When SVA held its commencement exercises last month, as per College tradition, two degree candidates—one from a bachelor’s program, the other from a master’s program—delivered addresses. This year, that lineup included a notable first: a student from an online program. Charles (Chuck) Almarez, a photographer and small businessman from Clifton Forge, Virginia, is enrolled in the distance-learning track of MPS Digital Photography. His speech was delivered only days after arriving on campus for the first time, to begin his program’s final weeks of study, which are conducted on site at SVA.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Almarez served in the Vietnam War before getting his bachelor’s degree, in industrial photography and color technology. After several more years of service, this time with the National Guard, he moved to Washington, DC, to further his education and, on a whim, answered a classified ad for a farm manager in rural Virginia.
Despite having no caretaking experience, Almarez watched over a menagerie that included horses, goats and peacocks and “enjoyed it tremendously,” he says, developing a love for the area that stuck with him. After another spell in California, he moved back to the East Coast to raise his family, settling in Clifton Forge and working in advertising for the Roanoake Times. Recently retired, he now operates two businesses—Fire and Light, a fine-art photography and sculpture studio he co-owns with a blacksmith friend, and Kid Pix, a children’s sports photography company—and teaches digital photography at two local community colleges. Inspired to continue his education after his wife earned her second master’s degree in 2012, he decided on MPS Digital Photography once he discovered it was chaired by Katrin Eismann, a name he recognized from his research in the field.
While in New York, Almarez and his fellow classmates are finishing work on their thesis projects. Almarez’s is a photo-documentary of an abandoned train repair facility in his adopted hometown. “Clifton Forge was built on the back of the railroad,” he says, noting that the industry once employed 3,000 people in the area, though “if there ‘s 1,500 people in town now, I’d be amazed.” Despite decades of neglect, the immense facility remains eerily preserved, “like people had just walked out” in the middle of a workday, he says. To contrast its bustling past with its present state of disuse, Almarez created a composite image that blends one of his present-day photographs with an old black-and-white shot of the space in its heyday, which he found at a local historical society. The work, and others from the project, will be on view at this fall’s MPS Digital Photography thesis exhibition, which runs October 20 through November 15.
While not working toward his degree, Almarez is enjoying his time in the city. “I’ve abandoned all pretense of not being a tourist,” he says, and his plans for the summer include a Yankees game and a Broadway show. And though he geared his commencement speech primarily toward the 20-something graduates in attendance, urging them to make the most of their lives and not get hung up on others’ notions of success, he also hopes his example inspires older generations to keep learning and exploring, too.
“I’m proof that you can always go back to school,” he says.