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. Gould’s 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 can’t 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 College’s 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 one’s 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 experiences”—a concept with as many definitions as “sense of place.”

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 Carl’s 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 Soth’s 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 photography’s 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. Dow’s 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 Carleton’s 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 nature.

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 Tuan’s 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 College’s 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 course.

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 wouldn’t be Carleton without that.


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 site’s 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 I’d 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. It’s easy to feel at home here, to be loved, and to be a kid again sometimes. Carleton is also a place to enjoy the seasons—all of them, even winter.

She also took a photo of the water tower for what it represents about Carleton’s 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 by alumni:

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 don’t 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.

Back to top

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