Kelvin Nunez ’25 is a writer for the Hamilton Communications and Marketing office. Here he offers his impressions of a visit to the Wellin Museum’s collection of photographic artifacts with the course Photography Changes Everything by Assistant Professor of Art History Nadya Bair.
Many things claim impact; with photography, you can’t help but see it.
The course Photography Changes Everything by Nadya Bair, Assistant Professor of Art History, taught me how a crucial medium of storytelling developed and contributed to the last 200 years of human history. I had the chance to delve into art history while exploring my passion for storytelling.
The course encouraged me to deal with history through the prism of change. The invention of photography provided this initial change because it allowed humans to write with light. Photography has changed the way we validate events, remember the past, and share moments with others.
Bair knows the importance of the medium and has walked us through a considerable part of the photography timeline. She taught us about the progression of the camera while always encouraging us to consider context for technological improvements and how an item builds on growing lore.
I had forgotten that the classroom is just the precipice of what we encounter in the real world.
Bair doesn’t strictly teach her students, but she makes us interact with the physical side of art. We had many opportunities in class to handle daguerreotypes (the first patented photographic process made on silver-coated copper plates) from the 1860s. Hamilton College Archives. This chance to interact with untouched and aged images has fueled a fundamental part of my enthusiasm and experience for this course: it reminds me that these objects are awesome feats of human chemistry and culture.
The crown jewel of the semester so far has been our video analysis project with the Wellin Museum of Art in Hamilton. Professor Bair entrusted some of the museum’s photographic artifacts to pairs of students, and we had the opportunity to study and breathe in the fibers of the story.
Liz Shannon, Wellin’s curator of collections, ushered us into a seminar room where the collection was prepared for us. Before entering, we had to wash our hands, throw away gum or food, and weren’t allowed to bring water for the sake of the pictures! The impressive collection of photographs included 19th century relics that were frankly breathtaking in terms of preservation and quality.
There were only two objects we could touch: a tintype family portrait from Utica and a wooden stereoscope designed for 19th century stereograms. The rest of the photographs must be protected and handled only by professionals. We walked around all the items and enjoyed discussing the details we noticed. Many elements had already been reviewed in class, revealing detailed planning by Professor Bair.
The photographs were much more stunning and textured in person than on a presentation slide. This was a surprise to me because I had forgotten that the classroom is just the precipice of what we encounter in the real world.
The texture of the images was fantastic. They reinforced what we discussed in class, and many early photographic processes were complex chemical procedures fine-tuned to meet a photographer’s needs. Many processes resulted in an “art” or painterly impression, while others resulted in clear, crisp figures. Being surrounded by all kinds of old photographs was an eye-opening and humbling experience.
Feeling the evolution of photography in my hands, my learning experience has greatly improved. What I’m learning feels much more real than any textbook or slide show. This course has further helped me connect and seek out the significant changes that are causing ripples in society.
Whether it’s family trips, a night out, or even my learning experience, I agree with Professor Bair: photography changes everything.