Vantage Points: Campus as Place
By Laurel Bradley

To its students and alumni, Carleton College is an intense and nurturing environment that fosters academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, and social connectedness. To this group of insiders, the physical features of the campus are subordinate to an overall dynamic experience. Specific places do, however, figure powerfully in Carls' notions about their campus. The Bald Spot, the Arboretum, Lyman Lakes and other features anchor collective experiences to a specific geographical location. Building names also carry symbolic charges; they function as shorthand terms for the experiences contained within each structure.

To the outsider, Carleton is defined in geographical terms. It encompasses 900 acres, including a 400-acre arboretum, and boasts approximately forty-five buildings dating from 1872 to 2001. The College occupies the eastern side of Northfield, a small town in southeastern Minnesota that straddles the Cannon River and is surrounded by farmland. To the south, College-owned buildings mingle with private homes. The Cowling Arboretum stretches to the north toward cultivated fields that once were prairie and oak savanna.

In the fall of 2002, Carleton will begin its 136th academic year. Over the last ten years, five major campus buildings and a cluster of nine student townhouses have been constructed, altering the experience of the campus in subtle and profound ways. For example, the Recreation Center, an enormous structure that opened in the spring of 2000, now exerts an irresistible pull toward the far side of Lyman Lakes. The Language and Dining Center (2001), affectionately dubbed "Language and Lunch," gives definition to outdoor spaces on the western end of campus. The bulky Center for Mathematics and Computing (1993), perched on the very edge of the Bald Spot, tightens the ring of buildings that define the grassy void at campus center. Through time, these, and other physical alterations to the Carleton campus, will help shape shared notions of place.

Vantage Points: Campus as Place was conceived as a way to take stock of how Carleton looks and feels at the beginning of the new century. The project aims to initiate conversations about Carleton and, more generally, about the special nature of college campuses in the American experience.

Ever since Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia as a utopian and uniquely American planned environment, the college campus has held a special meaning for this democracy. Faith in design and architecture as vehicles for realizing educational and social goals is clearly evident in the rash of new universities built--all at once--during the 1960s. Yet most campuses, both small and large, evolved over time. Campus plans are made, adapted, and fade away until the cycle repeats itself. The sense of place, supported and shaped by buildings and landscapes, ultimately resides in memories and myths nurtured in the "sheltered groves of academe."

By engaging three photographers with different styles and techniques, Vantage Points extends and enriches earlier college photographic essays employing a single artist. Although the precedents are few, these previous works involved such great photographers as Ralph Steiner, Walker Evans, and Ansel Adams.

Steiner privately published Dartmouth in 1922, a year after graduating from the New Hampshire college. His insider view of the campus, as seen in dreamy, soft-focus photographs of various campus activities and places, provided a nostalgic, backward glance at the college years. Evans's Wheaton College Photographs (1941) highlighted the "honest New England" qualities of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings and presented the first modern-style structure at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Focusing on architecture, he presented a campus absolutely empty of people or human traces. Adams, best known for transcendent images of the American west, collaborated with Nancy Newhall to create Fiat Lux (1968), a "survey in words and photographs" celebrating the University of California's centennial. The massive, three-year project created a 192-page volume documenting nine campuses and generated a huge photographic archive.

The Vantage Points photographers are Beth Dow, Chris Faust, and Alec Soth, three individuals not educated at Carleton and therefore considered outsiders. They were commissioned to document and interpret the campus during the fall of 2001 and were expected to respond subjectively to the sights and spaces of Carleton in the hope that their highly personal viewpoints might parallel the passionately held visions of insiders. The artists were given only general instructions: "Define a solution to the problem of picturing Carleton, balancing the College's interest in capturing new and old buildings and other well-loved spots with the creative mandate to photograph the broad impressions and particular details necessary to compose a distinctive visual essay."

The fall of 2001 was unusually fine; day after day brought warm temperatures, clear blue skies, and brilliant fall foliage. Each photographer worked toward a total of twenty pictures, which a College committee then pared down to the twelve of each artist (thirty-six total) now on exhibition. The finished prints enter the College Art Collection; the images themselves will be used for other publications including a calendar and postcards.

Beth Dow is a pictorialist--her technique recalls nineteenth-century practitioners who campaigned for the recognition of photography as an artistic, rather than a merely technical, medium. Dow's painterly photographs, although brand new, seem old--capsules from a vague time past, or projections of the imagination. The artist intensifies what she sees and photographs through scrupulous editing and extensive but subtle darkroom manipulations, including cropping and refining of dark and light tonalities. Although her photographs are shot in black and white, color is subtly present in the images through toning.

Dow made extensive use of the Cowling Arboretum (known simply as "the Arb"), a distinctive feature of Carleton that provides easy access to nature. With campus and arboretum maps in hand, she wandered far and wide in order to find natural sites worthy of a photograph. Sometimes a site's name--"Druid's Den" or "Stone Circle"--revealed its picturesqueness. Dow also was attracted to an unnamed rustic shelter that grew over the summer and fall as passersby added sticks, leaves, and grass. By the project's end, Dow had named the feature herself: the Fairy Den. Both Dow and Faust capture a hoary black willow in the Lower Arb. The soft silver tones of Dow's photograph give an historical gloss to this particular spot along the Cannon River.

Beth Dow, Fairy's Den
  Some of the most essential campus places defied easy translation into pictures. Notably difficult to Dow was the Bald Spot, which Professor of Art History Lauren Soth aptly characterized in Architecture at Carleton: A Brief History and Guide: "The heart of the Carleton campus is not an architectural monument but a leveled area of lawn..." With Skinner Chapel as a backdrop, Dow was able to capture this space as activated by waves of students. The regular spacing of the trees suggests the ritual cadence of the passage between class periods.

Beth Dow, Skinner Chapel
  Chris Faust combines the objectivity of a documentarian with an aesthetic inclination toward showcasing contrast, and the juxtapositions captured in his photographs dramatize the eclecticism of the campus. In particular, Faust shows the temporary awkwardness a new structure imposes on the historical continuity of the campus architecture. His view of the entrance to Nourse Little Theatre speaks poignantly to architectural connections between past and present. The old, stained façade of the theater, part of Nourse Residence Hall and dedicated in 1932, presents itself stolidly to the viewer while the sleek façade of the new Language and Dining Center (2001) recedes smoothly backwards toward an invisible vanishing point. Although the newer building was constructed with materials chosen to blend in with Nourse and other long-established structures, this photograph makes clear that only time and weather will blend the two seamlessly into a visual whole.

Chris Faust, Nourse
  Faust's panoramic pictures package views distinctly different from the amateur snapshot. His broad horizontal images are particularly effective in revealing a site and its surroundings. For example, the Earth Works sculpture subtly but effectively marks one entrance to campus and to a system of paved paths connecting several campus buildings, and campus to community. Faust's use of the camera's wide angle allowed him to embrace a very large segment of the new Recreation Center's cavernous interior; in Faust's view of the indoor track, the hard surfaces of the walls and floor are softened by the glimmering row of windows and the gauzy fabrics delineating playing areas.

Chris Faust, Recreation Center
  Alec Soth's vantage point is distinctly different from that of the other two photographers. They positioned themselves outside and at a distance from their subjects; he photographed college spaces from the inside looking out, using the window as his unifying theme. The window and its frame are familiar metaphors for connecting consciousness and the visual sphere: The eye is the window to the soul, the photographer frames memories in snapshots, and so on. Soth shot from many unusual locations--high in the Skinner Chapel tower, inside the Goodsell Observatory dome, within residence halls and laboratories. He was highly selective in what he chose to photograph, often coming away from a long day on campus having shot only one or two pictures.

Soth's rigorously composed pictures are arresting--immediate, intensely colored, luminous, and grand. The photographer brings the stuff of learning up close, and then slows the often hectic pace of college life to a serene stillness. Through Soth's eye, the viewer glimpses professorial offices--piled with papers or disrupted by the paraphernalia of painting--as quirky personal enclaves but also as containers of aesthetic experience.

Alec Soth, The Geologist's Office
  In one of Soth's photos, the serendipitous combination of a good floor wax, soft sunlight, a large format view camera, and his imagination transform the merely utilitarian lobby of Olin Hall into a surreal reflecting pool. Planes are composed with elegant complexity; the windowed lobby is framed by the delicate exterior arches of Olin and the dignified bulk of Goodsell Observatory in the distance. This picture has both the glamour of a glossy image for an interior design magazine and the radiance of a beautiful fall day.

Vantage Points did not produce a comprehensive visual survey of the campus. Many important places were not photographed at all; additional images that may have filled in the blanks were eliminated in the selection process. The project's results are as quirky and particular as the artists involved. This project did, however, realize one of its goals: to reveal beauty and interest in overly familiar or unexpected places. Soth's image of Great Hall and Faust's nighttime peek through the steam plant window are examples. Community meanings also resonate in these photographs. Dow, Faust, and Soth were drawn to spots long cherished by Carls, including Skinner Chapel, Goodsell Observatory, and the Arb, because of their inherent visual beauty or symbolic power. Like the Photographic Survey discussed by essayist Frank Martin, Vantage Points elucidates some of the distinctive yet difficult-to-define attributes of Carleton. Quirkiness. Proximity to nature. Sacred and scholastic rituals. Longevity and continuity. Change. Wonder.

Laurel Bradley is Director of Exhibitions and Curator of the College Art Collection at Carleton College.

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Alec Soth, Hall of Science
Photographs  Beth Dow | Chris Faust | Alec Soth
Essays  Laurel Bradley | Frank Edgerton Martin
Etc.  Vantage Points Book | Exhibition Schedule & Credits