Q&A: Photography, art instructor urges students to consider the artistic concepts around us

Courtesy portrait of Central Michigan University photography professor Carlos Rene Pacheco

Carlos Rene Pacheco started his undergraduate degree in astronomy, but he had a change of heart, switching his degree to photography. 

Since graduating from the University of Arizona, Pacheco fully embraced his love for the craft, becoming a renowned photographer. He's passed down his experience and knowledge to students across the country.

An Arizona native, Pacheco developed a love for capturing intriguing and thought-provoking moments. Fascinated with the world around us and the galaxy our planet shares a space in, he’s always thought in a larger scope than most. From a young age, Pacheco developed a love for the mystery and glory of space and all it contains. This love inspired much of his previous and current projects.

Since getting his master’s degree in 2014, Pacheco has been heavily involved in teaching at universities across the Midwest. But that hasn’t stopped him from also showing his work in three different solo exhibitions and nine group exhibitions since graduating with his BFA in 2011. Because of his outstanding work he has already obtained multiple awards for his work in New York, Ohio and Arizona.

Pacheco is a new professor at Central Michigan University in the Art and Design Department, teaching photography and art classes in Wightman Hall.

“If I can’t find anything interesting on the ground level, what does the world look like from up there,” Pacheco said.

Pacheco spoke with Central Michigan Life about his inspirations and experiences through the lens of his art and life.

CM Life: Where are you from and where did you go school?

I’m originally from Tucson, Arizona. My family has been there since the 1850’s. On my mom’s side, we’re one of the founding families of Tucson. I also got my undergraduate degree/BFA in photography from the University of Arizona in Tucson. After that I went to graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where I got my MFA in photography and integrated media.

What’s the difference between a degree in photography versus a degree in integrated media?

Integrated media (in the Ohio University program) was added on because the definition of photography is expanding beyond the traditional flat, 2-D image. So, it allows you to work more with various types of media instead of just capturing photos.

How did your hometown factor into your interest in space?

When I was a kid I was surrounded by this imagery, especially on the campus of U of A, with all of its lunar labs that made parts for satellites and even some of the probes sent out into space. Those probes would then send back images from Mars, especially with the popularity of the Mars Rover at the time. It inspired a lot of what I do and what I’ve done with photography subjects involving space and questioning/understanding certain technologies we all use today.

What made you switch from an astronomy major to a photography major?

Like a lot of people, when you’re growing up, you have a romanticized version of what you’d want to have a career in. I always enjoyed going to the library and perusing through images of space, different planets, galaxies and nebulas. When I got to college, I thought if I could get past the math courses they’d say, “Hey, we have a telescope for you to look through, come sit here and look at the stars all day,” and that was not how it worked. In reality, it was a lot more involved than I anticipated. I got into the photography program to gain the technical skills, so I could look at the stars and planets and transition to astrophotography. But the program I was in focused more on the conceptual side of photography, rather than the technical skills I would need to pursue astrophotography. Then I realized I’d much rather explore and travel, so astrophotography became more of underlying focus on my work.

What is the most memorable place you’ve been that photography has taken you to?

The five years I spent in North Dakota were really interesting. Growing up in Arizona, you have mountains, desert valleys, snow-covered pine tree forests and other varied landscape across the state. North Dakota is very flat. So, I used (the flatness) of a never-ending skyline as an inspiration for my photography. Because I could see so far from the ground I wanted to see how far and how much I could see from the sky, whether just above my head or from a plane or drone. It really pushed me to really find who I am as an artist and as a person. North Dakota is not like Michigan. There are nearly no trees anywhere, so you can see for miles in any direction.

How has your time at CMU been so far?

It’s been good! I’m currently living in between here (Mount Pleasant) and Midland, so I’m still trying to figure out the layout of the area because it’s only my fourth week here. But it’s been fun working with all of the new students and teaching courses I haven’t taught before. (I've also been) figuring out how students in this area think and how I can integrate my background and perspective to push my students to look at their art in different ways. But it has been a great experience so far at CMU.

What is your main focus in photography at this moment?

I’m interested in the technology side of things. Because it has advanced so much in such a short amount of time, we’re at a point where everyone has a camera in their back pocket. To some degree everyone is a photographer--there are millions of images taken every day. That curiosity eventually led me to live street cameras in famous places like Times Square or Abbey Road, where thousands of people visit every day. When watching, I noticed tourists constantly taking photos. It made me think, “I wonder if I could find that photo?” So I would match the moment in time when someone took a picture on the webcam, to the actual photo the person took on their phone or camera.

Prior to CMU, what classes did you teach, and where were you teach them?

I taught a couple of Intro to Photography classes in grad school, but a bulk of my teaching was at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. Moorhead, Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota are two small towns divided by a river. So, I lived in Fargo but taught in Moorhead. I instructed everything from Intro to Photography to darkroom classes, Intro to Digital Photography, and classes I created such as Identity in Photography, Narrative in Photography and Experimental Photography. I also taught some non-photography classes, such as Contemporary Art Theory and a class on how to be a better technical and professional artist.

What is the most memorable event that happened while you were photographing?

Before I moved to North Dakota, I was staying on a farm with a then-friend, now fiancée, and I discovered something interesting about the state and the Midwest in general. I learned that farmers had these things called burn piles, where farmers would burn off any excess materials or garbage because they’re so far removed from a town. I found this very odd, coming from Arizona, where one stray spark could catch something on fire and burn down a whole landscape. So, when I moved there, I would spot smoke coming from these burn piles and go photograph them, capturing what was being burned. One day I spotted smoke, drove over to compose some photos and as I was moving around this massive fire I looked down and saw a small kitten. I was surprised by how this kitten was still alive inside this fire. After multiple attempts, I was finally able to get her out from underneath the flames. Eventually she found herself in this mud-puddle, eyeballing me. Her brother came out from a small outbuilding and came underneath me for warmth. The kitten from the fire then came over to me as well, and I was able to take them to a vet. When I arrived, they asked me what I’d want to name them. For the kitten that was in the fire, I suggested the name Pyro. Then the vet came up with the idea to name her brother Maniac. Both Pyro and Maniac have been a big part of my fiancée and I ever since.