Jerry Halfmann’s life has developed through the eye of a camera lens
(This story is one in an ongoing series of features on CAC's Wall of Success inductees. Former CAC professor of journalism John Sowers authored the article.)
By John Sowers, Special to Central Arizona College
PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. - When Jerry Halfmann grabbed his camera, packed his bags and moved onto Central Arizona College's Signal Peak Campus as a student back in 1971, one thing he didn't bring with him was a crystal ball.
So he had no idea 40 years ago that today he would be among Arizona's foremost photography teachers and receive national and international acclaim.
Halfmann is retiring this spring from a 34-year career that has spanned five decades as Tucson High School's photo instructor. During that time he has been Arizona Industrial Education Association's Teacher of the Year three times as well as runner-up for National Trade and Industrial Teacher of the Year.
He is among the first group of former CAC students selected for the college's Wall of Fame.
The CAC graduate figures he has taught more than 5,000 students who have created more than a million photo images under his guidance. He and his students have won hundreds of awards for their work.
A distance runner at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, Halfmann was recruited to attend CAC by coach George Young, himself a runner who competed in four Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in Mexico City in 1968.
Halfmann continued his interest in running while on the Tucson High staff by coaching boys and girls cross country for 30 years. He was assistant boys track coach for three years. He was selected in 1988 as Southern Arizona's Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year.
At CAC he concentrated on his interest in photography, quickly becoming photo editor of the college's student newspaper, The CACtus. John Sowers, his journalism professor and adviser, said recently that Halfmann's enthusiasm and dedication to creativity and improving his work were outstanding.
"Jerry was among a small staff of student journalists who produced an excellent award-winning newspaper," he said. "They didn't know it at the time but they were setting the highest standards by which CACtus staffs would be held accountable for the next 35 years."
It was as CACtus photo editor that Halfmann began earning regional recognition. The newspaper won general excellence awards from the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Press Association. He won an individual award from RMCPA for his feature photo at the Air Force Academy during an annual conference in Colorado Springs, Colo.
After graduation from CAC, Halfmann took a break from college and spent a year as photographer and process camera operator at Casa Grande Valley Newspapers. He was part of the news department when The Casa Grande Dispatch became a daily newspaper and won a variety of awards in the Arizona Newspapers Association's Better Newspapers contest.
It was as a photographer for The CACtus and at The Dispatch that, Halfmann says, he learned to appreciate photography as a powerful way to communicate. "Those experiences taught me that good photographs should tell a story and have a message. That's something that I teach to my students to make them better photographers. Things you learn on the job are things that cannot be taught in school."
Halfmann returned to college and enrolled at Arizona State University where he earned a bachelor's degree in graphic arts in 1977. He joined the Tucson High faculty that fall and eventually earned his master's from Northern Arizona University.
In addition to his teacher-of-the-year honors, he has been saluted in the photography industry as one of the top three photo instructors in the country. Meanwhile, the Photo Imaging Education Association chose his portfolio as grand prize winner in international competition.
Not to be outdone by their instructor, Halfmann's students have dominated state photography competition and are no strangers to national awards. They have received more than 350 awards in local competition as well as more than 150 in state judging. Those are in addition to 70 national awards and nearly four dozen international prizes. Of these, 13 were either first-place or grand-prize awards in national or international judging.
And those honors don't include annual competition in the Vocational-Industrial Clubs of America (VICA)/Skills USA contest. Of 200 possible awards, Halfmann's students have won more than half (112). These include 18 national awards, of which nine were first place winners.
In fact, Halfmann's retirement will be delayed a month because one of his students is a winner in this year's state (VICA) competition. The teacher will accompany the student to the national conference June 20-25 in Kansas City, Mo.
Halfmann has former students who are working in a variety of photo-related areas, including as teachers, in laboratories, as photojournalists, in museums, and as commercial, studio and wedding and portrait photographers.
One of his former students, Steve Marcus, has been a photojournalist at the Las Vegas Sun for more than 20 years.
He says that it's tough to cite other students he's taught during the years. "There's just not enough time to talk about that," he said. "I could easily name you 10 who've done incredible things and who are really, really great people. And then there are all those who are out there but haven't been out there long enough to make their mark, so they haven't quite got there yet."
Reflecting on changes in the industry, Halfmann said the biggest during his career has been the move from film to digital imaging. He noted that he was reluctant to make the transition until it became impossible to tell the difference in quality between the two technologies.
Changes in students, though, are more definite, he says. "Students don't seem to be as involved as they used to be. Back in the day there was the darkroom and more limited numbers of exposures, so there was an emphasis on ‘the defining moment.' With digital, students tend to be careless in what they capture, with the idea that they can fix things in Photoshop. In a way, the craftsmanship has been taken away, but in another way it's been added through use of Photoshop technique."
Reflecting on his career, Halfmann said he doesn't question whether he would change anything, and he says he's glad he didn't have a crystal ball when he came to CAC back in 1971.
"If somebody had told me back then what I would do during my life, all I think I could have replied would be (Wow) I've accomplished a lot! My students have accomplished a lot! There've been ups and downs - a whole lot more ups, and I don't think about or reflect on the downs. The highlight of my career is being able to tell students they've won recognition for their good work."
It was one of those recognized examples of students' "good work" that actually jeopardized Halfmann's career at Tucson High six years ago.
One of his students' photographs won a grand prize at the Arizona State Fair that year. As a result, the photo was featured in a display case on the Tucson High School campus. After being displayed for four months the photo was criticized as obscene in a complaint to school administrators. Halfmann was placed on leave for six weeks.
The issue attracted national attention and debate in the media about censorship. Halfmann was ultimately cleared and returned to the classroom at the conclusion of an administrative review.
As he prepares to lock his classroom and lab for the last time, Halfmann looked back to his days at CAC. He says he appreciates now the influences of professors such as Young and Sowers, who he referred to as "strong, role-model type people. Without them I would have never imagined that I could have accomplished what I have done in my life."
Although Halfmann considered retirement three years ago he opted to delay it until this semester so that it could coincide with his wife, Teresa's, retirement after 30 years as a Tucson elementary and middle school teacher. The two met while attending ASU and have been together since.
In another family connection to this story, Halfmann is from a family of nine children. He is one of three brothers to attend CAC and serve as CACtus photographers.
His younger brother Rick went on to become a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and later for the Rincon Valley Fire Department. He is now an emergency room technician at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson.
Their younger brother Mike is a photography teacher at Tucson's Sahuaro High School, where he is also yearbook adviser and department chair. In fact, the two teaching brothers' students competed in the same VICA contest for about 15 years, with brother Mike's student edging Jerry's just one time.
Halfmann said his plans for retirement are modest. They include relaxation, some travel and working around the house.
"And for once," he said, "I want to concentrate on my own images. I want to take pictures just for Jerry Halfmann."