Pictures Worth More Than 1,000 Words at PaliHi

By Laurie Rosenthal
Staff Writer

Students in Rick Steil’s photography classes at Palisades Charter High School have diverse backgrounds, talents and styles.

They are a motivated, passionate, thoughtful and interesting group whose creativity is seemingly endless.

In this article, only a handful of students are discussed, yet there are many, many more with inspired portfolios.

Beginning Friday, May 19, 100 students from Steil’s photo one, photo two, advanced and AP classes will be featured at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica Canyon. This is the first time PaliHi students have had an exhibit at a real gallery.

PaliHi Photography teacher Rick Steil helps seniors (left to right) Lily Block, Will Schwerdtfeger, Julie Ide and Alex Manrique prepare for their first photography exhibition.Photo: Lesly Hall Photography
PaliHi Photography teacher Rick Steil helps seniors (left to right) Lily Block, Will Schwerdtfeger, Julie Ide and Alex Manrique prepare
for their first photography exhibition.Photo: Lesly Hall Photography

Steil, who lives in the Palisades, initially conceived the idea of having his students exhibit at Gallery 169 several years ago. He gifted the gallery with a high-quality book that featured his students’ photos.

The gallery’s owners, Frank Langen and Barton Jahncke, recently revisited that book, and were taken with the extraordinary talent the teens exhibited.

Their work is so “unfiltered and raw,” Jahncke told the Palisades News. “It has exceeded my expectations. I expect it to be a great thing for the community, and to show people what Rick does for these kids.”

The upcoming show will feature approximately 50 museum-quality pictures, plus a collage of roughly 200 prints. A party atmosphere is planned for opening night, with music, food and more. The exhibit will be up for about one week.

Steil, a former professional photographer who has taught at Pali for nine years, enjoys working with his students and watching them improve over the course of the year. 

He counts creativity and effort as important factors for success, and he pushes each according to their own skill.

“It’s not like it’s a class where everyone has the same ability. Some are just rock stars it comes naturally to,” he told the News. His goal is for all the students to improve, no matter their individual starting points.

Steil’s students enjoy the freedom of choosing their own projects, as long as they fit into the various assignments. “It’s so subjective. It’s so hard to grade them,” he said.

Contact for more information. 

Mel Bell, senior

“I like to shock the people who are viewing my images.”

Whether it’s a rooftop in downtown L.A. or sunrise on the Angeles Crest Highway, Mel Bell is willing to go to great lengths to get the perfect shot. Malibu, Topanga and Venice Beach have also provided Bell with the look and feel she wants for her images.


She’s been kicked out of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and Franklin Canyon for not having permits to shoot.

One of Bell’s favorite shots is of a girl in a red dress on the sand at Venice Beach reaching for a man who is well ahead of her. The girl was Bell’s friend, while the man was simply a stranger on the beach who never knew his backside would end up in a student photography class.

“I like to put what I see into a photograph,” Bell said. “I see things weird and eccentric.”

Felix Massey, junior

“A lot of people see the photo, but they don’t realize the situation that the photographer is in while taking the photo.”

Massey has paid homage to photographers he admires by recreating modified versions of iconic photos while inserting himself into the pictures—as the original photographers. He matches clothing and topography, and the viewer sees Massey in various situations, such as the Vietnam War or the D-Day landing at Normandy.


He works with lighting, and often puts more than one photograph together to get the feeling just right. In one instance, he combines eight photos of a building in El Segundo to get the look that he was seeking.

During his spare time last summer, Massey created a series of ad photography, which includes creative takes on various projects, such as farm equipment on top of a piece of wheat bread.

He began doing aerial work when he was around 12, and has stunning images of the Santa Monica Pier and its lit-up Ferris wheel. A surfing series looks like paintings, and some have an almost abstract feel to them.

Amanda Saltz, junior

“I wanted to do something past just taking pictures and editing them on the computer. I need to do it with my hands.”

Saltz’s background is in painting and drawing, and she incorporates those aspects into her photography, including painting over photos.


“My brother took this class and loved it. Everyone loves it. So, I had to do it. I’m really glad I did. It’s been completely life-changing.”

Her images are mesmerizing and unique. In some cases, she cuts up or tears her images, repeating the same image in the same finished photo. Other times, she shoots a model, then makes their clothing out of other photos of the same model.

Another series includes items being used for different purposes, such as a teen washing his armpit with blackberries instead of soap, while another teen eats iPod Nanos out of a bag of Doritos.

Josue Bustamante, junior

“I was scared of not having anything to leave back to this world, so I was hoping photography would be that outlet to leave something for people to remember me and my family.”

From pain often comes great art, and Josue Bustamante’s loss of his mother at age seven has influenced his photography.

Haunting black and white images (he prefers film to digital, and black and white to color) of his father and siblings bring the viewer into his world.


The Virgin Mary is prominent in his home, and makes her way into Bustamante’s photos. His favorite photo of his father is one in which he looks peaceful, sitting on a couch near a guitar, looking upward. In another photo, his twin brother is looking downward, prompting Bustamante to question why is he looking that way, and “what is going on in our life?”

In another photo, the “o” in the word “hello” has been cropped out accidentally, leaving the word “hell,” which resonates with the journey the family has gone through since losing its matriarch. Bustamante spends a lot of time in the darkroom, developing his photos, and likes the challenge of working with film.

His older brother Benjamin, a working photographer in New York, was also Steil’s student, and Bustamante credits him for being an influence.

“Family is the most important thing. That’s all we have.”

Nina Rachmanony, senior

“I like to change it up.”


Rachmanony adds embroidery to photos by sewing on the paper, through the photograph. In one image, thread is hanging down, making it look as though the model is “sewing her own arm.”

“It’s really cool because it lets me add something to the photo without editing digitally.” She enjoys shooting in the studio, and processing and printing her photos in the darkroom.

Lucie Hodgson, senior

“I definitely like to use photography to learn more about myself.”

After graduation, Hodgson is hoping to get an internship that will allow her to delve deeper into photography.

She shoots with black-and-white film, though she also uses a simple point-and-shoot camera for color, having first been given that kind of camera by her sister.


Her photos from January’s women’s march in downtown L.A. showcase her love of activism. She prefers shooting people just being themselves out in the world versus studio shots. “I like capturing the moment and making a nice frame out of things.”

She also enjoys taking self-portraits and fashion photos, and in some instances, in- corporates words next to—or over—her pictures. Gender, sexuality and homosexuality are themes that reoccur in Hodgson’s work.

“I like to show actual humanity.”

For a recent series, she asked people to write down one thing they would say to Donald Trump, then photographed them holding up their signs.

Jennifer Losch, senior

“This is something I’ve always loved to do.”

Losch has been interested in photography since she was little, and got her first camera when she was four.

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She enjoys shooting everything, including buildings, architecture, nature and, as she puts it, “abstracty-weird things.”

For the recent Visual and Performing Arts show at Pali, Losch focused on different parts of the human body.

“Today in modern society, it’s okay to be fat. All body types are okay, so that’s really what I was going for with my project.”

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