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Rob Heller: Photographer, Musician, Ampersand Lover

Rob Heller

Rob Heller with some of his current and former students working the sidelines at a UT football game: from left, current student Hayley Pennesi, who works for UT Athletics; former student Ruth Claire Dudley, who was also working for UT Athletics at the time; Heller; and former student Wade Rackley, who is now the head athletic photographer at Auburn University.

At UT: A professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, Rob Heller has been at UT since 1986. Before that, he taught photography and graphics at the University of Miami and worked at two colleges in New York. He was photo manager for the Ocoee Kayak and Canoe Olympic venue at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Interest in Holocaust survivors: Heller was raised on Long Island, New York, by second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Although there’s no family connection to the Holocaust, that horrific time in history has prompted key projects in his career.

His interest began in the early 1980s when he was standing in line for a play in Miami, a city that was home to many Holocaust survivors. He noticed the man in front of him had a concentration camp tattoo on his forearm. “I’d never seen that before,” he said.

In 1983, Heller got permission to set up a photo studio at a conference where Holocaust survivors were speaking. He made nearly 100 portraits. That was the beginning of Portrait of Survival, which told the story of about 200 Holocaust survivors.

After moving to Tennessee, Heller was commissioned by the state Holocaust Commission to photograph survivors and liberators living in Tennessee. The result was Living On, a project that has been exhibited around the state, including in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. It has been exhibited in major cities in Poland and was published as a book by UT Press, Living On: Portraits of Tennessee Survivors and Liberators, in 2008.

Why this field: Heller developed a love for photography because of his dad, an amateur photographer who built a darkroom in every home they had.

In junior high, when Heller didn’t want to dissect a cat, he persuaded his science teacher to let him take photos to document his classmates’ work. On occasion, teachers encouraged him to do photo exhibits in lieu of research papers. Once, some teachers hired him to teach them to use a darkroom.

While studying photography at Syracuse University in New York, he honed his teaching skills by giving darkroom lessons to fellow students and leading summer workshops at his hometown library.

Favorite photo subjects: “I photograph everyone and everything,” he said.

As a faculty member, much of his creative activity involves submitting photos to juried exhibits. He recently had a photo win an award at an exhibit in Budapest. That photo was part of a photographic study he’s done on the color yellow. Each photo is a scene that features a pop of yellow—a roadway stripe, a trash can, a grate, a road sign, a painter’s can and brush, the top of a taxi, and a penalty flag on a football field.

Family man: Heller and his wife, Beth, met in 1974 while working in the cafeteria of a Syracuse University residence hall. They married four years later. The Hellers are now empty nesters: son Joel is a lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC, and son Benjamin (a UT grad) is an aspiring television screenwriter in Los Angeles.

If I didn’t do this, I’d: Be a musician. “I play clarinet and washtub bass in a klezmer band called Tennessee Schmaltz.” The group has been playing for 21 years and has even performed at Bonnaroo. (“Which makes me perpetually cool to my students.”)

Collections: Heller jokes that he can’t retire because he doesn’t have room at home for all of his books. In addition to collecting books about design, photography, and history, he also has a collection of old cameras, including a pinhole camera made out of a Quaker Oats can. “And I’ve got a fondness for ampersands,” he said, pointing to a small collection of the typographic symbol. The graphic designer in him loves the elegant blending of an “e” and a “t” —”et” is the Latin word for “and.”

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