Experts from around the country visited Bowdoin this Thursday and Friday to present their research at the Art History Department’s symposium, “Across the Divide: Intermediality and American Art.” The event explored the interactions between various forms of media, including paintings, photographs and newspapers and examined the larger social and political implications of art forms. 

Dana Byrd, assistant professor of art history at Bowdoin, was inspired to organize the symposium when the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) acquired a camera that belonged to the famous painter Winslow Homer. 

“Scholars had not considered that Homer, a painter, used a camera in any way,” Professor Byrd said. “Using a photograph as a preparatory mode for creating a painting is sometimes considered less desirable in the field of art history and that prompted me to examine the issue of the camera and more generally, the interplay of media in American art.”

Byrd said she brought in speakers to challenge the audience to think critically about different art forms. 

In her lecture entitled “Audiovisual Grammar,” Ellen Tani, Andrew W. Mellon post-doctoral curatorial fellow at the BCMA, analyzed the ways in which sound influenced photographer Lorna Simpson. Similarly, Jason Hill, assistant professor of art history at the University of Delaware, considered multiple angles of interpreting photographs in newspapers and magazines by looking at captions and context.

Speakers at the symposium also focused on salient social and political issues in art history, such as the representation of freed slaves after the Civil War through the artistic depictions of their clothes, as well as depictions of lynchings of African-Americans in the press. 

Byrd said she structured the symposium differently than most in an effort to keep the audience engaged throughout the conference. After each presentation, a discussant offered immediate feedback and opened the floor for questions. Byrd said the idea was to create interactive conversation where the audience not only heard from esteemed lecturers but had the opportunity to connect with them as well.

“I took so much away from the symposium, especially from Michael Leja’s presentation,” said Daniel Strodel ’20. 

Leja, Professor of History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, who gave Thursday night’s keynote address, spoke about how images both transcend and are bound to media forms, including daguerreotypes and lithographs.

He argued that in changing the form through which the visual is represented—whether that be from daguerreotype to lithograph or drawing to painting—an artist can facilitate a change in perceived meaning.

“When you move an image from material to material, it will retain intrinsic values, but each material gives it a different nuance,” said Strodel. “The whole experience was truly eye-opening.”