A Shift in Focus
The flow of traffic on East Beaver Avenue naturally bends back toward West College, and all day long cars make the sloping turn, practically on autopilot, either back toward or away from downtown.
But if you choose the slightest deviation from the “normal” path, just a block beyond the bend you come upon an impressive brick and steel structure that signals something a bit different than the sleepy ranches and apartment behemoths nearby.
Michael Black’s 9,500-square-foot photography and design studio piques one’s curiosity, adds interest to the borough’s evolving landscape, and offers new opportunities for the town. Much like the man himself.
Black is a professional creative with a bit of wanderlust in his bones but State College roots in his heart, borne of love for his family and the town he’s called home since 1991.
The Springfield, Massachusetts, native came to Penn State to pursue a PhD after earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Springfield College, a master’s in sport psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and working for three years at Case Western Reserve in Student Affairs.
While sport psychology was his educational focus, photography had long been his hobby, dating back to the first pinhole camera he’d made at a YMCA camp as a kid. Later, his parents had helped him create a little darkroom in their garage, and he’d continued to hone his craft, building a portfolio of landscapes, portraits and documentary work over the years.
In 1994, burned out by the frustrations associated with academia, he was given the chance to start shooting for State College Magazine under then-editor Bill Hessert.
“I hung up grad school for awhile to pursue being a content creator,” says Black, who loved the perks of working in small-town photojournalism. “You get to sit down and be really intimate with someone, even just for a half-hour or an hour. You really get to know them. This made more sense for me. So instead of chasing after this doctoral degree, I got more connected to town, more invested here.”
While he eventually did finish his degree, for the time being he busied himself falling for State College and for the love of his life, an undergraduate student from Philadelphia who was at Penn State working toward her degree in education.
“There was something very magical, perhaps cosmic from the very first time we met,” he says of his wife, Tonya. “I knew that the two of us would make a great team together.”
Black left the magazine after a couple years, branching out on his own to do more commercial photography work — much of it out of town — just as Tonya graduated and landed a job in the State College Area School District. They married in 1998 and their son, Lake, was born in 2005.
“When we decided we were going to have a family, I decided I would not travel as much,” says Black of the impetus for the Black Sun studio downtown, which gave him a home base for his professional endeavors and an inspiring space in which to hold community events centered around elevating the local art scene. That has included two seasons of his “Artists Doing Art Series inside Black Sun” — aka BADASS — featuring intimate seminar sessions with artists, and Get Exposed, a one-night event in 2015 that showcased the talent of hundreds of local artists of all genres and experience levels.
“We have so much talent in State College that goes unappreciated,” he says of the reason for hosting such an event. More than 300 community members — some artists, some not — showed up to the free evening soirée to see everything from hand-tied ornamental fishing flies to fine art to intricate tattoo work, all while enjoying music from local bands, catered food and conversation.
“It had to be one of the best nights of my life in State College,” he says of Get Exposed. “There were people here from age 10 to 84. It was one of the most respectful, mindful, inclusive events I’ve ever been to, and it was not about football or drinking. It was an art event.”
Black’s plans for a second Get Exposed have been pushed to late summer or early fall, taking a temporary backseat to his latest endeavor — running for mayor of State College. He recently threw his Democrat hat in the mayoral race for this year’s election to succeed Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, who announced in February she will not seek re-election at the end of her term.
“You get to sit down and be really intimate with someone, even just for a half-hour or an hour. You really get to know them. This made more sense for me. So instead of chasing after this doctoral degree, I got more connected to town, more invested here.”
“I’m not a politician — I’m not that guy,” he says. “But an ambassador and a diplomat — I am that guy. To speak highly of the town, to negotiate some sort of relationship with the university, with other townships, to negotiate two conflicted parties to some sort of resolution, I think I can do all that pretty well.”
With photography, much of Black’s talent lies in the ability to see not just a thing’s face value but its many angles, to envision and coax out its potential as much as highlight and appreciate its current beauty. This, he says, is essentially what he can do for the varied people and entities that comprise State College.
“I’m not going in with an agenda or platform on any one decision or issue,” he says. “I’m going in with five core values — inclusivity, mindfulness, compassion, creativity and vibrancy — and a methodology to arrive at the best answers collectively on any of the issues facing State College.”
Those issues came into clearer focus for Black in 2011 after graduating from Leadership Centre County, for which he currently serves on the executive board. “I love this organization,” he says. “It connects you to all these other threads that are going on that you might have known nothing about.”
In his spare time, the proud dad serves as coach and chauffer for his son’s soccer, basketball and baseball endeavors; last year he also started a nonprofit travel basketball club for youth. “I’m trying to elevate the basketball culture here,” Black says. “And that gives me more time with Lake.”
These days he says about 10 percent of his work is done out of town; the rest he manages from that bold building on East Beaver, where Black can pour everything he has into his lifelong passion.
“There is much to love about photography. I love the collaborative science of creating a preservable two-dimensional facsimile of reality using light, silver, pixels, paper or monitors,” he says. “I love beauty in the machines of cameras, their design, the feel of them in my hands, the development over time. I love that it’s a collaborative art form between shooter and subject.”
“However,” he adds, getting to the heart of who he is, “I think what is ultimately gratifying is the opportunities it affords me to have relationships with people.” •SCM