Featured Research: Interrogating the Image | National Humanities Center

Featured Research

Featured Research: Interrogating the Image

November 3, 2022

In this issue we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2022–23 whose projects consider the ways that powerful images are created, displayed, and deployed in service to larger ideas—social, political, and philosophical.

Gregg A. Hecimovich

The Columbia Seven: The Life and Times of the Zealy Daguerreotypes

Gregg A. Hecimovich is professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Hecimovich is the author of four books including the forthcoming The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2023). He has received two fellowships from the National Humanities Center and a fellowship from the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Additionally, Hecimovich held a Public Scholar Fellowship appointment from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

slave inventory
“Renty and Delia’s Family,” slave inventory of Thomas Taylor, Sr., February 13, 1834 (detail)

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

When I was a resident fellow at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University in 2014–15, I personally viewed fifteen daguerreotypes housed in the Peabody Museum. I was moved like few other times in my professional career. There was “Renty.” He is compelled to be still while the aperture of the camera receives his body. Because the resulting image floats on a silvery membrane it appears multi-dimensional. The plate of the daguerreotype registers the chiseled features, the deeply-furrowed brow, the carefully-kept beard. It also captures what looks like a tumor on his neck. And so it was for the others, stripped mostly naked before the camera: Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, and Jem. I wanted to know more about these people: their joys, passions, loves, and experiences.

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

Recovering their life stories would not be easy. It had taken me twenty years to discover and then write the biography of Hannah Crafts, the first African American female novelist. But my work on that project offered me unique tools for uncovering the lives of these seven people photographed in Columbia, South Carolina in March 1850. I was delighted, then, only a few years into my research to discover an early slave inventory that, in its way, reunited Renty with his family, including his wife, Eady, and children: Hector, Molly, Ceasar, Delia, and July.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

Researchers who explore Black lives in pre-twentieth-century America are left with a fragmentary record where Black people are only dimly legible in what has been preserved and maintained. Local, state, and federal archives hold only the scraps and shards of lives broken by design. Endeavoring to reconstruct early Black history, then, requires tools beyond traditional historiography: reconstructive genealogy, oral history, and communal memory, as well as piecing together the fractured record of Black lives preserved in traditional archives that often focus on the history of white people. All my work—as a teacher, writer, and public scholar—engages the practice of discovering this “lost” history. I recorded a talk about this project with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (NHC Fellow, 1988–89; 1989–90) where you can learn more.

Catherine Roach

The Shadow Museum: A History of the British Institution, 1805–1867

Catherine Roach is associate professor of art history in the School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University. She researches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art history, with a focus on Britain and the British Empire. She is especially interested in urban display cultures and the role of art exhibitions in the construction and contestation of nationalist and imperialist ideologies. In 2010, she curated “Seeing Double: Portraits, Copies and Exhibitions in 1820s London” at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and she has held a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the Huntington Library. Her first book, Pictures-within-Pictures in Nineteenth-Century Britain, received the Historians of British Art Book Award for Exemplary Scholarship on the Period after 1800.

painting of museum gallery
Alfred Joseph Woolmer, 1805–1892, British, Interior of the British Institution (Old Master Exhibition, Summer 1832), 1833, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.694

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

Vision and power—those themes govern my current project, which will be the first book on a pioneering arts organization, the British Institution. Founded in London by wealthy collectors who sought to shape contemporary art, the Institution hosted experimental displays that shaped museum practice as we know it. In these galleries, densely packed walls generated many potential narratives for their audiences, from settling artistic scores to advancing imperialist worldviews. Studying this organization allows me to tell the stories of myriad figures, some inspiring, some vile: a Hungarian-descended woman seeking access to artistic education; a professional model of African descent whose storytelling inspired a prize-winning painting; and a British-born enslaver of people seeking to burnish his reputation as a philanthropist.

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

A portrait of an actress hung next to a portrait of a king. Women who worked in public were deemed sexually suspect, according to nineteenth-century British social codes. Yet an Institution exhibition of 1813 celebrating the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds placed an image of an actress, Sarah Siddons, right next to the reigning monarch, George III. This juxtaposition piqued my interest. So did the fact that the exhibition relied on loans from private collections, almost unheard of at the time. Since starting this project, I have learned how exhibitions might disrupt certain social expectations—in the case of the actress and the king, those of class and gender—while also affirming others—crucially, racialized worldviews in an era of expanding empire.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

First, method. How can we study displays that no longer exist? For this project, I have developed a method that I call speculative reconstruction: creating vivid digital models that also visualize uncertainty wherever possible. I seek not to create a seamless illusion, but to convey both our available knowledge and its limits.

Second, content. Starting from an exhibition catalogue rather than assuming which artists or objects are important provides a new way of doing art history. Exhibition studies allow us to look beyond the canon and ask what was available and significant to past audiences. It also allows us to examine the assumptions undergirding museum practices still common today—such as the one (white, male) artist show model that the Reynolds exhibition of 1813 promoted.

Molly Todd

Pictures of Conscience: Central American Refugees and International Human Rights Campaigns, 1979–2019

Molly Todd is a historian specializing in Cold War-era Central America, refugee experiences, historical memory, and transnational human rights and solidarity movements. Her publications include two El Salvador-focused monographs; the textbook Undergraduate Research in History: A Guide for Students (2022); and multiple book chapters and articles. Her research has been supported by a Public Engagement Fellowship from the Whiting Foundation for the Humanities, as well as Fulbright and Mellon-Sawyer fellowships. Todd is associate professor at Montana State University, where she coordinates the Public History Lab and teaches courses on Latin American history and historical methods.

child's drawing
Drawing by Aníbal, in repopulated village of Arcatao, ca. 1990. From Papers of the Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project, Project Solidarity Archive, private.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

While building a community archive with transnational human rights and solidarity activists, I became fascinated with images from El Salvador’s refugee zones during the 1980s and 1990s—in particular, pictorial embroideries made by refugee women, drawings crayoned by refugee children, and photographs made by international visitors to the refugee camps in Honduras and the repopulated villages in northern El Salvador. I wonder, What negotiations preceded the production of the images? Which images found their way into the public sphere, where, and how were they contextualized? What do these processes tell us about the work of cultural objects and art in human rights and solidarity campaigns in the cold war era and today?

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I’ve been surprised at the staying power of these historical images. As part of the archive-building project, we are mobilizing archival materials in oral history workshops, exhibits, and interactive events in El Salvador and the United States. The images continue to elicit very strong emotions from viewers—even those who were not directly involved in the events depicted in the images. I also find it intriguing how American and Salvadoran participants in these events gravitate toward different topics and interpret the meaning of images in different ways. On a more practical level, I’m amazed at the long-distance, cross-border journeys that these photographs, drawings, and embroideries made, and how they have survived in garages, basements, and attics for forty years!

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

Historians have long favored textual sources over images or objects. My work is part of a turn in the discipline of history that moves beyond the written word to seriously engage with images as valid historical sources. This is particularly important as we continue the hard work of uncovering the experiences of people marginalized from power (including the power to record history, to build archives)—like rural inhabitants and refugees. The pictures made by Salvadorans in refugee zones offers us access to new perspectives on the Central American wars and the global cold war—perspectives that unsettle standard narratives. They also provide insight into how people typically portrayed solely as victims were actually key actors on a global level, instrumental in the construction of “human rights” as we understand them today.

Julie-Françoise Tolliver

Burning History: Fire Cultures in North American Literature and Cinema

Julie-Françoise Tolliver is associate professor in English at the University of Oklahoma; she is also assistant director for grants and fellowships of the Arts and Humanities Forum and senior faculty fellow for arts and humanities research and creative activities in the Center for Faculty Excellence. Her first book, The Quebec Connection: A Poetics of Solidarity in Global Francophone Literatures (University of Virginia Press, 2020), was supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2017–18) and is forthcoming as a freely available eBook through the NEH Fellowship’s Open Book Program. It traces francophone literary connections between Quebec, the Caribbean, and Africa during the era of the independences.

film still of fire
Still image from Louise Archambault’s 2019 film And the Birds Rained Down

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

“Initial spark” is the right word for this project! I was studying recent Québécois films and noticed that wildland fires lurked in the background of some of them. I became curious about why.

My project examines representations of fire in North American literature and film, tracing the long history of fire on the continent, from Indigenous practices of burning to settler colonial interdictions of fire to our contemporary petrocultures and monster wildland fires. The history of fire itself has been studied, but the representations made of and about fire don’t always tell the story that historians imagine. I aim to tell North America’s “Burning History,” meaning both its history of fire uses and the way that representations of fire illuminate certain parts of this history while obscuring or obliterating others.

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I have learned things about fire and about the land that I had never thought about, unsettling some deep misconceptions. Fire is not an eternal element; it appeared only with the evolution of multi-celled organisms that could survive aerobically, thus providing fuel and oxygen needed for fire to exist.

Humans shaped the environment on the North American continent since the last Ice Age; there is no “pre-human nature” here. Our concept of “nature” as untouched is a settler invention. Settler colonial Europeans, coming from a context of wood shortages of varying severity, restricted the burning practices of the land’s First Nations before forced migration and population decimation further dissolved these practices. The near total cessation of cyclical burning caused the Little Ice Age that followed European colonization.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I hope this project will break down some of the national and linguistic barriers that tend to divide the field of North American literary studies: Canadian Studies versus American Studies on the one hand, and French-Canadian literature versus English-Canadian literature on the other. My project follows the trailblazing example of fire’s equal-opportunity threat, reimagining humans as a fire-wielding species instead of as linguistically-bound distinct communities. I also hope that my project will connect literary inquiry with non-literary disciplines, so that chemical and historical understandings of fire can be enriched by the powerful metaphor-creating engines of cultural understandings.