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Perspectives: A Few Thoughts on Photography, Scholarship, and Life

Isle of harris scotland 2012
Isle of Harris, Scotland, 2012

Almost halfway through my undergraduate experience, I switched majors. Although I began my education on a pre-med track, I quickly felt a strong pull toward art history. That decision was life-changing; in fact, I doubt I would be here today, as president of Stony Brook, without it.  

Venice 2013
Venice, 2013

I often attribute this transformation to the profundity and the serendipity of a multidisciplinary undergraduate experience: the discovery of a new passion through exploration. Looking back, I think the signs were always there that art and history would eventually be my life’s work. My passion for photography was perhaps my first taste, even as a child, of the power of art — both as a form of self-expression and as a tool for understanding. Photography remains one of my best resources for getting to know the world around me. So, for this blog post (the first of many!), I thought I’d talk a little more about my interest in photography as a way for you to get to know a little more about me.

Crete 2013
Crete, 2013

I first started taking photos when I was a child, using a small, handheld camera. My Kodak Instamatic was a beginner’s camera, and film was precious and expensive at that time. Taking a photograph meant staying still, really suspending yourself in that one moment in order to get things just right. This continues to be something I love about photography — the intentionality with which it forces us to see our surroundings — but my small, frenetic hands resulted in many a blurry image. It wasn’t until I got into a studio art class in high school that I began to understand how to harness light to tell stories and capture moments in time. We were lucky enough to have a darkroom, and my black-and-white photographs for class were all developed by hand. I marveled as images emerged seemingly like magic in the basin of the developer. I think it was that red, glowing darkroom that might have instilled in me a reverence for art and the creative process. It challenged me to both document new experiences as well as look more closely at things I’d once considered usual, or familiar. My 35mm camera followed me across Knoxville, Tennessee, and on my first trip abroad, where I was mesmerized by the details of centuries-old architecture, church ornamentation, stonework, and castles. Somehow, behind the lens of that 35mm camera, I felt closer to my subjects. I fell in love with architecture and art history, and began seeing the built world as a way to understand past cultures — not only what people did, but also what they valued. Studying the built environment allowed the past to breathe — to point to our differences across time and cultures, but perhaps more importantly to point to our commonalities, our shared humanity.

A church in Nassau, Bahamas, 2012
A church in Nassau, Bahamas, 2012

When I eventually received my PhD and began teaching architectural history, photography became both a hobby and a part of my job. In fact, when I first started teaching art history it was all done by slides; there were no such things as digital images and computer projectors. It felt important to photograph the places I was teaching about: to place art and architecture in their urban and/or landscape contexts and speak about it with the intimacy that art can create. To me, the study of art history is really the study of human experience. It’s a sublime thing to be able to celebrate the heights of human creation while simultaneously examining the way that time erodes it. 

Photography — and especially architectural and street photography — feels like a very natural extension of that. If you wander a city, even your hometown, the lens can give you a special power: the power of attention. The power to actually notice the passage of time, to see the ways that generations of people have shaped their world.

That’s really what I’ve always liked about photography, and art more broadly: its ability to reveal truths that often are overlooked. Art has an uncanny way of showing the detailed nuances of human nature, human expression, and our specifically human devotion to beauty. 

Great white egret, Setauket, 2021
Great white egret, Setauket, 2021

As you can imagine, the subjects of my photography have changed considerably since 2020. Travel has been virtually nonexistent, so I’ve been experimenting more with photography that can be done right here, including photographing our local wildlife —which presents new challenges. Buildings don’t move! But animals…well… I’m currently in pursuit of the perfect image of a particular great white egret near our house, who simply won’t position himself in exactly the right way to capture the calm of low-tide water and the early morning light. (Don’t even get me started on how difficult it is to photograph our dog, Angus.) But what I love about this attempt to get lighting, setting, and bird coordinated in order to achieve a great photograph, is that it makes me see things in new ways. I notice the slight ripples in the water as the egret walks, the vegetative growth on the rocks at low tide, and the small crustaceans that the bird is hunting. It gives me a renewed appreciation for the interconnectedness of all of these elements in our local ecosystem.

Just last month, I spoke during our Spring Convocation for first year and transfer students. I encouraged our newest Seawolves to consider this university a resource to enrich them both academically and personally. I urged them to reach across academic boundaries and to try something new. This belief is very much informed by my own experience: My scholarship would not be the same without my practice in photography, and my photography would not be the same without my scholarship. Though they are two different mediums and can use two different parts of the brain, they inform each other indelibly. A diversity of interests can join together to create something new…something great and completely unique to every individual student, faculty member, and employee here at Stony Brook University: perspective. 

Hiking the West Highland Way, Scotland, 2012
Hiking the West Highland Way, Scotland, 2012

In 1972, the art critic John Berger created a television show called Ways of Seeing. Consisting of four, 30-minute episodes on cultural history, art, and most specifically how we look at art, the show (and the following book) was influential in advancing our understanding of perspective and the idea of “the gaze.” 

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” Berger says. “Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”

And that, in the poetically astute Berger fashion, is perhaps why art continues to compel me, after decades devoted to its study. It’s why I believe developing a perspective is one of the best things a person can do, in photography and in life. It’s why I continue to try to capture that egret in the early morning light, even if he won’t stand exactly where I want him to. 

Petra jordan 2013
Petra, Jordan, 2013

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