Thursday, March 8, 2012

Academic Interlude

So as I've mentioned from time to time, I am actually a full time Student at Stanford University (though from the horse-only content of my posts/the amount of time I spend obsessing over horses, I wouldn't blame anyone for forgetting it!). I am a senior this year, majoring in Art History and minoring in Military History--basically if it has the word history in it, I'm in. Most quarters I don't really have much interesting to write about, academically: I love learning and have really enjoyed my time at Stanford, but there's only so much one can say about art history lectures without getting real dull real fast.

(I've also been getting to take pictures in places like this... it's a tough life)

This quarter, however, has been an amazing one in terms of awesome hands-on experiences. For whatever reason, every class I took this term decided to have some sort of field trip to visit/oggle/touch some of the incredible things hidden away in the Stanford archives and museum.

In my English class on Shakespeare and Dickens, for example, I got to leaf through an actual copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, published in 1623. What?! Is this real life??! I also got to hold and flip through the original serial releases of Dickens' novels Bleak House and Little Dorrit, and marvel at the hilarious 19th century advertisements within.

In my photography class, I've gotten to view original stereoscopic images made of the West in the late nineteenth century, hold $750,000 Carleton Watkins prints, look through the original Eadweard Muybridge Animals in Motion book that was shot right at the Stanford barn (that was the first example of film fast enough to capture motion, and was the direct predecessor to motion pictures), and see the first photograph of a person ever made. Unbelievable.

(The very first photograph of a human being ever made, by Henry Fox-Talbot in the 1830s: it's super faint and so never gets put on permanent display)

(Muybridge's Animals in Motion)

(Imogene Cunningham's camera... which is also the same type as one of the cameras I use! Rolleiflex love)

($750,000 Carleton Watkins print! And sooo lovely)

(Watkins made his pictures using 20"x24" glass plate negatives (pre-film!) in the 1870s, and they are unbelievably, startlingly clear and beautiful)

Probably the coolest and most unique experience, however, took place on Tuesday, when the artist I am currently interning for got access to make a series of photograms of the Last Spike (also known as the Golden Spike), which was the final spike driven in by Leland Stanford that united the first transcontinental railroad.

This object is an invaluable piece of American history, and is usually locked tight under glass and heavy security in the university museum--it is, after all, also made of solid gold! It was amazing, then, to have it essentially to ourselves for the day (with just the curator present to handle it for us, as we were not allowed to touch it) while the artist made the photograms and I did assistant jobs like handling his paper for him.

(Our photogram set up for the day, with the Last Spike ready on the paper - obviously this picture is a bit misleading because I used the flash; in reality everything was happening in a darkroom-type setting with just a safelight and no other light sources)

I was not expecting to get to touch it at any point, so it was a real treat at the end of the day when the curator offered to let me hold it (on a bed of tissue paper, of course, so the oils from my hands couldn't mess it up). It was a surreal experience to get to hold something that is so precious and such a hallowed part of the American historical tradition. It was also, as one might expect from a solid gold object, surprisingly heavy!

("The Last Spike" inscription, and you can still see the dings where Leland Stanford hit it in!)

(It's also covered all over with beautiful cursive inscriptions naming the major railroad barons, the guy who forged the Last Spike, and a Manifest Destiny-type proclamation along the lines of 'May God continue to aid us in the quest of uniting this great land.' Classic.)

So yeah, it's been pretty awesome. I can't say that studying at Stanford is always this interesting... but there definitely are some major perks from time to time!


L.Williams said...

Super Jealous!

Niamh said...

Oh my Kate! When you're back on the east coast, promise me you'll come to Philadelphia! I work with things like this everyday (and we're not nearly, ahem as careful with them)... I currently have a stereoscope waiting for me to photograph it in the studio! One of the coolest things we've had was a little brownie camera signed by Ansel Adams (even though I'm not a fan of the zone system) which made reference to the fact that this wasn't the camera he climbed Yosemite with!

While I sometimes take for granted being surrounded by such rare/beautiful/important things, I am still in awe of it daily!

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