Writing with light

We hear it sometimes that photographs are losing their power. In a world where every other

The first color photograph, 1855, by James Clerk Maxwell (source: National Geographic)

cell phone has a built in camera and and all the people you know just posted their summer vacations, their snow angels, and their tonsillectomies online, there are just too many pictures out there. Plus, those pictures are so easily manipulated and photoshopped, how do you know when to trust them anymore? And anyway, we’ve seen it all before. You can almost believe all that, right up until that moment you come across one picture that speaks to you, the one that takes your imperfectly formed feelings and judgments and snaps everything, if you’ll excuse the expression, into focus.*

In our modern world so framed and shaped by images, it is hard to imagine that photography was once the red-headed stepchild of art. The medium, less than 200 years old, was disparaged in its early history, considered little more than a mechanical trick. The art world unanimously looked down its nose at the emerging field of photography. It took the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, pioneers and champions of the medium, to elevate photography to the level of art. Today, only the most pointy headed would argue that photography is not a full-fledged member of the art world.

Perhaps acceptance was inevitable, though. What other medium can capture a lightning flash or a moment of pure childish delight or a pristine landscape forsaken? It is the medium’s ability to capture the fleeting and suspend it in time that makes photography so thrilling, but it is the eye of the photographer that lifts it to the level of art, that makes it so expansive and universal.

Today it would be easy to argue that photography is essential to our daily lives. We are surrounded by it. We have moved from a society that gathers much of its understanding of life from words to one that gathers from images.  As the word “photography” — attributed to Sir John Hershel in 1839 — suggests, it is defined etymologically as “writing with light.”  Photographs catch and hold in suspension — for perpetuity — what our minds and eyes can’t. In this way, photography shapes and changes our perception of the world.

Through photography, we also can compare the past with the present. It is thus an artistic medium of change like none other. Few artists have the ability to document and frame change the way photographers can. I often have the opportunity to look through old issues of the Bluestone, the Madison yearbook. Here one can see the dramatic changes at Madison, both the past and present held side-by-side, both suspended in time. In this sense, photography gives us the great gifts of time and perspective.

Earlier this year, someone in JMU’s communications office floated the idea of hosting a curated show for JMU alumni photographers as part of the Alumni Celebration. The idea evolved and grew. Madison magazine and the Madison Art Collection would jointly sponsor the event. It was a great idea in light of the year’s Alumni Centennial Celebration and the plethora of alumni in the field, many of whom are SMAD† grads. With the expert help of Kate Stevens(’96, ’99M), curator of the Madison Art Collection, it was a win/win.  When the call went out for submissions, JMU alumni photographers responded. The result is “Full Frame: A Celebration of Madison Alumni Photographers” on display this weekend. The show will feature almost 50 JMU alumni photographers, including Be the Changer Casey Templeton (’06).

It has been a whole lot of work, but the opportunity to showcase the work of JMU alumni photographers was too good to pass up. In conjunction with the exhibit, a panel of  Alumni photographers from six decades will share their experiences as working photographers during a Friday evening panel discussion. Students are welcome.

If you’re on campus for Homecoming and registered for the Alumni Celebration, you’ll want to take in the exhibit. It is stunning. You’ll also see the best of the best in some of our student photographers’ work from the Picture It! Project, as well as the winning entries from the recent Facebook photo contest.

All in all, “Full Frame” is a portrait of Madison alumni and their art, written with light.

For more information and to register, visit http://www.jmu.edu/homecoming/index.shtml where you’ll find a link to register for the Alumni Celebration.
*quote attributed to Richard Lacoya, Time magazine.
†SMAD, for the uninitiated, stands for JMU’s School of Media Art and Design.
To read more about the history of photography, visit: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photographers/photography-timeline.html

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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