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Teaching photography at the old Whittier school

By Josh Mitchell • Staff Writer

J.R. vanLienden grew up in a frame shop and used to promise himself he would never get into the field of photography.

Now he has purchased the old Whittier elementary school built in 1936 to operate as a retreat for photographers from around the country to learn about photography.

Vanlienden, clad in workshop overalls, speaks very fast and said his attention deficit disorder doesn’t allow him to have a favorite photographic subject.

After taking family portraits on the beach for 15 years in Sarasota, Fla., vanLienden decided it was time to try photography in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Located at the base of Smoky Mountains National Park and in the rustic railroad town of Whittier, the school is an ideal setting for photographers to get away from it all and improve their craft.

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Workshop attendees spend part of their time getting hands on instruction from professional photographers and can also take off on their own to explore the nationalpark and take some pictures.

The school, Smoky Mountain Learning Center, hosts different workshops, ranging from three to five days, put on by him and other professional photographers. The goal is for the school to be the new “photography mecca” in the mountains.

It will become the largest photo gallery in the region, he said. The school offers a feeling of learning while being able to enjoy the surrounding mountains, he added. With full production and framing facilities the school provides a romantic setting to learn photography. The long hallways are lined with large photographs taken by vanLienden, and the former classrooms provide learning spaces.

The stage of the school’s auditorium is filled with pictures vanLienden has taken.

He has taken some stunning shots of the Smoky Mountains, including waterfalls and streams.

Nature photography is not all he does though. He does a lot of portraits, and particularly has a passion for pictures of babies and their mothers.

One eye-catching picture was of a large nude African American man with his baby sitting down on his back.

While he was in Florida he made a living taking pictures of families on the beach but said he had to give that up because his four children were growing up on him too fast.

So he decided he would move the family to the Smoky Mountains region. Gatlinburg was the first idea, but he couldn’t find the land he needed to open his studio.

On the way back home to Florida he picked up a real estate magazine and saw that the school and five acres were for sale for $500,000.

His wife didn’t think it was such a good idea after seeing the condition of the school, but vanLienden convinced her that it could be fixed up.

Now that the school has been rehabbed, the next step is to expand the photography school. Plans are in the works to bring 25 to 50 cabins to the property that workshop attendees can stay in them.

He also plans to open a daycare in a section of the school. And in the future there may be workshops for subjects other than photography including cooking, woodworking and arts, he said.

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