Discovering the Familiar: Photography is a Campus-Revealing Act
By Frank Edgerton Martin
Perhaps there is no spot on the campus more popular, perhaps
there is no place that serves more varied purposes.1922
article describing Lyman Lakes, which were created in 1916-17
From this day forward, you are a part of Carleton and Carleton
is part of you. From Carleton President Laurence M.
Goulds annual greeting to incoming students
Since the 1960s, cultural geographers and landscape architects have used
the phrase sense of place to describe special sites and areas
and our relationship to them. Yet like many desirable ends such as quality
of life, there is little agreement over the meaning of sense of
place, what causes it, or the role of architecture and historic buildings
in shaping it.
Nonetheless, place and having a sense of it are very fashionable
concepts. Print ads in design magazines portray recreated historic streetlights
under the alluring masthead: Creating the Sense of Place.
There is even a design journal named Places.
Unlike the surveyable dimensions of space, place is not subject to Cartesian
measurements. Unlike property, its value cant be easily measured
based on market comparables. And, unlike style, there are no preceding
design traditions in which to locate its provenance. Rather, places
are something that exist out there while attaining their identity
within individuals and by community consensus. As the geographer Yi-fu
Tuan has argued, places are not so much something designed as collective
definitions achieved through such cultural acts as naming, creating
boundaries, and ritual practices.
So what does it mean to have a sense of place at Carleton?
Like any historic city or village, Carleton is valued for many reasons:
for its faculty, social life, architecture, and connections with a town
that has changed relatively little since Jesse James robbed its leading
bank. Just how do people remember and value the Colleges places?
Carls as Place Photographers
The wonderful thing about photography is that it is available to everyone.
My father tells the story that when he was a boy, the Eastman Kodak Company
gave children in America a Brownie camera to spur their interest (and
film consumption) in this relatively new medium. Today, digital cameras
make the transmission of an image as simple as a phone call and disposable
cameras appear on the tables at wedding receptions.
As Laurel Bradley points out in her introduction, professional photographers
traditionally have been involved in the creation of campus pictorial monographs.
There are very few photographic surveys carried out by the students, faculty,
and staff who know the campuses most deeply. In September 2001, at the
very time when Laurel was launching Vantage Points, I helped the
Carleton facilities department conduct a Valued Places survey for
use in its campus planning process. Using participatory photography, this
survey provided the perfect complement to the photographs of Soth, Dow,
and Faust. We gave disposable cameras to nearly fifty students, faculty,
staff, and neighbors of the College and instructed them to take pictures
of the qualities of Carleton that they value and to write about why each
photo was taken.
Ultimately, the Carleton group took about 500 photographs, each with a
written description. I worked with three colleagues unfamiliar with Carleton
to sort the photos by the written reasons. When a site or event was photographed
and described by more than five (or ten percent) of the photographers,
we called it a consensus photo. We developed three broad categories for
the responses: academic life and learning at Carleton; valued landscapes
and architecture; campus people, communities, and activities.
||Revealing the Familiar
At Carleton, like in any established community, people rarely notice valued
settings in the moments when they are most effective. These are times when
a room or a lawn serves as the silent stage for a small but great event
of life such as staying up all night with a new friend, feeling proud of
ones work, or falling in love. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described
such an immersion in a familiar world as a ready-to-hand relationship.
The dorms, lawns and classrooms of a community are so close that we rarely
notice them in the moments of dwelling within them. In other words, we have
to take the valued world of campus and home for granted if we are to pursue
the work of life.
But there are other moments when the environment reaches out to touch us.
When, to use an older and more active sense of the word discover, the environment
dis-covers or reveals itself. These conscious moments, when the world
is perceived afresh, can be the serene valued times described
by architect Michael Benedikt. At Carleton, these are the times when the
familiar backdrops of campus show themselves anew. In a moment, we realize
the beauty of a sunrise over the Lyman Lakes or clustered raindrops on a
classroom window. Many would call these moments of quiet revelation aesthetic
experiencesa concept with as many definitions as sense
Vantage Points: Campus as Place poses the rare opportunity for three
professional photographers to express their own aesthetic experiences of
Carleton. Alec Soth attempts to reveal a Carls physical location by
shooting outward through windows of residence hall rooms, offices, studios,
and even the Skinner Chapel bell tower. Like the sun-filled interiors of
Vermeer, there is a stillness in Soths Carleton work that implies
a moment of pause, an instant when we have stepped back from studying or
teaching or dancing to notice just how beautiful the layering of interiors
and the landscape beyond can be. From forks to discarded tennis shoes, the
daily utilitarian tools and compositions of these places of work, learning,
and play are revealed as lovely in their own right.
As for the campus beyond those windows, pictorialist Beth Dow uses photographys
power to capture the beauty of valued places on a foggy morning or during
the long shadows of afternoon. Carls know the Lyman Lakes are beautiful.
Dows work suggests how complex and varied this beauty can be throughout
the day and seasons. She helps viewers to understand the transience and
endurance that humanizes Carletons landscapes. This interpretation
is in keeping with architectural traditions of the place. Carleton buildings
are never monumental, but designed to a human scale that does not overpower
And finally, Chris Faust helps us to find beauty in times when most sensible
people stay inside. At a northern campus fully occupied throughout the winter,
darkness and cold are a part of the college experience not generally conveyed
by admissions brochures. Yet, from his vantage point as a Minnesota resident
who photographs small town, suburban, and industrial landscapes, Faust brings
great experience in defying the standard ideals of verdant pastoral beauty.
These three relatively young professional photographers use the power of
art to inspire new looks at a taken-for-granted world. In Yi-fu Tuans
sense, the exhibit is a ritual that fosters the creation of a sense
of place. Dow, Faust, and Soth each provide viewpoints from which
we uncover truths about Carleton.
Understanding Carleton from the Inside
The forty-three photographers in our participatory survey also uncovered
truths. As insiders, their place attachments often included the human
activities and rituals that underlie the Colleges mission to steward
future generations of citizens. Not surprisingly, faculty participants
were very proud of the academic rigor of Carleton and the dedication of
students. An economics professor took a photo of his cap and gown hanging
in a corner of his office and wrote:
Academic excellence is the first image I have of the college. This
culminates in graduation, a celebration of the students achievements.
He also took a photo of a professor and a student walking together on
a staircase and wrote:
Faculty-student interactions take place regularly here and that
is one of the things that I believe helps Carleton to maintain its successful
Another professor took a photo of the history department and noted:
Faculty and faculty offices are at the heart of the academic work
at the college. Much scholarship and learning goes on here, and departments
are important centers for this.
Her statement implies that rather than isolating labs, lounges, and conference
rooms in purely academic classroom buildings, future building design should
mix faculty office and student study areas in every academic department.
A staff member in the physics department echoed the importance of study
areas and the visibility of learning within Carleton departments. He wrote:
This is Henry, a senior physics major, studying in the lab next
to my office. My office is on a floor full of labs and a student studying
in them is part of my life every day. It wouldnt be Carleton without
Valuing Nature and Vistas
Students, faculty, and staff often photographed outdoor places, such as
the lawn in front of the Language and Dining Center, and urged campus
planners to pay attention. Unlike the photographs of trees, the Arboretum,
or other picturesque natural sites, these places were photographed to
show how they foster campus activities, including outdoor classes, Frisbee,
and just hanging out.
A student took a photo of Lyman Lakes and its islands and spoke not so
much of the sites scenic beauty, but about its unstructured character
that allows for many activities. The importance of the undefined
spaces seems invaluable, she wrote. Many things are taught
in the classrooms but many more things are learned out here. The more
unique places on campus, the better. The more undefined, multi-use places
on campus, the better.
Intimate places were the leading subject of consensus photos in this study.
Numerous participants took photographs of the grove of trees on the north
end of the Bald Spot, the Japanese garden, and the rock garden near Skinner
Chapel. One student wrote that one of his favorite parts of campus
is the area behind Boliou Hall
an open expanse he hoped
would be preserved.
Larger open areas, such as the Arboretum, and nature interweaving with
campus were also major themes. A faculty member took a photo of the official
entrance into the Lower Arb and wrote:
The Arb is a wonderful resource not only for the Carleton community
but for the Northfield one as well. When I mentioned this photo project
to a colleague from St. Olaf, she said that the Arb was very important
to her and her family and would be the first photo she would take.
Valued Campus Activities and Events
Students often took photographs of their friends, of impromptu dinners,
and of play. One student took a picture of students jumping in leaf piles:
there is a certain freedom to engage in silliness that is an integral
part of Carleton. In a later photo, she wrote that with the stress
of the academic workload, it is essential to have spontaneous recreation.
In one photo that she titled Bathroom Art, she declared OK,
so this has little to do with Campus Planning, but Id just like
to point out that encountering things like this at 1:30 a.m. is part of
why I enjoy going to school here. Many laughs.
Another student took a photo of two young women almost entirely buried
in leaves near the Bald Spot. She wrote:
Carleton is a very comfortable place. Its easy to feel at
home here, to be loved, and to be a kid again sometimes. Carleton is
also a place to enjoy the seasonsall of them, even winter.
She also took a photo of the water tower for what it represents about
Carletons culture and traditions. With regard to the future campus
master plan, her message seemed to be that architecture is only a part
of what makes the College acclaimed among its peer institutions and beloved
This picture represents all of those traditions of Carleton that
set it apart from other schools: Schiller, the tunnels, midnight breakfast,
Rotblatt, perhaps streaking, and yes, painting the water tower. These
dont have much to do with the campus physically, but with the
inhabitants. They represent the quirkiness of this college, some sense
of rebellion, but also what unites the college now, and historically.
||The Sense of Place at Carleton
Quirky, activist, playful, and involved.
These adjectives are used several times by Carls describing what is unique
about life at Carleton. Their hundreds of photos of people, places, and
events would make little sense without the attached written descriptions.
Yet, together, images and text add up to a powerful resource.
Carleton clearly has many unique qualities that contribute to its sense
of place. In a time of advancing urban sprawl around its edges, Northfield,
and therefore Carleton, are still places where people have a daily pedestrian
experience of buildings, landscapes, and one another. In a pragmatic and
vocational era, Carleton remains committed to the liberal arts, to tolerance
of diverse ideas and intellectual approaches, and to student-faculty interaction.
A college with a strong and historic commitment to the intellectual quest
behind the liberal arts should ask new questions of its campus planning.
More than merely beautifying and updating facilities, lawns, and vistas,
Carleton officials have the opportunity to create a new kind of campus master
plan that looks to a deeper meaning of campus places: namely, the life and
learning that they bring forth.
A campus is more than bricks and mortar. If there is any college in the
Midwest where this statement rings true, it is Carleton. Thanks to the three
photographers in Vantage Points and the forty-three Carls who made
their own photo narratives, we now understand a bit more about the campus.
Whether neighbors, students, faculty, or staff, they are part of Carleton
and Carleton is part of them. Their work provides remarkable insights about
how to steward the campus for future generations.
Frank Edgerton Martin is campus planning coordinator for Hammel, Green
and Abrahamson of Minneapolis. He has employed participatory photography
in numerous towns and campuses.
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