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Art history scholar discusses photography’s beginnings

Art history scholar discusses photography’s beginnings

“Photography was not born a mass medium. It had to be converted into one through creative work on its technologies, as well as its formats, production, distribution processes, marketing and more.”

Those words were spoken in the List Art Center yesterday by award-winning author and scholar Michael Leja, who is one of the “pre-eminent scholars in the field of American Art,” according to Professor of History of Art and Architecture Douglas Nickel.

Leja, a professor of the history of art at Penn, was the honorary speaker at the 2018 Annual Anita Glass Memorial Lecture. His presentation, titled “The Langenheim Brothers at Niagara Falls: Photographic Fusions and the Mass Marketing of Photography,” explored Frederick and William Langenheim’s contributions to the production and consumption of photography in the mid-1800s. From taking the first set of panoramic photos of Niagara Falls to developing the technology that resulted in the mass distribution of landscape stereographs, these brothers deserve “much of the credit or blame for developing the mass marketing of photographs and a mass market for them,” Leja said.

Nickel, who teaches Leja’s writings in her classes, said Leja “is interested in trying to redefine the way we do art history by looking at the materials that aren’t necessarily famous masterpieces of painting and sculpture. His interest is in how pictures were used by average people in the past, which, if you think about the Internet and the way that we’re bombarded with images now, is an interesting way to think about doing archaeology about the present moment.”

Leja’s lecture primarily focused on the composition of the Langenheim brothers’ Niagara Falls panorama and its popular reception. The talk lasted for a little over an hour and was attended by a large number of students, artists and community members.

Dominic Bate GS, who studies art history, said he was “really intrigued by what (Leja) said about the way that the … Langenheim Brothers tried to figure touristic experience itself” through their depictions of Niagara Falls.

Katherine Chavez ’19, who is double concentrating in art history and visual art, said she attended the event with her thesis in mind. “I really liked how the position of the viewer is strange in a lot of the photos — it’s not a viewpoint that you’d be able to have if you went to the actual location,” Chavez said. “It kind of disrupts traditional understandings of photography as representing a reality, so there’s a little bit of a disconnect there — a disembodied experience.”



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