Join us for the opening reception on Sunday, September 14, from 1:00-4:00 pm. We will offer a curators' talk at 1:30 pm, followed by poetry readings from Mark Kraushaar, Sara Parrell, and Thor Ringler in response to Vanderbilt's work.
Related events (free and open to the public):
- Sunday, October 5, 2:30-4:00 pm: A talk in the gallery with independent scholar James Rhem.
- Saturday, October 18, 1:30–3:00 pm, Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium, 816 State St., Madison: Paul Vanderbilt's Intuitive Iconography, a panel discussion with historian Jack Holzhueter, WHS curator Andy Kraushaar, and author Michael Lesy; moderated by Martha Glowacki. Advance online registration requested.
- Thursday, October 30, 1:00–2:30 pm: A talk in the gallery with photographer Lewis Koch.
This exhibition celebrates the work of Paul Vanderbilt (1905-1992), an archivist, photographer, and visionary who sought new ways to understand the world through visual images. From 1942-1945, Vanderbilt worked with Roy Stryker at the Library of Congress to classify over 200,000 photographs of tenant farmers and farm workers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. In 1954 he was hired by the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) to curate and organize a treasure trove of images and photographs that became known as the Iconographic Collections. Vanderbilt was given what he described as “exceptional liberty to apply unorthodox ‘philosophies’ of my own” to the structure of the WHS collections. Inspired by Stryker’s approach of organizing materials around themed collections, Vanderbilt created a unique visual archive that is renowned for its depth, subtlety, and flexibility.
Until his retirement in 1972, Vanderbilt also served as the field photographer for the WHS. He traveled across Wisconsin, focusing his lens on rural landscapes, architecture, and small town life. The photographs that resulted go far beyond documentation: Vanderbilt had a fine sense of composition and looked for narrative and meaning in his photography.
Vanderbilt pioneered new formats for presenting images from the Iconographic Collections, designed to make connections and inspire a deeper investigation into their underlying meaning. His beautiful, idiosyncratic thematic panels and pairings combine thoughtfully selected historic images with his own photographs and poetic texts. The Archive as a River will include large-scale reproductions of his thematic panels and pairings, a selection of Vanderbilt's own photographs of Wisconsin, and an array of artifacts and papers that reveal his innovative approach to organizing images.
"We are exploring potential depths of meaning, and these particular depths are not necessarily in the photographs. They are in life itself as recalled by the photographs. Photographs, in this sense, are used simply as a device for looking at the very life, ever changing, ever repeating, from which the photographs were made." Paul Vanderbilt, Between The Landscape and its Other (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
This exhibit has been developed in collaboration with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Archives Division, and coincides with the Midwest Society of Photographic Education conference Yesterday Today: Photography and the Archive, held in Madison from October 16-18, 2014. It has been co-curated by Martha Glowacki, Andy Kraushaar, and Jody Clowes.
Image: Paul Vanderbilt and his camera (detail), ca. 1963. Photographer unknown. Wisconsin Historical Society (WHI 87567).