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A Closer Look at Your Class Reading List

Posted on 09/25/20 by SPE Board of Director in Board Member Posts

In 2001, rare book dealer Andrew Roth published The Book of 101 Books. He admitted that his selection was based on his experience and knowledge, and what he defined as "just the great ones" arranged chronologically. Of the 101 highlighted photobooks, thirteen were by women (Abbott, Arbus, Arnold, Bourke-White, Cahun, Goldin, Krull, Lange, Meiselas, Model, Riefenstahl, Sherman and Ulmann). Roth performed a service but then collectors and libraries used this as a guide to build or add to collections. It can be argued that this is how a cannon is cemented. In 2018, How We See: Photobooks by Women co-edited by Russet Lederman, Olga Yatskevich and Michael Lang provided a counter narrative. Kristen Lubben, Curator and executive director at the Magnum Foundation, wrote an essay with a quote to keep in mind when preparing to teach:  "What gets left out of dominant histories isn't neutral or accidental, but a result of the structures that produce and preserve them."


Something was in the air because also in 2018, staff writer at The Atlantic Ed Yong wrote a piece in which he analyzed the gender of his sources.  It reminded me that law professor Richard Delgado conducted a similar exercise looking at the race of cited legal scholars.  Published in 1984, The Imperial Scholar, relayed Delgado's findings that although there were Black, Hispanic and American Indian scholars publishing on social justice issues, the same ten white male scholars were the frequently cited sources.  Ten years later, Delgado returned to his analysis and found that not much had changed. Citation analysis is being conducted across disciplines, but on an individual level, we can all scrutinize our course reading lists.  Does your class reading list offer the same set of canonical image makers?  Even in a COVID world, one can identify essays, monographs, blogs or social media platforms that highlight new or emerging visual artists.


While attending the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) virtual conference, I recently learned of Tina Campt's Listening to Images. It reminded me that photo educators and image makers may find new collections and sources for their students in photography archives. New SPE Board member, Rafael Soldi shared that Strange Fire offers suggestions to diversify curriculum.  In 2019, SPE member Deborah Willis co-edited Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History, with Ellyn Toscano and Kalia Brooks Nelson. A pdf version of this volume is available for free and includes essays about photography. And, Women Photograph is a "private database (which) includes more than 1,000 independent documentary photographers based in 100+ countries and is available privately to any commissioning editor or organization." The site expands our awareness of those currently working in the field. Change can begin in the classroom with your reading assignments.


Deborah Hollis

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