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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Wednesday, April 23, 2014

    Death in Stasis

    Guest blogger Nicole Downer is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in American Studies. She curated the show Death in Stasis, featuring post-mortem photography, as the capstone project for her Museums Concentration.

    An important note before you begin:The following blog post includes photographs of deceased individuals, including children. Please be aware if you are sensitive to such imagery.

    Paul Nadar (French 1856 - 1939) and Gaspard Felix Tournachon (French  1820 – 1910). Victor Hugo on His Deathbed, 1885. Carbon print on paper. Purchased with the gift of the Smith College Museum of Art Visiting Committee in honor of Charles Chetham. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1989:13

    Death was a fact of life during the Victorian era. People coped with loss through the creation of images of the deceased. The tradition of post-mortem portraiture dates back to as early as the end of the Middle Ages. Deathbed or memorial portraits and death masks were the last images produced of loved ones. Through the new technology of photography, Victorians endeavored to create the illusion of life after death.  Post-mortem and memorial portraiture was used to mourn the loss of family members as well as revered public figures.

    The Victorians had a more intimate relationship with death than we do now. Death was a part of life and people tended to die in homes rather than hospitals. Mourning the dead was a complex and lengthy ordeal. Depending on the relationship to the deceased, one could be in mourning for up to two years.

    D.N. Wheeler (American) Interior with child in coffin, ca. 1867. Toned gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard as a carte de visite. Purchased with the Rita Rich Fraad, class of 1937, Fund for American Art and the fund in honor of Charles Chetham. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2009:25-1

    For women, mourning involved strict dress codes which limited the colors and materials a woman could wear. Widows could remain in mourning for the rest of their lives as Queen Victoria did after the death of her husband Albert.

    Unknown (American). Deceased child with hand painted flowers, ca. 1865. Tintype with hand coloring in 1/2 book-style case. Purchased with the Rita Rich Fraad, class of 1937, Fund for American Art and the fund in honor of Charles Chetham.Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2009:25-2

    Victorians honored the dead through clothing and remembered the dead through objects and art. Death culture influenced all aspects of Victorian life. Clothing, art, photography, and literature of the time period all reflect the closeness people had with death.

    Unknown (American). Deceased child in blue dress with hands crossed over chest, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype in book-style case. Purchased with the Rita Rich Fraad, class of 1937, Fund for American Art and the fund in honor of Charles Chetham. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2009:25-3

    Photographing the dead was a common practice in the Victorian era. Journals of photography offered advice to photographers on how to pose bodies and set up lighting. Posing adults for post-mortem photographs often involved propping the body on a stand. It was common to open or paint on eyes to make the body appear alive. Most post-mortem photographs were of children due to high infant mortality rates.

    Detail of Deceased child in blue dress with hands crossed over chest, ca. 1850

    Post-mortem photography provided families with an image of their lost loved ones who had not been previously photographed. The majority of these photographs were of children and infants. The Victorians had a close relationship with death because of high mortality rates. Death and mourning were a large part of Victorian culture. The works displayed in this exhibition show Victorian mourning through art and photography.

    Taking a photograph in the Victorian age was an expensive and time consuming process. Many people, especially children, did not have a photograph taken before they died. Post-mortem photographs gave families an image to remember a lost loved one.

    By the twentieth century, advances in photographic technology made post-mortem portraits irrelevant. Photographs became easier and cheaper to take. Most people in the twentieth century had many pictures of their friends and family. We still use photographs to remember our lost loved ones but we no longer have the need for post-mortem portraits.

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  • Thursday, April 17, 2014

    Man's Best Friend

    Guest blogger Jenny Duckett is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in Art History with a Museums Concentration. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

    As I was pulling pieces for a photography class a few weeks ago, I happened upon a photograph of a small Chihuahua dog dressed in a sweater, which seemed so absurd that it made me laugh out loud. Upon further investigation, I realized that this was just one photograph within a series of photographs of dogs, cleverly entitled Son of Bitch. I was unfamiliar with the photographer, Elliott Erwitt, and decided that I should do some research on the artist and his photographs, and what I found was truly interesting.

     

    Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). New York from Son of Bitch portfolio, c. 1946. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-4 

    Beginning his career in the 1940s, Erwitt’s photography can be characterized by the absurd and unexpected, as well as the tender, heartfelt moments that occur in everyday life. His photographs capture fleeting moments which often possess the uncanny ability to make us erupt with laughter or sigh with melancholy. Over the course of his career Erwitt’s favorite subjects have ranged from the streets of Paris, to children at play, to inside America’s museums, to the subject of this blog post: Dogs. Erwitt has published four books on the subject, the earliest of which is Son of Bitch, published in 1974, the photographs of which the Cunningham Center owns.

     

    Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). U.S.A. from Son of Bitch portfolio, c. 1964. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-2

    Erwitt’s photographs of dogs often depict them in such a way that they don’t seem to be dogs at all. In fact, in his 1992 book To The Dogs, Erwitt suggests that his photographs are not photographs of dogs at all. “Look again,” he writes. “Essentially, these are pictures of people. But if I really took photos of people doing some of these things, I’d get into trouble...Dogs don’t mind being photographed in compromising situations.” Erwitt asserts that dogs have the unique position of living on two planes - existing within both the human and animal worlds. It is easy to look at these photographs and to see human characters. For example, the dog brazenly staring into the camera at the dog show while his owner primps and combs her fur, could easily be imagined to be Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell. Erwitt places the focus of the photograph on the dog, quite literally the star of the show, while her owner is unfocused and largely hidden by her fur, effectively elevating the dog to a near human status.

    Returning to the photograph of the miniature Chihuahua in the sweater, which happens to be first photograph of a dog that Erwitt ever published, the photo is taken from the dog’s point of view on his own level. The woman is cut off at the shins, largely forgotten as her dog becomes the main attraction, similarly to how the show dog’s owner is hidden behind her. There’s an unselfconscious quality to both of these photographs, as the dogs stare directly at the camera. The Chihuahua seems to wear a big smile, joy and excitement emanating from within. In doing so, Erwitt calls attention to a world that thrives at our feet, but that we perhaps too often overlook.

      

               

    Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). New York from Son of Bitch portfolio, 1973. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-7                                                                                

    Erwitt also has very comical take on the portrait photograph. In both U.S.A.and Brighton, England there is a wonderful interplay between the formality of the sitters and the expressions of their dogs. In the family portrait the parents and children have made an obvious effort to look presentable, dressed in their Sunday best with their hands placed politely in their laps. Meanwhile, their larger-than-life German shepherd is sprawled out in front of the family, proudly displaying his belly and sporting an unmistakable smile, which adds just a pinch of absurdity to an otherwise all-too-normal family portrait.

    Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). Brighton, England from Son of Bitch portfolio, 1956. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-13

    Similarly, in the photograph Brighton, England, the prim and proper owner in her pearls and cashmere smiles sweetly, hugging her dog lovingly while he snarls meanly at the camera. These types of juxtapositions not only make us laugh, but prompt us to question what the stories behind these scenes are. Why is the dog snarling? Is the woman really unaware of his mean expression? More importantly, does this symbolize something deeper? Perhaps we will never know, but the wealth of possibilities presented in Erwitt’s photographs is enticing.

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  • Wednesday, April 9, 2014

    The Poetic Body

    Lesley Dill, American (1950 - ). The Poetic Body: Poem Dress of Circulation, 1992. Lithograph, letterpress and collage on Japanese silk tissue mounted on paper. Gift of Rita Rich Fraad (Rita Rich, class of 1937) and Janice Carlson Oresman (Janice Carlson, class of 1955). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1992:47d

    "Words are an intervening armor between ourselves and the world. I think of words and especially the poems of Emily Dickinson (for their embodiment of psychological
    states of despair and euphoria) as a kind of spiritual armor,
    an intervening skin between ourselves and the world"

    --Lesley Dill

    As those of us who live here know, the Pioneer Valley has a rich history. In Amherst you can visit the home of Emily Dickinson, where the poet lived much of her life as a recluse, and penned over one thousand poems. While she kept her works private during her lifetime, sharing them only with close friends and mentors, she is now recognized as one of the most influential and vital American poets.

    After a friend lent Leslie Dill a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry, the artist became fixated on the poet's spare, emotional lines. In the artist’s words: Dickinson's works "hit me like a bullet … I feel her words are basically blood to me." Now, Lesley Dill takes the poems of Emily Dickinson and makes them tangible through her art.

    Lesley Dill, American (1950 - ). The Poetic Body: Poem Eyes, 1992. Lithograph, letterpress and collage on Japanese silk tissue mounted on paper. Gift of Rita Rich Fraad (Rita Rich, class of 1937) and Janice Carlson Oresman (Janice Carlson, class of 1955). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1992:47a

    The Poetic Body, a series of four works by Dill, lets us see and read Dickinson’s poems with new eyes. Each piece is a delicate collage of different papers, tissues and sometimes thread. Dill first began to create works in paper while she lived in India in the early 1990s, in part because it was more transportable than her earlier pieces in wood. Soon, however, she began to imbue the material with a deeper meaning, seeing paper as a symbol for humanity, fragile and malleable and strong all at once.

    Lesley Dill, American (1950 - ). The Poetic Body: Poem Gloves, 1992. Letterpress, thread and collage on Japanese silk tissue mounted on paper. Gift of Rita Rich Fraad (Rita Rich, class of 1937) and Janice Carlson Oresman (Janice Carlson, class of 1955). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1992:47b


    Detail of The Poetic Body: Poem Gloves

    Paper endows a definite tactile quality to The Poetic Body series. Instead of pasting each element completely flat, Dill billowed and draped the pieces over each other, creating a varied landscape on the page. Colors are muted. The lines of poetry from Emily Dickinson are fragmented and woven into the works, and form part of an inseparable whole.


    Lesley Dill, American (1950 - The Poetic Body: Poem Ears, 1992. Lithograph, letterpress and collage on Japanese silk tissue mounted on paper. Gift of Rita Rich Fraad (Rita Rich, class of 1937) and Janice Carlson Oresman (Janice Carlson, class of 1955). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1992:47c

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