The history of photography at Princeton University is vividly presented in a new exhibition at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Reflections on Photographing Princeton, running from now until June 30, 1999, traces the evolution of this medium from its birth in 1839 to the middle years of our century. Drawing on the thousands of images contained in the Historical Photograph Collection of the Princeton University Archives, the exhibition documents the varied and influential role photography has played in the lives of Princetonians. An illustrated catalog, including an insightful essay by Exhibit Curator Melissa Johnson, will be published shortly.
Visitors will see the changing face-and faces-of the University in elaborate portraits and informal snapshots; in photographs of scientific expeditions and extracurricular shenanigans; in ghostly daguerreotypes and glossy prints. Visitors will also meet the men and women behind the lens: from the itinerant photographers of the nineteenth century who set up makeshift studios on campus to the enterprising students of the twentieth who systematically recorded the events and personalities that shaped their college years.
There are six parts to the exhibition, each of which presents a different aspect of photography at Princeton and evokes a different mood, underscoring the complexity and power of this medium. Together, they form a miniature world in which time stands still and, as Johnson notes, an understanding of oneself and others is made possible that would have been unthinkable before Daguerre invented his "mirror of nature" almost 160 years ago.
The first part of the exhibition, Responses and Reactions to the Photograph, bears witness to the alacrity with which photography was embraced at Princeton. It contains the earliest known group portrait of Princetonians: the 35 "Boys of 1843." An interesting photograph entitled "The Long and the Short of It" reflects the propensity of students in the age of Darwin to classify themselves, and the humorous side of photography is captured in a cartoon discovered in a student's scrapbook. Entitled "Pleasures of Daguerreotyping Rural Scenes," it depicts a photographer of the early 1850s about to be impaled by a wrathful bull.
The second part of the exhibition, Memory, is dominated by a panoramic view of campus from the 1870s, at once recognizable and unfamiliar, and an engrossing collage of portraits stretching from the 1860s to the 1960s. Contrasting albums from the Classes of 1868 and 1897 attest to the technological changes that occurred between these years, changes that enabled students to take their own photographs with ease.
The Scientist's Retina, the next step on this photographic journey, documents the important place photography has occupied in scientific research. Geological and astronomical expeditions took Princetonians far afield. There is a striking group of photographs of a solar eclipse in 1900, taken in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and there are scenes of an untamed West: the western slope of the Continental Divide in 1877 and the party of students and professors who explored it, looking as wild as their surroundings.
The two parts of the exhibition that follow are devoted to the nineteenth and twentieth-century professional photographers whose work has so enriched our knowledge of Princeton's past. Visitors can read a letter to President John Maclean from Philadelphia daguerreotypist Frederick DeB. Richards soliciting the privilege of immortalizing the Class of 1852; view the interior and exterior of William R. Howell's portable studio, with its telltale skylight; and scan the lists of photographs from which nineteenth-century students placed their orders. Visitors can also assess the legacy of Princeton's photographers: from John Moran's experimental photograph of a gazing globe in which he himself is reflected, taken in 1868, to Elizabeth G. C. Menzies' undated photograph of the timeworn steps of Nassau Hall.
Students were also avid and, in many cases, accomplished photographers. The last part of the exhibition, Students and Photography, celebrates their work, including The Princeton Pictorial Review, a bi-weekly magazine that debuted in 1913 and formed a milestone in the history of campus photojournalism. Students also established photographic agencies, and the Princeton Photo Service is responsible for the most engaging image in this segment: Albert Einstein relaxing with three members of the Student Hebrew Association.
Reflections on Photographing Princeton marks the virtual completion of a major project at Mudd Library: the cataloging and rehousing of the Historical Photograph Collection. Spearheaded by Johnson, a Special Projects Archivist and doctoral student in Art History, this project ensures that Princeton's photographic heritage will be studied and enjoyed for many years to come.
Reflections on Photographing Princeton is open to the public without charge Monday through Friday between 9:00 and 4:45 and on Wednesday evenings until 8:00. Mudd Library is located at 65 Olden Street in Princeton. For further information, please call (609) 258-6345. A sampling of photographs from the exhibition is available by following the links below.
Response and Reactions to the Photograph
The Scientist's "Retina"
19th Century Photographers at Princeton
20th Century Photographers at Princeton
Students and Photography
© 1998 Princeton University Library