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Victoria Olsen Posts

In the Archives

On the way home from Washington, D.C. it’s hard to type on the swaying train, with a laptop on my lap. I’ve spent two days at the Smithsonian Museum’s Archives of American Art, where I had a great time but found little of value among the saved records of my father’s friends and associates in the New York City art world of the 1950s and 1960s. I searched five boxes of records from Grace Borgenicht’s gallery for references to my father, who showed there in 1958. I found exactly one line item: the sale of his painting “Orange Flowers” to the Whitney in 1956 for $100. Listed on a ledger page of sales to the Whitney from 1953-68, it was the lowest price of any of them. His friend Randall Morgan sold two works to the Whitney for $247.50 and $427.50. The highest price on that page was for a Leonard Baskin at $9,000. Of course, these were only the sales to one museum, from one gallery, for these specific years so how to generalize about the art market—or any one career— from that? But it looks bad. In retrospect, that sale was the peak of my father’s art career: he could ever-afterwards claim he was in the Whitney’s permanent collection but he never topped that. He mentioned it occasionally but not as often or as proudly as some of the other stories I heard growing up—like the one about his brother being the model on the iconic Cracker Jack box, for example. Maybe my father knew it was a mixed achievement, that his high would have been someone else’s low. The Borgenicht gallery’s stars at the time were Jimmy Ernst (son of Max), Milton Avery, Edward Corbett, Wolf Kahn, and Baskin…. Not household names, maybe, but they sold work consistently from the 50s to the 70s.

ledger page from Grace Borgenicht Gallery's sales to the Whitney Museum, 1953-68.

I had hoped to find correspondence between the gallery and my father—or correspondence with others about his work. But there was none of that. I also looked through eight boxes of material in the Barbara Kulicke collection and a reel of microfilm of Robert Kulicke’s papers because my father worked for Kulicke Frames for some fifteen years and was friends with the couple. I remember get togethers with them and their son Michael, who was older than me. Apparently we visited their house on the Jersey shore at least once (I don’t remember that). I do remember that we all went on a family vacation to St. Vincent’s in 1970, when I had a memorable sixth birthday. But there is no mention of my father in either Kulicke collection. Perhaps that’s because my father’s relationship with them was volatile: he quit and rejoined the company many times and later in life rarely referred to them. He had a tendency to drop people and he dropped the Kulickes (or was dropped) when he left to form his own picture-framing business in 1979. They may well have ended on bad terms (my father claimed co-credit for some of Kulicke Frames innovative designs on at least one resume and in his oral history at the Smithsonian Bob Kulicke mentioned the lawsuits he deployed to protect his patents).

It’s also maybe not surprising that my father doesn’t appear in these public records. People filter their papers before donating them and self-select for the “important” bits, the correspondence (however small) with the Robert Motherwells, Barnett Newmans, and Franz Klines, not the Earle Olsens. There is no mention of Michael Kulicke in his parents’ archives either and that hardly means he wasn’t important to them (or that he didn’t play an outsized role somewhere beyond theses archives). These absences may only remind us that archives are a kind of public performance, where donors represent their own histories for future scholars and make assumptions about what those scholars will want to study. Surely no one anticipated me coming to read through all these boxes over two spring days in D.C., as Robert Mueller’s redacted report was being released to the public. These days who cares about a minor figure in an art world elsewhere six decades ago?

But as journalists combed through the 400+ page report from the special commission into Russian interference in the 2016 election, I combed through a box of photographs by Hans Namuth, hoping to find a clue about how, when, and where he had photographed my father. Those images of the art world of the 1950s were carefully preserved with tissue paper between each print and multiple copies of each, stamped on the back with the address of Namuth’s E. 72nd Street studio. Spread out over the paper and contact prints were lively parties ranging from galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to crowded gallery openings. There were society folks in black tie at the Met and slouchy figures in shorts and cardigans at the galleries; everyone smoked. A few pictures showed women artists working or installing their work, bent over in head scarves and sneakers. I skimmed through, thinking that maybe my father’s face would jump out at me among the crowd, like a Where’s Waldo game. But it didn’t. I couldn’t recognize anyone else either, except for Pollock, whom Namuth had made into a visible celebrity.

My only other catch of the trip was an unlabelled reproduction of one of my father’s paintings, found amongst the collection of Thomas Hess, editor and art critic for Art News in the 1950s. In series 4: artist/subject files ca 1946-1978, box 8, in a folder marked “O c. 1960s,” there he was, abstractly. The painting was not one I recognized (would I have recognized my father’s work on the walls of one of Namuth’s photos either? probably not) but it was clearly related to the one I reproduced here last month and compared to a Franz Kline. This one is signed E. Olsen ’61 so it’s a year later and the black and white reproduction disguises the palette. What is it doing in this collection? I don’t know and there’s no clue. Perhaps Hess reviewed a show of my father’s so that’s the next lead to pursue.

reproduction of a painting by Earle Olsen, found in Thomas Hess archives

As much as I love archives, the detective work of following leads and stumbling on clues, the process of handling files carefully saved and sorted, this trip ended up disappointing. When the helpful manager of the manuscript room at the archives asked me if I had found what I needed, I tried to explain what was missing. He sighed. “I wish people would just give us everything and let us decide what’s important. Researchers do want all the personal stuff that some people edit out,” he said. But then he caught himself: “on the other hand, some collectors provide only the personal….” And that’s the problem. No one can control what donors do with their material upstream, before it reaches the archive. And one can only guess what researchers will want in the future, not only because their daughters aren’t expected to ask these questions decades later, but because what’s important shifts and changes. In my women biographer’s group we talk often about the profound shift in the last few decades toward valuing women’s experiences, and how long it will take for archives and public records to catch up to preserving and valuing them.

But that’s not even the case here (though Robert Kulicke’s collection is better organized than Barbara’s). Here what happened is not explicitly gendered  but a deep (and gender-inflected) devaluation of personal life: the family, the day-to-day, and social lives. Of the many oral histories with artists the Archives of American Art commissioned that I’ve read (and thank goodness they had the prescience to do that since 1958!) precious few mentioned the usual master narratives of biography, like marriages, family relations, feelings. They tended to be chronicles of professional achievements, detailed resumes told by one artist to another. The one that swerved the most from that template was in fact Grace Borgenicht, interviewed in 1963 by art historian Dorothy Seckler. The two women spoke more frankly than anyone else I read about the impact of mothering on artistic careers and the emotional contexts of their work. Borgenicht even mentioned her youngest daughter by name, Lois.

In an excerpt in The New Yorker of his new book on writing biographies, Robert Caro repeats the advice given him early on in his career as an investigative journalist: “turn every page.” This principle has already stood me in good stead too, though some of the pages I turned were clumsily done with the knobs of a microfilm reader. By turning every page, the research process becomes a treasure hunt, where you never know what interesting and irrelevant tidbit you’ll come across next—like the note Grace Hartigan wrote in 1957 on pink stationery to Audrey Hess, wife of the aforementioned Thomas Hess. Her note bypasses Thomas to write directly to her, but ends up in his archive at the Smithsonian anyway, digitized so I can read it from my home sixty years later. It would take Mary Gabriel’s in depth knowledge of those women artists and their circle in Ninth Street Women to unravel the context, the relationships, and the significance of that one pink note. For me, it was just one treat along the long road I’m just starting.

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Pre-story, a family memoir in art and artifacts

photo of babies, 1920s, water damaged
1920s baby photos, after the flood

The making of meaning starts with evidence, the data points that stretch like beads along a thread of thinking. In this metaphor pieces of evidence are like shells on the beach: three-dimensional objects of various shapes and sizes and origins that one might look for actively or come across by accident. But evidence can also be abstract, like a memory or a sensation, an experience that becomes a poem for an artist or an insight for a psychologist, a bodily symptom that leads to a medical diagnosis. It can be a story, a song, a smell, or a taste, like Proust’s madeleine. It’s easy to believe that when evidence is strung together into an interpretation—a theory of relativity or a version of history, for example—that the thinking, the thread, is the subjective part. After all, another thinker could take the same pieces of evidence and assemble a different necklace altogether, though the beads are the same. Evidence does not work like a jigsaw puzzle then, where the pieces only fit together in one way and produce one true picture, one solution to “whodunit.” The thinker who does the work of inferring, organizing, and assembling the pieces is doing creative work, even if it’s in a legal or scientific domain.

But pieces of evidence are not exactly like beads or shells either— or if they are, they don’t hold their shape. The decisive apples that Eve bit into and fell on Isaac Newton’s head are not around to re-examine. The bones of one epoch become fossils in another. A fertility figure once handled in a ceremony can become a statue behind a glass vitrine in a distant museum. Time, location, and context don’t just affect the interpretation of physical evidence (we know that), they affect the objects themselves (we can see that with our own eyes). Which makes it difficult to distinguish evidence from interpretation, the dancer from the dance from the audience.

This is a roundabout way of introducing a new research project, which attempts to make sense of evidence in front of me, whether I sought it out or it was thrust upon me, whether it was found in a library or a battered briefcase monogrammed APO. This pre-story provides a brief rationale for my method, which is both academic and personal. In short, this potential family memoir will be my attempt to make a coherent story out of certain artifacts relating to art and advertising that I inherited (from my father and his father) or stumbled across (in my research into nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual culture). It centers on those two men—Earle Olsen, artist, and Andrew P. Olsen, graphic designer—to investigate their particular relationship and more general cultural assumptions about art. It spans Europe and Chicago, as well as New York City in between. It enters department stores in 1920 and visits art galleries the 1960s, but begins with me in a basement in present-day Brooklyn.

I do laundry every week but I never noticed the drip before. So it was too late when I realized there was water seeping over and under the piles of papers on the table in my basement. Those papers included:

    • four photo albums of my father’s family in Chicago, ca. 1920-40.
    • a random assortment of prints and drawings my father had collected over his years as a picture framer in New York City, from 1980 to his death in 2011.
    • a scrapbook of advertisements designed by my grandfather, a graphic designer in Chicago for products like Kleenex, Allstate car insurance, and Planter’s Peanuts from the 1920s to 1960s.
  • loose photos of family members that didn’t fit into the scrapbook or folders, like the 9×12 close up of my father’s brother as a cadet at the Citadel, before he was killed training to become a combat pilot during World War II.

Now that I noticed the water I also noticed the smell— rank as dead leaves.

I threw away my father’s collection of prints and took photos with my phone of the ruined photos, their age newly on display in the mold creeping in from the corners. My father’s brother, Andrew P. Olsen Jr., was alive with green and black spots. The series of four smiling baby photos (was it my father or his brother?), taken in Chicago in the 1920s and carefully preserved for almost one hundred years, curled into itself as it dried. I tried to save the Indonesian puppet my father moved from his Brooklyn loft to upstate New York, tacked to a wall of his painting studio. Its moveable arms akimbo, it survived better than the photos.

photo of Andrew P Olsen Jr, water damaged
Andrew Jr cadet photo, water damaged

How stupid to leave all that paper in that vulnerable spot, exposed beneath the pipes pulling water through the house. But it was January and I had a new idea: to write a history of my father’s family, a story of art and advertising in America as my grandfather’s design career rose with consumer culture and as my father defined himself as an artist just as modern art discovered popular culture in the early 1960s, when I was born. It would be a story of a father and a son, American consumerism, Chicago business, and the New York art world. It would explain my grandfather’s and father’s successes and failures, and enable me to write another book after a fifteen year gap, though I still call myself a biographer. Somehow I’d link it to the project I told people I was writing: a biography of the dancer Jane Avril, dancer of the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1890s and model for Toulouse-Lautrec. After all, she was a poster girl for art and advertising, wasn’t she? Somehow it would explain how that project had inexplicably stalled and why I didn’t write “for myself” at all any more.

That’s why the photos and papers were all left out on that table. Because I was “working on them.” But now they were soaked through. As pieces of evidence they were changing (and disappearing) before my eyes.

Biographers are used to the historical record’s gaps; working in archives, we are used to pages that crumble as you turn them, as well as signs of mold and decay. But historical evidence is not only in libraries and not only on paper. The end of the nineteenth century saw the burgeoning of a collector’s culture. Wealthy art patrons like Isabella Stewart Gardner or Henry Frick began to amass the collections that bear their names today in the mansions transformed into museums. Successful industrialists like Henry Ford bought up furniture, farm equipment, even outmoded machinery, creating a three-dimensional archive of Americana. Mass production allowed even average Americans to collect ephemera like baseball cards, postage stamps, or vintage toys. For most of us this vast heap of stuff may seem random, but historians can see a pattern in it. They can read all the beads and shells, the photographs and scrapbooks as well as the collectibles, for the signs of an individual’s values, a culture’s obsessions, a society’s priorities. They can read what’s there and what’s not there. My father’s house overflowed with stuff he picked up at yard sales and antique stores, in trips to Europe in the 1950s and on Saturday nights at the country auctions in upstate New York through the 2000s. He left very few letters, the biographer’s usual gold. His ashes were dispersed years ago but his material self is still, weirdly, buried in my basement.

My basement is both a physical place and a metaphor, of course. It is the basement too, an imaginary place for repressed memories and emotions one would rather avoid or deny. There is evidence there that I still haven’t confronted— like the lists Andrew Sr. kept of the money he gifted his son through the 1970s, supporting my father after my parents’ divorce. During that decade my father turned fifty, bought a summer house on Long Island, and regularly reneged on his childcare payments. Inevitably, the basement leads to other basements, creating a trail of connections forged from a single mention in a newspaper article or a first name dropped into a letter. My father’s letters have led me to “Fred” and “Flora,” who presumably have basements of their own. A conventional studio portrait of my father in 1952 is a slim connection to the artist Walter Pach; another photo links him to Hans Namuth, who famously filmed Jackson Pollock painting in Springs.

My father lived on the peripheries of abstract expressionism, which is back in the news with a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City: he was there in the rooms, in New York City, but never central to the movement. Wandering through that show yesterday, I felt the echoes of all the times I went to the Met with my dad (did I actually see that Clyfford Still retrospective with him there in 1979? I would have been fifteen and it’s possible.) My father’s abstract canvas from 1960 (shown below as it hangs in my bedroom, reflecting the window near my desk and crooked like all my snapshots) resembles the Franz Kline in the Met’s exhibit (“Black, White, and Gray,” 1959), but the implication that his work was derivative would have stung my father. He exhibited in the 1950s, then stopped painting in the 1960s when my sisters and I were born, then started again after divorcing my mother in 1972. He continued painting until his death in 2011, leaving behind hundreds of early canvases and thousands of foam core boards that he produced nearly every day after his early retirement. (“Early” a pun on Earle!)

abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960)
abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960), photographed by the daughter who is not a photographer

When we emptied and sold his house my sisters and I threw many of those late works away— there were too many! We stored others at the art center in his small town in upstate New York. We kept some in our basements in Brooklyn and Williamstown, Massachusetts; we displayed a few on our walls in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Saint Ambroix, France. The archive was frankly overwhelming and stayed pretty much unexamined for the past seven years. Maybe once a year I’d unearth my grandmother’s jewelry and the abundance of females in the family would look over the diamond rings and paste brooches, wondering how to divide them up, then put them away again (where they remain still).

Then last summer I renovated my basement and pulled everything out, then put everything back— forcing a certain confrontation, I suppose. Now, as I write, I regularly run downstairs in search of… something. The folder of exhibit flyers from the 60s (found! marked “Stuff for Earle” in my mother’s handwriting) or that Namuth portrait to insert here.

portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth
portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth

When I look at this today my father looks wary, a little hunched. He’s so familiar (family) but this was before my time. One can’t tell the blue of his eyes, a grayish shade my youngest sister inherited. This photo too is damaged, as you see from the tears and folds. I carried it upstairs just now with a load of clean laundry, tucking it under my chin because my hands were full, and snapped a photo of it with my phone. As an image it’s crooked and the layers are visually confusing— my father peering at us from behind his own plexiglas artwork, itself at an angle to the table it rests on. The photo curves off the white desk I lay it on, and that sliver at the bottom edge reveals the gray carpet and wood floor beneath, which mimics the slivers within the photo: the geometries formed by the diagonal arc, like my father’s right shoulder…. Which is when I realize that this is *not* a photograph of my father sitting behind a spray-painted piece of clear plexiglas but a portrait of my father in the mirror of his own artwork. Because otherwise my father’s shoulder would reach to the edge of the black background, right? On my left the sun streams through the window across a stack of folders. If I’m literally bringing the past into the light, reflecting on reflections, it’s all too obvious.

But it’s a start. So here’s what to expect from this project: there will be too many Andrews and Andys and ands. It will take pieces of evidence, seemingly fixed in place, and move them around into new configurations, adding photographs, sketchbooks, school records and army discharge papers, signet rings and costume jewelry. It will chase down dead ends and long-dead relatives. And it will try to make a personal story into something historical. Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing bits of writing here and on Medium as well as images on Instagram as victoria_c_olsen.

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A Life in Books

For Henry.

When my father-in-law passed away in January he left behind a life in books: written, read, collected. There were stacks of psychology studies in his office, sea yarns in the living room of the beach house, and poetry anthologies in the guest bedroom. But most were in the built-in bookcases in the family room on the second floor of the house he lived in for forty years, sequentially and topically arranged to span his interests as he crisscrossed literary borders. It was this room that I was indirectly put in charge of processing when my mother-in-law decided to move out of that house. “Thank goodness you’re here,” she’d say whenever I arrived on a weekend to help clear. “You can deal with the books.”

books on a shelf

Over the course of the next few months we gradually dismantled the room, sorting everything into piles of Keep, Sell, Donate. There were classics I’d read in familiar and unfamiliar editions: that high school Signet Classic Wuthering Heights (50 cents) with the brooding Heathcliff emerging from a dark tree in the background, in contrast to the simple orange Penguin edition with its British price tag of 2/6. George Orwell’s 1984 (35 cents) turned up with a lurid cartoonish cover boasting a tale of “Forbidden love…Fear…Betrayal.” We sold a few first editions to the Strand Bookstore but we gave away hundreds of well-loved volumes: to friends, to professional colleagues, to our community book swap, and many more in weekly stops at Goodwill. They left in clear recycling bags, cardboard banker boxes, and paper bags from Trader Joe’s, hauled by hand.

cover of Wuthering Heights

The earliest books, at the far left of the room, were hardbound volumes inherited from his parents and parents-in-law (his mother-in-law had annotated hers with notes like “very good!” on the flyleaf). Here were the multi-volume Library of America classics, the histories of the Jews, the Anchor Bible, and the Tao Te Ching. It was a corner little used, I think, but foundational: like a rock upon which the rest of the collection was built, with gifts inscribed from early teachers or saved from courses at City College. There were books like these scattered throughout the room, familiar to me from the home I grew up in and those I visited as a child. Everyone I knew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had some of these same books: Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization, Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its own slipcase, and important relics of the 1970s, like All the President’s Men and Silent Spring. And, somewhere, you’d find the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud (the classic Strachey translation in 24 volumes) along with Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography, its gilt numerals bright against the rigid spines.

cover of 1984

Those were books to be owned and displayed more than read, although the psychologists in my circles (including my father-in-law) knew Freud deeply and could quote him like a Bible. But these were the common elements of a generational identity. The distinct chapters of my father-in-law’s life appeared in the waves of books as you turned the corner of that family room: the fat, yellowing Russian novels bleeding into rows upon rows of contemporary fiction from Roth to Lahiri. His life path could be traced careening through the multi-shelf section on Shakespeare, which his mother used to teach, on an eclectic route through Homer and Herodotus, Beowulf, and Don Quixote. He read at a breakneck pace—to learn and to travel vicariously through Ireland, African deserts, South Sea islands. And he read to write, writing books and professional papers in his field as well as essays on metaphor in poetry and psychology. He self-published his own volumes of poetry, as well as transcribing and editing his immigrant grandfather’s journal.  All of that output seemed to require a massive input of raw material. Or maybe it was the other way around. His appetite for words filling him up until it overflowed onto his own pages.

Books were a bond between us, though sometimes a vexed one. He had strong opinions before I could frame my own, and I often hid mine from him. But I recognized the way his reading had shaped him, how much he had invested himself in them, because I did the same. Sorting the books became a way of continuing and deepening a conversation that had always been somewhat indirect and also a way of processing his loss, as the books moved through my hands and disappeared. It enacted a metaphor he would have loved to have talked over, thought through, written about. “What do your books say about you?” I might have asked, wondering whether there was a book or an essay there. And he would have replied with an example and a quote from something I hadn’t read, urging me to write something on “library as metaphor.” He would have smiled at the ironies of turning this lens on himself, a little abashed.

It’s no surprise that books are always physical objects as well as abstract representations of something bigger and baggier. They create the volume (or volumes over time, in my father-in-law’s case) of a life, shaping the inner contours of the mind as well as the walls of a living room. The life visible in this collection was both a particular generation’s (Abba Eban and Arthur Schlesinger) and his own, inflected by authors he knew (Gerald Stern and William Zinsser): it was thoughtful, engaged, and endlessly curious. He would have been pleased to be part of another kind of reading—his books read to reveal their reader—in a context he hadn’t foreseen.

When the sale of that house finally closed my mother-in-law instinctively returned to the connection between houses and lives and books and how they live on in memory: “It’s more like a book is closing than a chapter,” she emailed. “But what a memorable book!” That closing had been long delayed and evoked all the poignant associations with “closure”—along with the reassuring reminder that “to close” can mean both to end and to bring nearer (a paradox my father-in-law would have enjoyed). It’s an adjective for proximity and connection, here kept alive in memory and on the page.

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The Fantastic Four: Victorian Photography in London

Hawarden
Clementina Hawarden, “Clementina Maude and Isabella Grace,” 1861. Wikimedia Commons.

The “Victorian Giants” show now at National Portrait Gallery in London through May 20th begins with a small room where each wall introduces one of the four photographers in the show: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Clementina Hawarden, and Oscar Rejlander. This feels auspicious — they face each other in some interesting way that will be revealed or complicated, presumably, and they are equal like a square. There’s a welcome symmetry to this composition of two men and two women (I’m writing this during the week that the UK grapples with the mandatory reporting of gender equity in pay to men vs. women. The national average favors men by 17-18% and it seems likely that the NPG chose equal representation intentionally as equity in art history isn’t a given, which wikipedia edit-a-thons aim to address.)

But it’s not clear what the exhibit wants to make of the foursome, especially since they are not actually “equal.” Rejlander is probably the least known of the four but the exhibit makes him seem like the central figure because he was the only one who interacted with all of the others both personally and professionally. Carroll and Cameron also interacted (and disparaged each other’s work, though the exhibit doesn’t mention that). But, surprisingly, Cameron and Hawarden had no known direct connection, despite exhibiting in the same organizations and circulating in the same aesthetic and aristocratic circles. What to make of this? Nothing, apparently, because it’s not even mentioned in the show. In general, this exhibit emphasizes sameness over differences, connections over gaps, which is predictable but disappointing. There are other stories to tell, or at least questions to ask here. Rejlander, Cameron, and Carroll often collected each other’s photographs in albums and the attributions of who made which image are often hard to pin down — and then switch back and forth. That would have been interesting to examine: how do you know who made what image? And even more surprisingly, why might it matter?

Cameron's portrait of Herschel
Julia Margaret Cameron, “Sir John Herschel with Cap,” 1867. Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to deny that the connections aren’t often interesting and fruitful. It’s nice to see some groupings around the same model (for example, Tennyson portraits by Rejlander and Cameron side by side) but what does that suggest? These photographers knew the same people and lived at the same time: why wouldn’t their work be similar? What instead, maybe, to make of their differences? The women, especially, were particularly artful in their compositions — neither pretended to make conventional studio portraits. Cameron got so close to her subjects that their faces completely fill the frame, even sacrificing focus for intimacy. Hawarden posed her daughters in deshabille, leaning against walls and mirrors in carefully composed tableaux. Whereas both Rejlander and Carroll were interested in representing specific people, Cameron and Hawarden were more concerned with symbolic representation of ideas and characters. Inevitably, male and female artists’ portrayals of bodies are “read” differently too and the eroticism of these images is dealt with here in an oddly prim and defensive way, especially with the men: Carroll, we’re told, never photographed Alice nude and “nearly always” had adult chaperones during the sittings. Rejlander, we’re assured, took nude portraits of women purely as anatomical studies for artists. The exhibit’s patroness, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, emphasizes the innocence of childhood in her commentary on the images.

Rejlander’s Tennyson Family.
Oscar Rejlander, “Alfred and Emily Tennyson with their sons at Farringford,” 1862. Wikimedia Commons.

There are curious gaps too: Rejlanders’ best known image of Tennyson is probably the sun-lit family grouping outdoors, with the parents and two sons all holding hands. It’s a rare outdoor image and much reproduced as evidence of their idyllic life at Farringford. Nor does the show reproduce the images Rejlander and Cameron were presumed to have collaborated on at her home on the Isle of Wight in 1863: where Cameron and her maids posed outside her door for narrative scenes with titles like “Greeting the Post” or “Maids at the Well.” These photos were part of a bigger narrative about Cameron’s transformation from colonial matron into art photographer: she was given a camera and took “her first lessons” from professionals like Rejlander (as the wall text asserts). That sounds a little too much like the old speculation about “who taught Julia how to use a camera?,” which has been complicated by research into her friendship with the scientist Sir John Herschel, who experimented with photographic chemicals in the 1840s, and her years of composing private photo albums for her sisters. Cameron’s famous portrait of Herschel is in the show but the exhibit’s suggestion that Cameron was “trained in part” by Rejlander makes those images (that weren’t shown) seem less of an equal partnership. I wrote a biography of Cameron fifteen years ago that grappled with that sturdy myth and maybe I’m over-sensitive to it. But as a biographer I was also put off from the start by the huge introductory wall text that said “BORN IN CEYLON (NOW SRI LANKA), JULIA MARGARET CAMERON…”.  And that’s just plain wrong. She was born in Calcutta and died in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). (All the wall text and captions can be downloaded from the NPG website here.)

Carroll’s “Alice as Beggar Maid”
Lewis Carroll, “Alice Liddell as Beggar Maid,” 1858. Wikimedia Commons.

So I value any exhibition of Cameron’s work, or Victorian photography, and the best treat in the show was simply viewing Rejlander’s private photograph album (seventy-one prints collected from 1856-1866, now in the NPG’s own collection) which has been digitized to scan through. But overall this exhibition was a missed opportunity. The influences between these four “giants” (code for that favorite Victorian word, “genius”?) could have been more complicated: less biographical, less gendered, less one-directional. Still, you do get to see the images in person and at scale.

Here is one of my favorites, Cameron’s portrait of Carroll’s famous Alice Liddell, grown up and looking back at us through the looking glass. The exhibit displayed a variant, called “Alethea,” in which Liddell is in profile instead.

Pomona
Julia Margaret Cameron, “Pomona” (Alice Liddell), 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

Compare Cameron’s Alice to Carroll’s, from fourteen years earlier. The gesture, the background, even the bold gaze back at the viewer, all suggest that Cameron knew Carroll’s photo and was consciously re-viewing it. Where Carroll called his “Alice as Beggar Maid,” Cameron’s revision associates Alice with Greek deities of truth and fertility. These are the sort of overlapping symmetries and asymmetries (of representation and power) that could have been explored in more depth.

 

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Transformation, digital and personal

https://www.amazon.com/Lean-Agile-Design-Thinking-High-Performing/dp/0999476912/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1507401958&sr=8-7&keywords=jeff+gothelf
Our first publication!

I’ve spent the past few months since leaving my full-time teaching job diving into the world of self-publishing and small presses. The result is an exciting new venture: Sense & Respond Press, which publishes short business titles on digital transformation and innovation. My partners, Josh Seiden and Jeff Gothelf, and I started from scratch and needed to set up an LLC, design covers and logos, create accounts with all the print and ebook distributors…, so I’ve learned a lot. Our first book is now out (woo!), our next is available for pre-order, and we have several others queued up over the next few months.

At the same time I’ve been writing case studies on higher education for Google’s blog. (Here’s one recent example I worked on about the innovative use of virtual reality for teaching at Brown.) That’s been eye-opening too as I research projects and interview academics to understand how they use technology to teach and collaborate in new ways. Even higher education, one of the slowest-moving institutions around, is transforming itself. It’s been fascinating to have a window into the process.

It’s been an immersive experience and a big shift from teaching writing to first-year college students. I attended the Business of Software in Boston in September and Lean Startup Week in San Francisco earlier this month — and wrote about both on Medium here. Stay tuned!

 

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