In the marble lobby of one of New York City’s most iconic buildings, a group of students and their professor gathered this winter in preparation for a specific research mission: to become acquainted with the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection.
This was the first of several field trips they’ll take this semester as part of the College of Arts and Science first-year seminar Photography and New York, a class that challenges students to examine “how the medium changed the city and how the city changed the medium.” In subsequent class sessions they’ll visit the New York Times “morgue” (a trove of the newspaper’s historical prints and other archival materials), create a personal photo diary of places throughout the five boroughs, and return to the NYPL twice for further research, among other lectures, readings, guest visits, and excursions. Throughout, students learn the multilayered history of image-making in one of the world’s most photographed cities, and are encouraged to explore how each was transformed by the development of the other.
Professor Peter Kayafas knows this symbiotic relationship first hand. A celebrated photographer and Guggenheim photography fellow whose work has been widely exhibited and resides in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the New York Public Library, Kayafas encourages undergrads to interact with images as physical objects rather than just consuming digital replications on a phone screen.
“When a photograph is made and turned into an object it’s the only thing that stays the same. Everything else changes. The history changes, fashion changes, politics change, technology changes and so do the people who are looking at it,” Kafayas says. “If you look at a picture you have on your wall, five years later you’re going to be noticing different things about it. So a big part of this class is learning to look at things longer than the two seconds that people look at it when they doom scroll.”
One way for students to practice that? Borrowing prints and photographs from the Picture Collection to hang them at home as inspiration for the semester, or for use on class assignments.
It’s a little known fact that you can do this at the NYPL—search through over 1.5 million images and check out up to 60 at a time. The collection is broken down into 12,000 different categories, each created and curated by a librarian. It’s a resource that’s been utilized since 1915 by artists, costume designers, filmmakers, graphic novelists, fashion designers, and the list goes on. Figures like Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol, and Taryn Simon drew inspiration from the vast archives. Kayafas himself does, too.
Some of the artists represented in the Picture Collection are names photography buffs might recognize—like Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, James Van Der Zee, and Helen Levitt, whose work students will study throughout the term. But the collection isn’t limited to work by big names. Librarians also include obscure clippings from anything they feel is worthy of preserving.
For a major research project later in the semester, Kayafas will ask students to pick one photographer to study from a list of many greats. To showcase their lives and their relationship to New York City, students will have to curate examples of their work, marshall critical insights by and about them, and cite sources. The Picture Collection is one resource they can use to their advantage.
An orientation by Jessica Cline, the Librarian of The Picture Collection, and Deirdre Donohue, Interim Associate Director of the Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, on the day of the class’s visit made sure of that. After a thorough presentation punctuated with a steady stream of prints passed around the room, students got to wander the Picture Collection and pull files themselves to find the treasures inside.
The Art and Architecture Collection—a wood paneled library filled floor to ceiling with books related to fine arts, art history, decorative arts—was another stop on the tour. Learning how to utilize these resources is an added benefit of the course, Kayafas says, and another way students can go beyond Googling to find what they need to know.
“I constructed this class based on the classes I remember from when I was a freshman,” he says, “It's one way for students to understand photography in a way that’s different than just a snapshot on a phone. If they can fall in love with New York City and establish their own relationship to it through photography, then I’ve succeeded.”