August 2012 Archways

Faculty Research: In Camera

Art historian Lisa Saltzman looks at the changing meaning of photography in a digital world.

By Molly Petrilla

Professor of History of Art Lisa Saltzman. Photo by Paola Nogueras '84.

In the years she’s worked as an art historian, History of Art Professor Lisa Saltzman has published books and research papers on painting, video art, sculpture, and installation, but until recently, there was one area of the art world she had yet to examine.

“For all the time I’ve spent studying the history of art, I’ve scarcely written about photographs,” she says, “but in some way it’s photographs that interest me the most.” Saltzman’s interest has now developed into her forthcoming book—Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects—for which she received a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship.

“This project is a way for me to take hold of something about images that took hold of me long before I ever knew what art history was,” she says. “It’s a way of trying to think about what photographs really are and what they really do.”

Saltzman is also the author of Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz and Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art, and she is the co-editor, with Eric Rosenberg, of Trauma and Visuality in Modernity. Out of the 181 scholars, artists, and scientists selected to receive a Guggenheim from a pool of nearly 3,000 applicants this year, she was the lone recipient in the “Fine Arts Research” category. Saltzman has also received a fellowship from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She’ll spend the upcoming academic year there, researching and writing Daguerreotypes, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

Though Daguerreotypes will focus on contemporary photography, Saltzman also plans to reimagine the medium’s history. She says she’ll trace it back several centuries, exploring what it meant to capture an image of the human subject even before the first photographic processes were invented in the 1830s. (The book’s title references one method, which Louis Daguerre called “daguerreotype.”)

Addressing the contemporary side of photography, Saltzman says she will consider its place in recent novels, films, and video art in “a search for some idea about what photography still means in the present.”

“Photography no longer has the relation to the world it once did,” she adds. “Photographs can now be digitally produced and, as a result, they can be utter fictions. This book is trying to think about what remains of traditional photographs in the aftermath of that transformation by digital means. For all the changes in photography, we still hold on to some belief in what photographs are, what they attest to, what they bear witness to, and what they do to secure a relationship with subjects in the world.”

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