Kelvin Nunez ’24 offers his impressions of a visit to the Wellin Museum’s collection of photographic artifacts with Assistant Professor of Art History Nadya Bair’s Photography Changes Everything class.
The course has encouraged me to treat history through the lens of change. The invention of photography provided this initial change as it allowed humans to write with light. Photography changed how we validify events, remember the past, and share moments with others.
Bair knows the medium’s importance and has taken us through a considerable portion of photography’s careening timeline. She has taught us about the camera’s progression while always encouraging us to factor in context for technological improvements and how one item built upon a growing tradition.
I had forgotten that the classroom is just the precipice for what we come across in the real world.
Bair does not strictly lecture her students, but she involves us in interacting with the physical side of the art. We have had multiple opportunities in class to handle daguerreotypes (the first patented photographic process made on copper plates coated with silver) from the 1860s. Daguerreotypes are among many forms of early photography in the Hamilton College Archives that we have been able to study. This chance to interact with intact, aged images has stoked a foundational part of my enthusiasm and experience for this course: I am reminded that these objects are impressive feats of human chemistry and culture.
So far, the crown jewel of the semester has been our video analysis project with Hamilton’s Wellin Museum of Art. Professor Bair assigned a portion of the museum’s photographic artifacts to pairs of students, and we had the opportunity to study and breathe in the fibers of history.
Liz Shannon, the Wellin’s collections curator, showed us into a seminar room where the collection was prepared for us. Before entering, we had to wash our hands, dispose of gum or food, and were not allowed to bring in any water for the sake of the images! The impressive collection of photographs included 19th-century relics that were frankly breathtaking in preservation and quality.
There were only two objects we could touch: a family portrait tintype from Utica and a wooden stereoscope made for 19th-century stereographs. The rest of the photographs must be protected and handled only by professionals. We toured all the objects and enjoyed discussing the details we noticed. Many of the items had been reviewed before in class, revealing detailed planning by Professor Bair.
The photographs were much more astounding and textured in person as opposed to being viewed on a presentation slide. It was a surprise for me as I had forgotten that the classroom is just the precipice for what we come across in the real world.
The texture of the images was fantastic. They reinforced what we discussed during class, and many early photographic processes were intricate chemical procedures tweaked to fit a photographer’s need. Many processes would achieve “artistry” or a painterly impression, while others resulted in clear and sharp figures. Being surrounded by all kinds of early photography was a revelatory and humbling experience.
Feeling the evolution of photography in my hands, my learning experience has been greatly enhanced. What I am learning feels much more real than any textbook or slideshow. This course has further helped me connect and look for the significant shifts that cause ripples in society.
Whether it comes to family trips, a night out, or even my learning experience, I agree with Professor Bair: photography changes everything.