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Trading the hammer for the lens: photographer Hal Spencer

by Eric Ginsburg

Somehow 7-year-old Adam Spencer was asleep in his father’s arms despite the spirited singing of roughly 200 people in the church that Saturday night. Like many of the men in Christ Sanctified Holy Church, Adam’s father Hal worked in construction. When the housing market crashed, building contracts dropped dramatically in the Triad and left many people looking for a new ways to provide for themselves and their families. Hal Spencer turned to photography.

“The construction industry’s always been kind of an up and down field,” Spencer said. “I didn’t dread going to work or anything but if I could pick anything I wanted to do that wouldn’t be it.”

Last year, he enrolled in the renowned photography program at Randolph Community College. He still has his construction equipment and does occasional repair work for people, but plans to make a living as a photographer after completing the two-year program.

“Mainly what I was doing before was new construction,” Spencer said. “That was my primary source of income and that’s died off…. I’ve been in construction in some capacity pretty much my whole life.”

The Spencer family — like countless others in the area — have found themselves needing to make adjustments to compensate for the unstable economy. A few months ago they moved into a cozier home outside of city limits, and Bonnie Spencer started working full time for the first time since their daughter Anna was born 11 years ago.

“The change in the income has obviously been the biggest change,” Hal’s wife Bonnie said. “It’s been awhile since he’s done something he really enjoys. I didn’t start that job as soon as he went back to school but it kind of became apparent that I was going to need to do something different.”

Spencer first used a 35-mm Minolta as a teenager and didn’t really pick up a camera again until a few years ago. He started photographing his two kids as a hobby. From there, his interest grew. Spencer prefers his medium-format Hasselblad but also shoots with a 35-mm Nikon.

In his first year at RCC, the majority of the work has been with film rather than digital imagery, but that will begin to change more in the fall. The second year of the program includes internships, which he is looking forward to, but for now Spencer is happy to use film.

“You’ve got to take the time to process it and make prints so you’ve got a little more invested in it,” he said. “Typically the stuff I’m doing in film is better quality than what I’m doing in digital just because I’m thinking about what I’m doing more.”

Architecture fascinates Spencer, and it’s his favorite thing to photograph. He has been known to seek out abandoned factories and warehouses throughout the region, capturing images that depict both the history and decay of a bygone industrial era.

Though he didn’t study other photographers until retuning to school and generally avoids portrait photography, he’s been admiring the work of Irving Penn and Vivian Maier. Both took pictures of everyday working Americans but with significantly different approaches.

Spencer isn’t exactly sure what they future holds, but that’s okay with him. The quality of the education he feels he’s receiving seems to calm any concerns about a career shift. In addition to the internships, he raves about the photo facilities and how good the faculty is at helping students with connections, guest speakers and finding where they want to be.

“My intention at this point is — you don’t ever know what the future holds — but that this will be my main source of income, photography of some sort,” he said.

If all goes well, Bonnie will continue working full time in account management at Kreber in High Point and Hal will graduate in 2012 after completing his internships. Keep an eye out for Spencer’s photography in the coming years, or e-mail him at halspencer71@yahoo.com.

Hal Spencer began his photography career after the construction work dried up.

(photo by Alexandria Stewart)

by Eric Ginsburg / eric@yesweekly.com

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