In photography, Paul Hester ’71 finds the tools to question, connect and investigate the world.
Paul Hester’s light blue 1992 Volvo has a license plate that says “LOOK.” It’s the philosophy Hester, now professor emeritus of photography, has been following since he fell in love with photography as a Rice undergrad. “For me, photography is a tool,” he says. “You get to investigate people’s lives; you get to know people. It’s kind of like a license to poke your nose into places and be curious.”
In January, when a collection of his work went on exhibit at the Rice Media Center, the opening party nearly overflowed with Hester’s former students, colleagues, friends and fans, all elbowing past each other to celebrate his career. We sat down with Hester to find out a few lessons he’s learned from peering at the world through his camera lens.
Photography is a way of connecting to the world.
Hester came to Rice as an architecture major, but he switched to art when he fell in love with photography. And he has made a career with his camera: Besides teaching at Rice from 2003 to 2018, Hester has roamed the state as an architectural photographer and worked on books with his wife and business partner, Lisa Hardaway ’81.
“Photography has kept me sane because it gives me an outlet for questioning, connecting and looking,” he says. “Those are important things to me. As I’ve matured spiritually and psychologically and visually, my pictures have gotten better because I’m clearer about what I’m interested in.”
The “rule of thirds” was made to be broken.
Many of his students had been taught the “rule of thirds,” a basic rule of composition that dictates where the focal point should be placed for an eye-pleasing, calming image.
“I would tell students: To be an artist, you have to break the rules,” Hester says.
“You don’t want to do just what other people have done before. And besides, calm and pleasing is not what our time is. To be of our time, [photographs] should be fragmented and chopped off, and they should be energized.”
Teaching means helping students build a life.
Former Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson gave a speech in 2017 that resonated with Hester. “He said he had learned that the most important thing we are doing is helping students find out how to make their way in the world — how to make their lives,” Hester says. “For me, photography has been that all along. There are things you’re interested in. You explore it, investigate it, take pictures of it,” he says. “See what you find.”