Photographer Jack Alterman's viewfinder has been framing the faces, buildings, and landscapes of Charleston since the 1970s. His images document the city and its inhabitants from every angle, and he's still finding inspiration from this muse. Celebrating his 30th anniversary as a professional photographer, Alterman has released a series of portfolio prints entitled 10,000 Portraits, 500,000 Miles, 36 Countries, 600,000 Exposures.
"When I got started, there were five to 10 photographers in the city," Alterman says. "Thirty years ago, you had to have a darkroom to be a photographer, and now all you need is room for a computer." While the technology has changed and photography is more accessible today, Alterman says 80-90 percent of taking a good photograph is about the skills behind the concept.
Recently returned from Art Basel, the annual art exhibition in Miami Beach, Alterman observes that buyers seem more concerned with the technical side of photography. "People aren't giving enough attention to the image itself," he says.
"People who develop the skill as artists will come to the surface in the sea of photographers," he adds, saying that we were all born with creativity, but that gift dries up when we start thinking about making a living.
Adobe Photoshop was introduced in the 1990s, and Alterman says, "You couldn't touch it unless you were a complete geek. No one was ready for it." Realizing that he had to take a leap and stick with photography or change his profession, Alterman decided to jump. Once he got the hang of Photoshop, the magic returned. "Now, I just need to release that chemical smell as I'm working in front of the computer and it will be the same magic," he jokes. The results of this magic are iconic images of local personalities like Philip Simmons, the rooftops and cornices of historic buildings South of Broad, and the Morris Island Lighthouse against a darkening sky.
Alterman's fascination with photography began with a Brownie camera when he was 9 years old — his grandfather gave it to him during a trip to New York City. Ten years later, Alterman was itching to see more of the world, so he signed up for the Marine Corps. During his three years overseas, he learned how to use a darkroom and took PR photos for Stars and Stripes magazine. "I was photographing people that didn't look like anything I'd seen before," he says. He went on to attend the Brooks Institute in California on the GI Bill. After graduating, this "restless soul" returned home to Charleston and opened a commercial studio. The business grew and paid the bills, but something was missing. The push and pull between making a living and following his passion was rearing its head, and he had to figure out if it was possible to do both.
In 2002, with the encouragement of a friend, Alterman opened the Center for Photography as a way to create a community among local photographers. Offering a variety of lectures and classes, the center grew into an important local resource. Wanting to get back to his own work, Alterman turned it over to photographer Stacy Pearsall in 2009.
Over the years, many people passed through Alterman Studios, including photographers Dubose Blakeney and Rick Rhodes, who have since moved on to build their own successful careers. "It goes without saying that Jack Alterman is one of the original Charleston photographers," Blakeney says. "His original studio on Meeting Street was a gathering place for creative types and a stepping stone for my career. Countless people have learned the craft at the Center for Photography. Jack's a fine man and a true Charlestonian."
In his retrospective state of mind, Alterman feels as if he has come full circle. He's moved downtown to a historic building on George Street, and even his photographs reflect his past. "The best pictures I do now are similar to the ones I made 30 years ago," he says. Looking to the future with a renewed excitement, Alterman's restless eye continues to search for magic in the streets and faces of his hometown.
Jack Alterman's studio is located at 36 George St. in downtown Charleston. He is available by appointment at (843) 577-0647. altermanstudios.com