For 43 years, Charlee Brodsky has been a fixture in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. As a professor of photography, Charlee has guided countless students through the art of capturing light and color, the craft of developing a photographic narrative and the skills needed to turn a camera into a powerful communicative tool. This year, Charlee, who is a self-described “photographer, educator, grandmother, mother, wife, dog-owner, and a few other things,” is retiring from the School of Design and to say that she will be missed is an understatement.
“From the moment I arrived at CMU and shared an office with Charlee, she was one of the warmest and most welcoming people I met,” said Bruce Hanington, Head of the School of Design. “Her wonderful friendship has extended over the many years I have known her, through her retirement and now beyond. Charlee is truly an inspirational educator, exhibiting the same care for her students as she does for the craft of her creative work. Though she will be missed by all of us, I have no doubt her long presence in the School of Design will have an impact for years to come.”
“Simply put, Charlee Brodsky is an incredible human being,“ said Rohrbach, who is also the Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Design. “Not only has she eagerly taught thousands of students, including me, how to compose, capture, and print stunning images, she has gently provoked numerous generations to ponder their important roles and responsibilities as visual communicators. Charlee has also been a steadfast, thoughtful, and caring mentor to countless students and colleagues, for which I am immensely grateful. I am proud to carry forward all of the lessons Charlee has taught me and I believe her strong positive impact on the School of Design will be felt for generations to come.”
“Charlee was my photo professor and also taught my wife and my daughter,” added Baskinger. “Her courses were amazing - not just the technical side of how to make good photographs, but how to tell very human stories through images. Charlee’s impact on the School of Design is immense and reached far beyond her teaching. Her leadership in faculty searches and heading the School Review Committee (SRC) set the standard for how we deal with each other with humanity, respect, and support. It is incumbent upon us to continue her legacy in this aspect as the School grows and evolves in the years ahead.”
We could reflect on Charlee’s time with us for hours, but we decided the best reflection might come from Charlee herself.
It’s taken me while to reflect on my many years at CMU—perhaps that’s because I don’t want to say goodbye to that part of my life as I move onto one that has a much more flexible calendar.
Do I like having big chunks of time that are not committed to a job? Yes, I do. I get to photograph more; I see friends for lunch and don’t have to be back in the classroom at 1:30; I can take a leisurely jog with my dog on any morning of the week; and I can spend time with my grandkids. Yet the 43 or so years at CMU never felt like a “job". I experienced little by way of drudgery and I don’t remember any time that I had to take a “mental health” day. I always looked forward to opening the Design School main office door to say hello to staff at their desks and colleagues at their mailboxes as I grabbed a cup of coffee in the communal back room.
There was a stability to my many years at CMU. Many of my colleagues as well as staff were long haulers, which speaks well of the place, and the younger hires joined an established culture that respected hard work and creativity. The school year was predictable—there were always two semesters, spring and the winter, and a summer sprint for those who wanted to teach in it. What was not predictable was the individuality of each of our students who were, for the most part, avid and gifted learners respectful of their teachers and peers. We as a faculty were always deeply impressed by our students’ work and proud of their later professional accomplishments.
In the classroom, I always learned from my students by looking at, editing, and organizing hundreds of photographs together and sharing the excitement of the stories behind them. In addition to teaching basic visual skills, I valued how photography could connect young designers to people and environments outside of their own experiences, thus sensitizing them to many worlds. In a project course, for example, we worked with incarcerated mothers to see how communication between the women and their children could be improved by photography.
As a teacher, I saw my role as a partner who asked students about their decisions, offered advice about improving craft, and I showed students significant work from the pantheon of photographers to broaden their knowledge of photography. Yet, there were aspects of the classroom that were challenging. I think that I kept with up with technology —I do love PhotoShop and InDesign—but culture keeps on evolving and I aged. With that context in mind, I hope that I designed courses to teach what I think students should learn through photography—whether the camera is pointed outward or inward, and that is not "what to see” with a camera, but "how to see”.
Yesterday morning, I received an email from a former student, Bonnie Siegler. It overwhelmed me with gratitude that I spent 43 years of my life in the classroom. With her permission I quote her email here.
“I graduated in 1985 and just saw the news of your retirement with your email address," said Siegler. "I finally grew up and have owned my design studio for 30 years and have taught at the graduate school level for many years. I just wanted to let you know that you taught me a different way of seeing and looking at the world. Your words had a great impact on me, even after all these years. I don’t think I totally got it while I was in school, but eventually I caught on. And I wanted to say thank you.”
And as a summation, I thank all my colleagues and my students for decades of an enriched life. I mean it.
Charlee will continue to be a part of the School Design as a Faculty Emeritus. We want to wish Charlee nothing but the best as she enters this next chapter of her life. While we will miss learning from her, we’re so grateful we’ll still get to enjoy what she crafts every time she picks up a camera.
All photography courtesy of Charlee Brodsky