The following post comes to us from UT AMS doctoral student Andrew Gansky, who is co-organizer with Andi Gustavson of a new working group called PhotoLab designed for graduate students and the Austin photographic community.
American studies has a penchant for calling itself interdisciplinary, and our students take classes across campus and read into any number of fields to bear out this constitutive ethos. Yet it’s easy enough to walk into a course in another department and simply meet it on disciplinary terms, trying to satisfy the instructor’s expectations regarding how students should read, write, and think. It can be difficult to figure out how to put varying fields and ways of thinking in conversation without creating an incompatible cacophony of ideas, theoretical language, and methodologies, or feeling as though you’re trespassing on academic territory where you have no real business being. There is no simple formula to figure out precisely what it means to work as an interdisciplinary scholar.
With this in mind, Andi Gustavson, my fellow graduate student, has been working for some time with Professor Steven Hoelscher to put together an Institute of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center that brings together scholars, practitioners, and artists from all across campus, drawing faculty from anthropology, art history, English, geography, history, photojournalism, RTF, studio arts, and of course, American studies. The kinds of cross-disciplinary conversations this institute hopes to foster is a promising gesture for those desiring to present and discuss work beyond their specific area of expertise.
To help make this institute more accessible to students, Andi and I have been organizing a corollary working group, PhotoLab, open to graduate students and the larger Austin photographic community. We want the group to be useful for participants, so we will spend a large portion of our monthly meetings workshopping papers and bodies of photographic work. In conversation with group members, we will likewise develop public presentations and publishing agendas, and we will facilitate interactions with working photographers and similar groups at a variety of institutions. But we also hope PhotoLab will be fresh, stimulating, and imaginative—that it will foster an environment where students can present their ideas on equal footing and will have no need to maintain jurisdiction over photographic subfields. We are excited that PhotoLab brings together working photographers, students in studio arts, and participants who study or utilize photography for a wide range of research goals.
Some of our participants include an anthropologist who uses photos taken by research participants to produce collaborative ethnographies and interactive documentaries; a geographer and active photographer who uses photography as both a tool and a subject to engage with air fields and the city of Marfa, Texas; a studio photographer who backlights newsprint weather maps to reveal verso images or text superimposed in unexpected ways; a Radio/Television/Film student who studies how photographs have historically described, defined, and evoked the often tenuous and shifting threshold between bodies and technology; and a professional photographer whose recent work deals with installation views as a class of photography with implications beyond the utilitarian value of document.
Each of these participants will bring substantially different perspectives and sets of practices to PhotoLab, and the photographs each makes or studies encompass a broad range of aesthetics, purposes, and methods. By focusing on photography in its multivalent forms from numerous perspectives, PhotoLab will hopefully shed light on how we can make, manipulate, and write about photographs that are instruments, documents, and artworks, such that the depth of our work can match the inherently undisciplined nature of our photographic subjects.