Where Did My Interest in Art History Come From?

Welcome to this week’s post! This week I am discussing more of my own biography. I hope you enjoy.

Art History that is the question. I began my college career with an interest in photography. From about the age of 15 or 16 I knew I wanted to get my bachelor’s degree in photography, however, art history was not that great an interest to me. I did not even take an art history class until I had been in college for over two years. The following is the story of how I came to love art history and more specifically photo history.

To say I had no interest in art history from a young age is not exactly right. As a child in first or second grade, I went with my school to see an exhibition of artifacts from the tomb of Ramses the Great, an Egyptian pharaoh. This began my curiosity about ancient art if you will; however, I was more interested from the perspective of archaeology. Although at the time I did not know the word archaeology. This experience stuck with me. I still have vivid memories of earrings and a pillow from the exhibition. Both seemed like uncomfortable alternatives to the earrings and pillows we have now. This difference is probably what made them stick out in my mind. The earrings would require stretched piercing holes and the pillow was made of stone.

Once in college, I did not have a great concern for art history per se. I first attended a community college, Tarrant County College. I would sit in my professor, Richard Doherty’s office for hours looking at his collection of monographs by photographers. I did want to absorb all the visual information possible. However, it was not until I took Art of the West II at the University of Texas at Arlington that I became interested in art history. Modern and Contemporary art piqued my curiosity. Furthermore, during this time there was an exhibition of works from the Museum of Modern Art, New York at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A friend and I drove down to Houston to see the exhibition. The exhibition contained many works I had just studied in the art history class. I would say it was at this point that I became a little more interested in art history but I still was not enthralled.

I had to take two what we call upper level art history class to get my degree in photography. I was obviously going to take History of Photography and I decided to take Art of Non-Western Traditions as the other class. I did like History of Photography. I got a more basic understanding of the history of the medium I was using and learned about new photographers. I was also interested in the Non-Western Traditions class because I had always visually liked the arts of Asia. You might think it was at this point that I fell in love with India but you would be wrong. To my surprise the arts of South America were my favorite. There is such a mystery to the art and architecture of ancient South America. Machu Picchu sits atop a mountain in secluded splendor, the Nazca Lines have been the subject of great debate and how exactly did they make and move the Colossal Heads of the Olmecs?  These things got me more engrossed in the questions of art history.

However, I finished my bachelor’s degree and was a little lost. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I had not applied. In the end, I continued taking classes in order to have access to the photography facilities. I thought I would take some art history and some anthropology class and I did but the art history is what stuck. The semester after I finished my bachelor’s degree, we got a new professor, Dr. Ingrid Furniss. She was teaching a class on the Art and Archaeology of Ancient China. That was the most difficult class I have taken, forget graduate school. I really like Dr. Furniss and her teaching style so I continued taking classes with her. I also decided to try and fill the degree requirements for a bachelor’s in art history.

During this time, I also took a class on Beauty and Art and Contemporary Art with Dr. Kathryn Shields (she was also the professor for History of Photography and Art of Non-Western Traditions). I was more attracted to the ideas and theories presented in these classes than the things presented in ancient art. But during this semester I really began to enjoy art history in its own right, as something not attached to my photographic process.

I continued my foray into the arts of Asia. I took classes on Japanese Art, Indian Art and Chinese Painting. It may sound strange but the class on Chinese Painting is the class that influenced me the most. It is the best class I have taken. We discussed the movements and artists in great depth. Although it was an undergraduate class, there were only twelve students so it often worked more like a graduate class with class discussions instead of lectures. This class also influenced my art making in ways that carried me through graduate school, but that is a story for another post.

The least illuminating class was a class I had to take on Medieval Art. I can’t even spell medieval, auto correct fixes it for me every time! Anyway, what a nightmare, unfortunately the teacher was not so great. She had some strange ideas about how to run the class. She sort of treated us like we were in middle school. Plus I am not super excited about Medieval Europe. Though I must say the most amazing architectural experience I have ever had was at the Hagia Sophia, which is squarely placed in the medieval period.

I never did finish the bachelor’s degree in art history. I only need to take two more German classes to complete it, but there is no point as I now have a master’s degree in art history. It was actually suggested to me by one of the photo faculty, Dornith Doherty at the University of North Texas to also apply to the master’s program in Art History. She set up a meeting with one of the art history professors, Dr. Denise Baxter and so it went. I applied to both programs and was accepted to both programs.

In my final time at the University of Texas at Arlington, I had begun doing my own research into the history of photography outside the West. I had not decided exactly what direction I wanted to go but I knew I wanted to study photography from somewhere other than the States or Europe. Ultimately, I became interested in the photography of South Asia because I visited India with one of my professors, Dr. Lisa Owen in 2009. Though some of the research I had done at UT Arlington was on photography from India and then again in my first semester of graduate school I wrote a paper on the photographs of Samuel Bourne, a British photographer working in India in the 19th century, for a class on 19th Century British Photography.

After returning from India, I dove in finding as much information as I could on photography from India. It was a long road. There has been a substantial amount of research done on 19th century photography in India but contemporary art not as much. India has a unique history. There are holes in the research and/or holes in the actual practice of photography. There seems to be more of a gap between the photographic practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries and art photography than there is in American or European photographic history. However, there is still plenty of work to be done on photographs from this period, the photographs just are not art for art’s sake.

It was in 2013 that I began wanting to expand my knowledge beyond India to the rest of South Asia. I had traveled to Delhi for the Delhi Photography Festival and had a great experience. I knew that there was another photograph festival held in Dhaka, Bangladesh and I started planning a trip to the festival at the beginning of 2015 as soon as I got home from Delhi. It was at that point that I started researching Bangladeshi photographers. There are many photographers working at the moment from Bangladesh and many of them are good. By good I mean textbook worthy.

At Chobi Mela, the festival in Dhaka, I got my first insights into the photography of Nepal. This is something I would like to pursue further. I would really like to do research at the Photo.Circle archive in Kathmandu. I have had headway with Pakistani photography online, but Sri Lanka remains a mystery. There are definitely books on photography in Sri Lanka during the 19th century and at some point I need to get my hands on some of those. There is also a business in Sri Lanka where you can go and purchase old photographs, I do not think it is a proper archive but it may have some research potential. As for contemporary photography on the island it remains an enigma.

That is how I got here, to this blog. I want to make the information more readily available for those interested in the photography of South Asia. I want to have an outlet for my own thoughts on the subject. So here we are. You never know where a path is going to lead you. I never thought of myself as a writer or a researcher but here I am. Okay, I will admit the research is a bit on the surface. At this point it is basically just getting names of artists out there. I have not done any in-depth research since my Thesis paper. You can read about those challenges in last week’s post on The Pros and Cons to Making Art and Doing Research in India. Though that is where I would like to get to.

By | 2017-01-31T05:39:04+00:00 February 7th, 2017|about me|1 Comment

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an American expat living in Udaipur, India. In her former life she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. In India, she pursues her love of art and photography by teaching photography workshops, making art/photography and exploring the photographic arts of South Asia through this blog.

One Comment

  1. Brad Burkons February 10, 2017 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    What a cool road you are traveling. Have read just a couple of your posts, looking 4ward to catching up w/ the others. 1 thing that stands out – the thought that grad school would set u up in a style or path (I don’t remember your exact phrase), & later realizing you were still changing afterwards. This will always be the case, I’m pretty sure. Its always a search for an artist. I just heard some1 say this week that’s the only reason an artist makes a work, for the search. The master story teller is still trying to figure out story telling. Einstein was literally on his deathbed, still trying to figure out the next problem (or probably some old one).

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