The Masters of American Photography Exhibition, located in downtown Greenville’s Upcountry History Museum, features the works of three local photographers alongside 24 prints from noteworthy American artists. Hal Cook, a 1990 BJU graduate and current staff member, has loaned five prints and five personal cameras for the Museum’s May 1 to August 7 exhibition.
Many people know the face behind the camera. Cook, the University’s Marketing photo supervisor, has taken over 25,000 portraits at BJU in his 19 years on staff and his work has been featured in regional publications. But fewer know his story.
No Plans to Return
“I had a rebellious streak, but I was known as a good kid in school,” said Cook. His parents gave him two options for college: Bob Jones University or Tennessee Temple. Armed with a camera (and no film), he arrived at BJU and took his first photography class as a marketing management student. In fact, this was the only photography class offered at the time.
Taught by Wade Ramsey, the photography class was specifically designed for cinema and radio-television students. Said Cook: “I just kept my mouth shut and stayed in it as an elective, because it was my goal to actually open up a photo shop, as far as a studio, when I graduated.”
After persevering through long semesters, overcoming the desire to withdraw after the first Christmas break and realizing the futility of his rebellion, Cook graduated from BJU. “I had no intent of ever setting a foot back on this campus,” he said.
A Foot in the Door
Upon graduating Cook worked briefly for Wolf Camera until the recession hit in 1990. His connections to food service via the bread industry allowed him to then find work as a breadman in Atlanta. For five difficult years, Cook said that he “learned to work hard without being on the clock” until he finished, delivering bread while most people were still asleep.
Said Cook: “The Lord opened up the door for me to actually get into the photo industry as an assistant by working my off days … in a commercial studio that was considered a catalog house.” He also shot a few weddings but knew they weren’t his primary career destination.
A Passion for a Program
Working in the commercial photography sector, Cook began noticing the absence of Christian influence in his field — the same issue he first detected as a student. In fact, this concern led him to speak with someone in campus leadership about developing a photography program at BJU.
“It was disappointing that there was no major, there was no minor. There was just one class,” said Cook. “I wanted to see a program get started.”
At a dinner for alumni, Cook explained to Dr. Bob Jones III: “We need some photo industry training to go into commercial work because we need to be training missionaries to go into that line of work.”
But Cook wasn’t the only person to recognize the need for a photography program. He connected with others who noticed art schools’ tendency to expel lazy photography students. In turn, some employers favored training new employees over correcting the poor practices of experienced graduates.
When Cook’s photography program co-creator Jim Shaw — who attended art schools and understood the foundation of a successful program — passed away with cancer, his wife wanted to start a photography scholarship in his name.
“I’ve got a donor here,” Cook told his former professor Ramsey over the phone. “If there’s a good Christian program in photography, we should be apt to help invest.” Cook offered his services as a consultant and received an interview request about a month later.
A Change of Heart
“It took me a year to get here” after accepting the job, said Cook. “And it was within that year that I actually got things right and got saved.”
As a youth leader with a heart for ministry, he took his group to Farm Fest to hear Matt Herbster speak in 2001. After hearing the message on Matthew 7, a chapter that the Lord had already been using for conviction, Cook received Christ the next morning.
Said Cook: “But then after getting saved, everything started falling in place.” At church more teens accepted Christ. Then, he was able to move to Greenville and started working at BJU in April 2002 on his 35th birthday.
A Picture of Service
Since arriving at BJU Cook has taught photography classes, taken thousands of headshots, advised for the Vintage and the Collegian, and joined the University Photographers Association of America. Cook considers Ross Anderson, Wade Ramsey, Jim Shaw and the 40 professional photographers at the catalog house in Atlanta his mentors.
Additionally, the Association’s annual symposium has opened the door for participation in Help-Portraits, the brainchild of Jeremy Cowart aimed at giving people hope. In most commercial photography, “the person is just a prop to make somebody stop and look,” said Cook.
But by taking professional portraits for free for people in need, Cook explains that “we actually make them feel better about themselves and give them hope.” He added, “They understand now it’s not about you and doing this. It’s about them.”
“Photography is just a form of communication. That’s it,” said Cook. It can begin conversations, point out Christlike compassion, offer hope and magnify Christ.
As a boy whose interest in photography sparked from an appreciation of nice photos, Hal Cook has developed himself into a professional photographer who mentors others in his craft both on campus and in the Greenville community. Said Cook: “The story is worth 1,000 words. What are you going to say?”