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Photo historian comes to U.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Department of History of Art and Architecture has hired Douglas Nickel, a distinguished photo historian and the first in his field at the University, to expand Brown’s offerings in photo history.

Nickel, who received his Ph.D. in the history of photography from Princeton University, has taught at Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and, most recently, the University of Arizona. He has worked as a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography.

This semester, Nickel will teach HIAA 0080: “Introduction to the History of Photography” and HIAA 2860A: “The Museum and the Photograph.”

Though the department has offered classes in photo history before, it has never had a regular professor who specialized in the field, said Professor of History of Art and Architecture Catherine Zerner, the department chair.

In expanding its photo history offerings, Brown has put itself on the map in the field, Zerner said. Though there is a lot of popular interest in the history of photography, few universities actually provide opportunities to study the field, Nickel said.

Late last year, the department set up a search committee for the position. Last spring, the candidates were invited to campus to give lectures and to be interviewed by the committee.

“Any search process is a long process,” Zerner said, adding that because the search was to fill a senior appointment, the appointee would immediately receive tenure rather than go through the usual lengthy process to receive it.

“When looking for junior or senior scholars, there’s a process that needs to be followed, and you do need to get out there to find out who the good people are in a field and contact them,” she said.

The committee looked for candidates with specific research interests, Zerner said. “Within the time frame of 19th and early 20th century, we were looking for academics with exciting work, and a field that had a lot of student interest, and Doug fit that perfectly,” she said.

As of now, there are no plans to expand the program by hiring other academics. “I’m the photo history program, I guess,” Nickel said. “It would be nice to think that we’ll get more instructors in the future, but I think we have to be realistic too.”

Photo history was attractive to the Department of History of Art and Architecture because of its interdisciplinary applications and interest from other departments.

History of photography can be used in many different academic contexts, including anthropology, political science and English, Nickel said, adding, “Photography is one of those areas that’s so important to our culture that it shouldn’t be tied to any one field.”

Professor of English Nancy Armstrong, who wrote a book titled “Fiction in the Age of Photography,” said she thinks “the history of the novel and the history of photography talk to each other.”

“I do feel you can’t study the history of the novel without understanding the history of photography,” she said, noting that both mediums portray scenes: the novel through words, and the photograph through pictures.

“Photography really touches on so many aspects of life,” said Mazie Harris GS, who transferred to Brown this year from the University of Arizona to follow Nickel. “Photography is so much a part of our visually based culture, it can be really helpful for students in another field,” she added.

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