A young Niskayuna photographer joined the ranks of creative greats like Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates when she was awarded a gold medal in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The prestigious competition for artists and writers in grades 7-12 has been running since 1923 and has recognized many cultural icons over the years.
The artist, Katie Alden, will be a senior at Niskayuna High School in the fall, where she has already surpassed expectations in three photography classes and plans to take another. In early June, she traveled to New York City with her parents, where she accepted her award at Carnegie Hall.
She created her winning photograph, “Touched by Light,” in response to a class assignment to focus on the framing of an image. In the photo, Alden’s mother leans into a lit cabinet. She is visible through a window in the cabinet door. The rest of the room is dark.
“I framed it so she was on the left hand side, so it was kind of like the whole rest of the room was mysterious,” Alden said.
Before the competition, she hadn’t realized how powerful the image was. Her teacher, Stephen Honicki, encouraged her to submit it.
“I didn’t really think it was a good enough image to win an award,” she said. “He said it’s a really strong piece.”
Alden submitted a number of images, several of which received recognition on the regional level. But it was “Touched by Light” that really moved the judges, winning her the gold medal and a spot at the Carnegie Hall ceremony.
From a young age, Alden wanted to take pictures. She got her first camera, a point-and-shoot-style device, when she was 9. She’s since graduated to a Nikon D5100, but equipment is just a small piece of her success. Her classes at Niskayuna High School pushed her from her comfort zone and refined her skills.
“Every month or two, we have a different unit or assignment,” she said. “On my own I wouldn’t shoot as many subjects as I have in my classroom. It’s made me more confident, and we get feedback from other students on our work.
“I wouldn’t have that if I weren’t taking the class,” she continued. “My family could give me feedback, but it’s not the same as your peers or another artist.”
Classes also helped her develop concepts and visions by emulating other artists. During a research project, Alden discovered George Hurrell’s glamourous Hollywood portraits and was spellbound by his delicate treatment of famous faces like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.
“Back then there was no Photoshop, so he did everything with light and shadow, and his photos are gorgeous,” Alden said. “Now I really like to take portraits. I do like black and white because there’s no color to distract from the person.”
Receiving her gold medal strengthened the young photographer’s resolve to keep taking photographs, and maybe even one day turning her camera work into a career. She’ll start by booking small jobs, and she’s excited to get started.
“I would like to set up my own website or a Facebook page so I could charge a small fee,” she said. Right now, she just takes portraits for family and friends.
Further down the line, she hopes to be a fashion photographer or join the staff of a magazine. Some have warned her not to make the craft she loves into her work, in case a full-time job ruins all the fun. But Alden isn’t worried.
“It’s a big part of my life so I want it to continue to be part of my life,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll get sick of it.”
Q: If you were an animal, what would you be?
A: A tiger. I’ve always loved them and wanted a baby tiger cub. I think they’re beautiful animals and I’m really a fan of cats.”
Q: What song have you listened to the most times, of all the music in your collection?
A: “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. It’s just a good song. I’ve always liked it.
Q: If you were stranded on a desert island and already had food, water, and shelter, what three additional things would you bring along?
A: Probably a friend, Instagram and my camera.
Q: What’s your favorite color?
A: Blue. My eyes are blue, so I think it goes well with them.
Q: Who in your life has had the greatest influence on your photography?
A: There are two. I would say one would be George Hurrell as far as light and shadow and natural beauty. But the other would be [photography teacher] Mr. Honicki because he’s always there to help, always gives advice and has helped with my confidence by pushing me to enter contests and try new things.
This story originally appeared in Your Niskayuna.