Art History Course Encourages a Critical Photographic Eye

Posted: June 30, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christina Mennella

There is more to a photographic image than the photography; social and political meaning lie hidden, just waiting to be discovered. This summer, Mason students have the opportunity to explore these hidden meanings in a new special topics art history course, Uses and Misuses of Photography.

Course instructor Nicole Hudgins, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and Art History, designed this course so that graduate students could focus on photography and public history. In this context Hudgins defines public history and its relationship with photography as a presentation of a set of images with the intent to convince, or affirm, an institutional or national ideology.

“What I am trying to do in this course and in my own research is to stake a claim on the history of photography as a historian,” she says. “Up until now, the literature has been dominated by museum curators and art historians, whose research focuses on technical and stylist trends. My focus is on social and political uses and abuses of photography from the beginning of the medium up until the present.”

Hudgins has students focus on photography and how it relates to power and ideology in western and nonwestern civilization. They are taught to look past the surface of an image and see how it being used as a means of surveillance and control.

“Several of my students are very advanced,” says Hudgins. “They’ve already taught and curated photography. So it was a treat to have a class where the students already speak my language.”

Hudgins requires five texts for this course, including Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” and “Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism.”

Others include “Photography at the Dock,” by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, which examines the politics of photographic criticism, history and practice; “Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire,” by James Ryan, which shows the relationship between a photographic image, imperial imagination and the cultural history of the British Empire; and John Taylor’s “Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe and War,” a text that examines the repercussions of using gruesome images when reporting on accidents, disasters, murder and executions, grief and death.

For the final project, students choose a photo exhibition to analyze. The exhibition can be in print, on display or archived at a public institution. In their analysis, students are asked to look at the exhibition’s intentions, messages and effects.

Hudgins suggests students should contemplate several issues in order to refine their research: Has the curator built the exhibition around a historical question? Does it merely celebrate a collection owned by their institution? What is the institutional attitude toward the people or places represented in the photograph?

Hudgins anticipates these efforts will affect how these students will use photographs in the future, whether they are photographers, curators or historians. “Whether my students are pursuing degrees in American history or public policy, they can gain a great deal of valuable knowledge from the historical, as opposed to an aesthetic, approach,” she says.

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