Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Thinking about Photographs


Scarcely a day goes by without each one of us seeing thousands of photographs in one form or another—in books and magazines, on posters and billboards, on the screens of our smartphones, indeed, everywhere in the digital universe. Photographs shape our lives and mediate our experiences—including our intellectual and emotional lives—in countless ways and on a huge collective scale. Yet photography remains a relatively new human invention. The first photos were only made, using ingenious but also laborious techniques, around 1840. The medium has changed drastically since then, but the "magic" of the photographic artifact has hardly waned. If anything, in an age of selfies, Facebook, and Instagram, the mystique of photographs has increased: we literally can't imagine our world without them.

How has photography become such a profound part of human civilization? What is it about photographs that engages us so deeply and universally? How do they "work" and, indeed, how do they work on us? What makes a "good" one? How did photography come to be seen as an art form as well as a cultural tool? These are some of the questions we'll examine.

Early on, I want us to look at a number of sample photographs TOGETHER in class with an eye toward seeing how many different ways a photograph can be interpreted: as physical object, as a carrier of information about the world, as historical document, as work of art, as emotional memento, as financial asset, and so on. We will go on museum trips on and off campus to look at photographs, including the rich photo holdings at Stanford in Special Collections and the Cantor Collection. Throughout the quarter we will be reading some of the acknowledged classics of photographic writingSusan Sontag's On Photography, Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, and others.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Terry Castle

"I have taught in the English department for over 30 years; my original speciality was the history of the novel. (Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf are some of the writers I love and never tire of teaching.) But I've taught a host of other subjects, too: memoir and autobiography; jazz; Freud and Freudian theory; opera; the First World War; Gothic fiction; Hitchcock films; gay and lesbian writing; women authors past and present. I've written eight books, including, most recently, a collection of personal essays, The Professor (2010). I believe in the idea of the 'public intellectual' and write regularly for the New York Review of Books, The AtlanticHarper's, Slate, the London Review of Books, Bookforum, New York, and other magazines. In writing, I value wit and accessibility above all. The visual arts, always a huge part of my intellectual life, have become my passion of late. I make art of all kinds, including altered photographs, and collect everything from vintage postcards to zines and 'Outsider Art.' Students can find samples of all these things on several websites and pages I maintain."