Friday, February 14, 2014

Catherine Zuromskis

Catherine Zuromskis is Assistant Professor of Art History at UNM with a focus on photography, contemporary art, and twentieth-century American visual culture. Her latest book is Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images.

Recently I asked Zuromskis about what she was reading. Her reply:
As a university professor, I rarely get to focus my attention on a single book from start to finish. I am usually juggling a number of books for class and for research, and if there is time at the end of the day, I may squeeze in a few pages of reading for pleasure. Right now, I’m pleased to be reading a number of different books, all of which are delighting and engaging me in different ways.

I’ve just finished Jennifer Doyle’s fantastic new study Hold it Against Me: Emotion and Difficulty in Contemporary Art (Duke University Press, 2013) and will be writing a review of it for the journal Postmodern Culture. The book deftly examines the difficult topic of emotion in contemporary art through a series of artists who have often been relegated to the margins of art history. Though many critics have been quick to dismiss the works of artists like Ron Athey, an HIV positive gay man whose performances involve self-wounding and painful endurance, Doyle’s book reveals the immense complexity of emotional responses to such works. In the process, she offers a profound critique of art history and its relationship to affect, difficulty, and what is too often oversimplified as the “literalness” of works by queer and female artists and artists of color. I found Doyle’s book inspiring as well for the way she tackles a problem I have often faced in my own scholarship: how to write substantive critical scholarship about feelings. Doyle’s book manages to be both insightful and heartfelt without ever seeming self-indulgent. At the same time, she made me think hard about my own resistance to self-indulgence itself in scholarly writing.

I’m also just beginning the latest book by Shawn Michelle Smith, to my mind one of the best scholars of photo history working today. Her first book American Archives: Gender, Race and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton University Press, 1999) was foundational in conceiving and writing my own book, Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images, and taught me just how political and complex a simple family photograph could be. Her latest book, At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (Duke University Press, 2013) deals with the provocative notion of what we cannot see in the photographic image. She begins with the fascinating example of what is commonly known as the “first photograph,” Nicéphore Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras” from 1826. Part of what is so interesting about this image, Smith suggests, is how little it actually shows us. The polished silver plate displays an image so faint it is nearly impossible to see, and yet as the “first photograph” what it (barely) shows us is also of immense historical and symbolic importance. From this first photograph, Smith begins an exploration of the limitations of photographic seeing touching on such idiosyncratic figures as the spirit photographer William Mumler, the inventor of stop motion photography, Eadweard Muybridge, and the pictorialist photographer F. Holland Day. Though I am only a few pages in, I am already enthralled by the clarity and complexity of Smith's argument and the necessary relation she posits between, on the one hand, a medium ontologically grounded in the idea of making the world visible and, on the other, that medium’s persistent failure to fully reveal what it represents.

Over winter break, I was able to turn my attention to some reading “just for fun” and I am nearly three quarters of the way through Lawrence Wright’s fascinating Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). Though I picked it up as a vacation read, I have found it to be a fascinating compliment to my scholarly interests in art and culture in twentieth century America. Wright’s account of L. Ron Hubbard’s life and the founding and growth of the Church of Scientology is not only a riveting and astounding page-turner, but also an impeccably researched and written testament to the strange and unique function of belief in twentieth century American culture.

Last but not least are the books with more pictures than words. I am addicted to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ weird and wonderful new comic book Saga (Image Comics, Inc.). This sci-fi series comments on class, race, gender, parenting, and the subversive political potential of mass culture. Plus it features star-crossed lovers, a lying cat, a race of aristocratic overlords with televisions for heads, and a nightmare-inducing yet sexy spider-like female bounty hunter called “The Stalk.” What’s not to love?

And, as the mother of a two year old, I am rapidly becoming reacquainted with the some of the best (and worst) of children’s picture books. Our latest discovery is the wordless yet flawlessly told Flotsam by David Wiesner (Clarion Books, 2006). This beautiful book folds a richly drawn portrait of a fantastical undersea world populated by giant starfish, tiny aliens, and clockwork fish into a narrative of a boy who finds a vintage Melville underwater box camera washed up at the beach. It is a whimsical little masterpiece!
Learn more about Catherine Zuromskis' Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue