when I’m not teaching anymore. But I really enjoy what I do. I want to have so much time when I retire, have a blast, do fun things.”

Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.