Saturday, October 24, 2015

Remembering and Forgetting

John Collier Jr.
I went to a lecture recently which was sponsored by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.  The announcements had indicated the presentation would be about the museums photo archives.  As it turned out, the presenter used some photos from the archives, but mostly as illustrations for discussing theories of photography advanced by European philosophers.  At the end of the talk I asked about the museum's holdings related to the work of John Collier Jr.  The lecturer, currently a curator at the museum, replied that the Maxwell had a very large collection of works by Collier, but that no one had worked with the material.  She said she did not know if anyone in the Anthropology or Education departments at UNM was familar with Collier's work or making use of his techniques in regard to photo analysis and education.

The lecturer's answers to my questions left me discouraged about the state of knowledge about one of Twentieth Century America's photo greats.  John Collier Jr. made a lot of great pictures in the early 1940s while working under Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration.  Collier continued making photographs in a similar vein for many more years all over the western hemisphere.  At the same time he also began to develop the concepts of Visual Anthropology and applied those concepts to analyzing teaching and learning processes.  Collier taught photography classes as a full professor for many years at San Francisco State.  His accomplishments as a photographer, researcher and teacher seem all the more extraordinary when you consider that he had very limited formal schooling, due in a large part to injuries sustained as a child which left him with physical impairments, dyslexia, hearing loss and impaired speech.

As it turns out, academic engagement with Collier's work was not as dismally scant as the lecturer had averred.  While browsing the web for information about Collier I stumbled on an interactive presentation about Collier's war-time work with the FSA.  The web pages were the product of a grant project conducted under the auspices of the Maxwell Museum and The College of Education's Technology & Education Center (TEC) at UNM in 2006.  The project's director was Catherine Baudoin, who at the time was the Maxwell's Photographic Collections Curator.  The on line presentation was organized as an interactive lesson plan enabling exercises in interpretation of war-time photo uses by the U.S. government using posters, photo archives and video resources.  To support the lesson plan activities, Baudoin uploaded about 400 of Collier's FSA images to the Flickr photo sharing site where they are still available for viewing.

Unfortunately, Baudoin's web pages had become detached from the Maxwell web site over the years; there is no link there now to the Collier work; the Photo Curator position seems to have evaporated, and Baudoin's name is nowhere to be found.  My guess would be that the skimpy and rather disorganized Maxwell web site is symptomatic of budgetary deficiencies which have focused the institution's efforts more on conservation of holdings rather than on sustaining a coherent educational mission incorporating up-to-date technological communications resources.

Luckily, modern search engine technology compensates for a lot of academic entropy.  Here are some useful  links to information I have come across on the web and elsewhere:

Far from Main Street:Three Photographers in Depression-Era New Mexico (link to Amazon)
A very fine collection of photos along with essays about the FSA/OWI work of  Russell Lee, John Collier Jr. and Jack Delano.  The cover photo is by Collier.  "All photographs are selected from the Pinewood Collection of New Mexico FSA Photographs, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico ... Prints were made from original negatives generously loaned by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division."

Oral History Interview with John Collier, 1965 January 18 Conducted by Richard K. Doud
Amazing insights into the personalities and operations of the FSA/OWI under Stryker.  The first part of the interview is accessible as an on line audio clip, and it gives a good idea of the expressive challenge which Collier over-came and even turned to an advantage during his long career as a photographer, researcher and educator.

John Collier, Jr.: Anthropology, Education and the Quest for Diversity
by Ray Barnhardt, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
An authoritative, first-person appreciation of Collier's work with Eskimo and Navajo students and teachers as well as with a diverse urban school system in San Francisco.

Photographing Navajos: John Collier Jr. on the Reservation, 1948-1953
by C. Stewart Doty, Dale Sperry Mudge, and Herbert John Benally Photographs by John Collier Jr.
(link to Amazon)

The authors tracked down photo archives of Collier's Navajo work in Pennsylvania and Nova Scotia and then interviewed family members of the people depicted by Collier in the Four Corners area.  The photos in the book illustrate the techniques developed by Collier to elicit social and cultural information by showing photographs to informants depicting their own social and physical environments.  The text and illustrations provide a nice followup to the study of the Navajo conducted by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton in the 1930s and 1940s.  Right after the publication of Photographing Navajos the Collier family made the decision to donate their collection of Collier's work to the Maxwell Museum.  The book's introduction notes that "The collection includes fifty years of photographs, film and video, field notes, daybooks, and correspondence."

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John Collier Jr., Bureau with Portraits and Mementos
(and self portrait), Picuris Pueblo, NM, ca. 1945

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