On Tuesday night, one Bwogger attended an event celebrating the work of Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer and learned more about the influence of school photography on the study of assimilation and resistance. 

Columbia University boasts a diverse student body with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, which oftentimes makes it difficult to relate to your peers. Despite this variance in experience, school picture day is one of the iconic grade school and high school events that all students can relate to. Almost all of us remember being called down to the gymnasium, tilting our heads at strange angles, forgetting how to smile like a normal person, and finally having to squeeze into one section of bleachers for the large group photo. In School Photos in Liquid Time by Marianne Hirsch, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and Leo Spitzer, Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College, the authors take a close look at school photography and examine how these photos give insight into assimilation, hierarchical relationships, resistance, and exclusion. The book specifically examines photos from repressive and violent times, such as in Nazi Germany and Japanese Internment Camps. The authors look at such photos and analyze them through a modern lens as a means of applying them to our world today.

Spitzer started the discussions by explaining how he began writing a book about a subject that seems so pedestrian. His work as a historian focusing on colonialism allowed him access to archives all around the world, and through these explorations, he realized that school photos are a unique kind of artifact. School photos are ubiquitous; they have been ingrained in cultures globally since the inception of photography and are often distributed by perpetrators of colonialism to advance their narrative of assimilation. The photos included in Hirsch and Spitzer’s collection are mainly from Jewish Ghettos in Nazi Germany, but they also examine photos from Japanese Internment camps, Native American Boarding Schools, and even their personal grade school photos. Hirsch also showed artwork that inspired the novel, such as Carrie Mae Weems’s Before and After and David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled. He also defined the term “liquid time,” as the acknowledgment that viewers attribute additional meaning and significance of photos upon viewing, and that photos are not simply snapshots of an instant in time. An example of liquid time is the foreboding nature that accompanies many historical photos but only when they are viewed through a modern lens.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at NYU and Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, contextualized the photos based on her experience curating exhibitions of photos of a similar subject matter. She examined the tension between the subject of the photos and the photographers, as many of these photos were taken by the perpetrators of crimes, either to humiliate the subjects or to illustrate their assimilation into the perpetrator’s culture. She highlighted that even though the photos were taken to serve this purpose, they can also be used to memorialize their subjects. She argued that these photos are effective in documenting who the violence was perpetrated against, not just the acts of violence, especially when taken in ordinary circumstances, like schools.

Although this panel only covered a small portion of Hirsch and Spitzer’s book, all of the speakers demonstrated how you can draw extraordinary conclusions from seemingly mundane photographs. These photos, when analyzed through a modern lens, tell stories of domination and resistance. If you are interested and want to learn more, their book School Photos in Liquid Time is available now, and many of the photos are also on display in “School Photos and their Afterlives” at Dartmouth College.

Phota via Marco Verch // Flickr