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From Gilded Age to COVID-19: Exhibition Highlights Our Changing Relationships With Photography

Elliott Erwitt, California Kiss, 1955.

Elliott Erwitt, California Kiss, 1955.

Photographs by Dickinsonians, art-world giants included in 150-work exhibition

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

You probably posed for many photos when you were a kid. Was there a selfie stick involved or a tripod? Did you squint toward a flash cube? Did you wait hours or days for your prints or simply peel back the Polaroid film? Or was the photo instantly viewable onscreen? The Trout Gallery’s upcoming exhibition, In Light of the Past: Reflections on Experiencing Photography: 1839-2021, shines a light on the evolving ways people interact with photographs and photographic technology. In so doing, it tells us a bit about who we are now, and who we have been.

The exhibition, which runs March 5-Oct. 9, is the culminating project for Dickinson’s art-history senior seminar, bringing senior-year art-history majors together to curate a professional-quality exhibition and accompanying catalogue featuring original student research. Because of the practical realities posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s exhibition, hosted in The Trout Gallery, is different in two ways. First, it was curated remotely. Second, its opening reception will be livestreamed, and students, faculty and staff have the additional option of attending the gallery in a small group in person (reserve your time slot here). The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are also reflected in a book of COVID-19 snapshots by Dickinson students, faculty and staff, a corollary project of the exhibition.

Curating and collaborating remotely

The Trout Gallery is open to small groups of students, faculty and staff only. Timed entrances must be reserved in advance.

The Trout Gallery is open to small groups of students, faculty and staff only. Timed entrances must be reserved in advance.

During the remote fall semester, the student-curators met weekly online, logging in from their homes across the U.S. and around the world. Instead of selecting artworks in person, they spent weeks researching and examining digital images and videos of photographs from the Trout Gallery and Dickinson’s Archives & Special Collections.

“The videos gave us a sense of how the objects would have been handled,” says Jackson Rhodes ’21, who devoured articles and books on 20th-century photo albums and publications before diving into the digitized Trout Gallery works. “Especially for works like the daguerreotypes, which appear differently based on your perspective and how light hits them, they were invaluable.”

While each student focused on one area to research, they also made a wide variety of joint decisions across the miles, ranging from exhibition theme and title to catalogue font and the hue of paint used on the gallery walls. To design the exhibition space, they used a two-dimensional online view of the gallery space, working through roughly 10 drafts.

Illuminating past and current moments

Like the COVID-19 photography book recently unveiled by The Trout Gallery and Dickinson Archives & Special Collections, the exhibition has compelling stories to tell about the photographers and the times in which they live. Unlike the photography book, it places art-history luminaries like Muybridge and Warhol alongside lesser-known and unknown photographers, posing interesting questions about the function and meaning of photography in art history as well as in daily lives. 

Seeing all 150 exhibition photographs together is eye-opening, says student-curator Ana-Elena Karlova ’21—even, or perhaps especially, for members of the most-photographed generation to date.

“Since most of the photos we take today are digital, we usually never end up printing them out. But I believe there is so much power in holding a physical photograph like a snapshot,” says Karlova, who combed through Archives & Special Collections’ historic photographs of Dickinson’s campus. “The opportunity to study the evolution of photography from daguerreotypes to digital photos completely changed my experience of photography.”

Watch the livestreamed exhibition Friday, March 5, at 7 p.m.; students, faculty and staff may also reserve a time to enter The Trout Gallery and view the exhibition.

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Published February 24, 2021