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Professor Explores History of Photography

By Rachel J. Sapire, Contributing Writer

Today almost anyone can snap a photograph at a moment’s notice with a cell phone, but photography has acted as a medium of democratic expression since its conception, History of Art and Architecture Professor Robin E. Kelsey suggested at the Harvard Allston Education Portal Tuesday night.

The talk, entitled “Performing for the Camera: Some Thoughts on Photography,” gave audience members what Kelsey called a “distilled version” of his popular Culture and Belief course, “Seeing is Believing: A History of Photography.”

“My interest is really in what photography has done in terms of how we present ourselves as individuals,” said Kelsey, noting that he is most fascinated by the self-representation photography enables.

According to Kelsey, the emergence of photography as a less expensive and less specialized form of visualization ushered in an era in which more people could capture images than ever before.

“The camera didn’t care who you were like an artist would. The germ of photography is the marvelous democratic potential,” he said.

Kelsey remarked that the nature of photography is continually changing and cited the popularization of cell phones as one transformational agent.

“There’s now a kind of cell phone aesthetic that has a sense of immediacy and authenticity that people really like,” he said.

Kelsey also acknowledged ethical implications of advancements in photographic technologies. The widespread use of cameras, particularly in public spaces, has complicated the rights of the subject being photographed.

“It’s a huge ethical issue,” said Kelsey. “Because I’m an art lover I’d be sad if photographers couldn’t do what they do, but I understand that people don’t think it’s fair that other people are making money off of them.”

Kelsey, who won the Roslyn Abramson Award in 2006 for excellence and sensitivity in teaching undergraduates, is a model of Harvard pedagogy at its best, said professor Robert A. Lue, faculty director of the Ed Portal.

“One thing that struck me immediately was the clarity of Robin’s thinking coupled with his unquestionable commitment to teaching and learning,” said Lue of his first meeting with Kelsey.

The lecture was part of the Ed Portal’s Faculty Speaker Series, which engages the public with a variety of topics from Harvard’s classrooms.

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