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Happenings: Campus Lecture

Today’s post comes from Anna Rogulina, Vassar College class of 2011 and Art Center student docent.

Jerry Thompson (American, 1945- ) Coney Island (girl with afro with hip thrust out, no.29), 1973, Gelatin silver print, Purchase, Advisory Council for Photography, 2007.14.4

One of the cornerstones of the Student Docent program here at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is our weekly training session. Typically, it is an opportunity for us to learn more about the collection, hear from the curators, sharpen our skills as docents and take care of housekeeping. Every now and then, however, training takes on a new dimension. One of the greatest highlights of the program so far this year occurred last Wednesday afternoon when we were visited by the photographer Jerry Thompson. We greeted him in the far end of the Prints and Drawings galleries, with an arrangement of portable museum stools serving as our auditorium. In front of us was a display of four portraits Thomson had shot in the 1970s and 1980s. The casual set up was perfect for the kind of candid conversation that would ensue.  Vassar is lucky to host many stellar lectures by renowned artists and art historians, but very seldom do they play out on such a small and personal scale. For that reason, I consider Thompson’s talk, which was a kind of show-and-tell, to be a truly special and rare opportunity.

Thompson’s career took off in the late 1970s, when he would take his 8X10 camera to the streets of New York to scout potential subjects to photograph. He recalled spending time at Coney Island during early phases of his career as tests of courage, in which he initially found it very difficult to approach strangers for their portraits. As someone who is very much interested in the practice of photography, I take comfort knowing that even the most accomplished of photographers had moments of uncertainty and lapses in confidence at one time or another. Back in his Coney Island days, Thompson largely had to rely on people who approached him, boldly declaring, “Take my photo”. It would be a few years before he was able to “make the first move.”

Today, Thompson is an influential figure in the field of photography, with a significant body of work, publications, and numerous awards. Along his path to success it seems that his philosophy has remained rooted in the idea that his photography is “passive”. Now, this is certainly an interesting claim, perhaps even a counter-intuitive one. When someone takes a photograph, one literally “captures” the scene. The choice of words attached to the act of making a picture makes it seem like something very much active. Surely, framing, shutter speed, angle, lighting – these are all conscious decisions made by the photographer. Or are they?

Historically, this idea of artistic intervention on the part of the photographer has been used to legitimize photography as an art form. When Thompson was starting out, photography for him was less an artistic endeavor and more a way of relating to the outside world. Photography was a “passive” act, because he did not approach it with a specific agenda, nor did he look for a particular style. “When a camera with great descriptive powers moves close to a living subject, interesting things happen,” he writes. And interesting things did happen. You can see what happened for yourself at the Gallery at HERMÈS where Thompson’s work is being presented with the photographs of his mentor and friend, Walker Evans.

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