‘Photographic Proofs’ develops film into memory

A photograph captures but a single moment in time, although viewers can deduce much about the environment in which it was taken and the message it intends to communicate.

But as photographer Marion Belanger ART ’90 put it, “The photograph is, by nature, capricious. … There is no one reading of a photograph.”

A graduate-student symposium entitled “Photographic Proofs: A conference on image, history and memory” held April 4 and 5 delved into the historical, scientific and cultural contexts in which photographs are taken and viewed. Belanger delivered the closing address of the symposium, which was hosted by Yale’s Photographic Memory Workshop and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In addition to a workshop involving the Beinecke photography collection, the conference — the PMW’s first of this kind — offered four panels and two keynote lectures, held in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.

Alice Moore GRD ’11, a graduate student in American Studies and one of the conference’s co-coordinators, said the event received 150 registrations. But there were only about 60 audience members at most of the weekend’s talks — probably, Moore said, because the conference was free and thus allowed attendees to choose among the presentations.

At each panel, following an introduction by Yale graduate-student chairs, three graduate-student speakers presented papers on a range of subjects related to photography. The speakers then received feedback from commentators — professors from other universities who are also former members of the PMW — and fielded questions from the audience.

Paper topics ranged from the political to the psychological to the environmental overtones of photography, with subjects such as the photographic depiction of Egyptian children in the early 20th century, before and after photographs of cosmetic surgery and snapshots of Paris’ urban development.

After receiving approximately 200 papers, Moore said, a committee of PMW members eventually selected 12 students to speak at the conference. Although no more than four Yale graduate students applied, none was ultimately chosen, Moore said.

The workshop portion of the conference, which took place on Friday, allowed attendees a hands-on opportunity to examine photographs. The workshop began with talks from Laura Wexler — a Yale professor of American studies and women, gender and sexuality studies and the director of the PMW — and Catherine Whalen GRD ’07, an assistant professor at The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture. George Miles, curator of western Americana at the Beinecke, then provided examples of different kinds of 19th- and 20th-century photographs from the library’s collection, allowing participants to view and discuss the materials directly.

The opening keynote lecture of the conference, “File Photo: Documents, Terror, Truth and Style,” was delivered by John Tagg, professor of art history and comparative literature at Binghamton University. Complementing Tagg’s academic approach to photography, Belanger offered the perspective of a practicing artist; she presented and explained her work exploring “borders, edges and limits,” particularly in natural settings such as the Florida Everglades and the shifting North Atlantic plate in Iceland and California.

Francesca Russello Ammon GRD ’11, the conference’s other co-coordinator, who is also a graduate student in American Studies, said the PMW — a nine-year-old campus group of about 60 graduate students and faculty from different academic departments and University institutions — wanted to “do something bigger” than its monthly meetings.

“It’s about the relationship between photography and evidence,” Russello said of the conference, acknowledging the broadness of the theme but adding that such a range was intended to allow for the examination of photography in its roles as art, journalism and historical archive.

Russello added that, in addition to the conference’s academic offerings, social networking was an important element of the program. Between talks and at the dinner reception, she said, attendees were able to connect with other people working in similar or complementary disciplines.

Moore said she and Miles conceived the idea for the conference and that plans were set in motion for it about a year ago.

Although she said the conference was a large undertaking, Moore said she would like to see the PMW hold a similar type of conference once every few years. She added that the PMW holds one large event each year and that next year’s event will be centered on celebrating the group’s 10-year anniversary.

Attendees, many of whom jotted notes during and asked questions after the talks, said they found the conference engaging.

Larissa Leclair GRD ’03, a professional photographer and photography writer who received her master’s in African studies, said she decided to return to the University for the conference because she was “so excited and inspired” by it’s emphasis on photography as both a fine art and an archival tool.

Other interviewed attendees echoed Leclair’s satisfaction with the symposium’s subject matter and format. Maggie Gates, a Harvard University graduate student in the history of American civilization, said she thought the conference, as a whole, ran very smoothly.

“The only thing was that it was a little hard to sit in the same room for 10 hours,” she said.

But in terms of the content of the presentations, she said she was quite impressed.

“There was not a single paper that I was waiting to end,” she said.

Erica Fretwell, a graduate student in English at Duke University who was one of the symposium’s speakers, said she thinks the PMW made an admirable effort to reach out both across disciplines and across international communities in order to encourage discussion of the many facets and roles of photography. Of the 12 graduate student speakers, four were from schools in Australia, Canada and France.

Wexler said such diversity was reflected in the range of topics discussed and was, for her, “gratifying.”

“[The conference] made possible the study of photos in very new and important ways,” she said.

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