Starstuff: science meets art, print meets photography, Galileo meets Linda Connor
In recent years, Prof. Elizabeth Kessler’s American Studies course, “StarStuff: Space and the American Imagination,” brought students into our Special Collections Barchas Room for hands-on viewings of antiquarian astronomy texts, 19th century lithographs and planispheres, scientific literature, and contemporary fine art photography.
Above. A pre-pandemic moment. October 2018. Prof. Kessler and TA Henry Rownd discuss selections from the Michael Bishop photography collection (M2399) and develop presentation strategies for the Starstuff class viewings.
Students would start with Galileo Galilei’s Siderius nuncius (1610), Johannes Hevelius’s Selenographia (1647) and other early astronomical texts, continue through Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s Astronomical drawings (1882) and publications from the the University of California's Lick Observatory (1887-1975), and finish with photographs by Michael Bishop, Barbara Bosworth, and Linda Connor (all acquired for the Stanford Libraries Photography Initiative). Fascinating visual conversations would occur between the works themselves, e.g., between the lunar appreciations of Galileo and those of Connor -- the observations of those two spectators separated by nearly 400 years. Those visual conversations were animated and enlarged upon as Prof. Kessler and her students joined in vocally.
But with the 2020 pandemic era of remote instruction upon us these in-person visits to the Barchas Room are on hold. And also on hold are those exciting and formative interactions between students and collections, between books and photographs, between eras… Or are they?
To support virtual visits to Special Collections, staff from Special Collections and Digital Library Systems and Services collaborated to set up a small, yet robust digital production workstation in Special Collections. Just as our faculty colleagues learned new teaching skills using Zoom and other online tools, the staff of the Libraries developed new methods for presenting physical collections. Earlier this fall Prof. Kessler joined me in the Barchas Room and we produced short video segments wherein she introduced students to the same pieces formerly viewed in person. Kessler notes: “I was thrilled that the library had the capacity to allow me to record a virtual trip this year and even more so when photographer Linda Connor agreed to Zoom in with the class and speak about her work. Students were appropriately impressed by the library’s collection of rare books and other materials from the early modern history of astronomy as well as the large 19th-century chromolithographs by Etienne Trouvelot and Linda's reprints of ground-breaking early astronomical photographs from Lick Observatory.”
Above left. Linda Connor. "June 27, 1895." Glass plate negative, 1895, Lick Observatory glass plate archive; print by Linda Connor, c.1995-2000. Gift of Linda Connor, 2018. Above right. Linda Connor. "April 16, 1893." Glass plate negative (broken), 1893, Lick Observatory glass plate archive; print by Linda Connor, 1998. Gift of Linda Connor, 2018. Both photographs Linda Conner photograph collection (M2436), Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.
With Prof. Kessler’s video presentations serving as surrogates for the students’ usual close physical observations of the artifacts, she engaged with the objects and created short narratives on several items. These short segments were then edited together to produce two twenty minute “visits” to Special Collections which students viewed as part of their course preparations. In total, sixteen items plus a short introduction to Special Collections were presented. The students’ viewings of the videos, which included a segment on Connor's Lick Observatory prints, set the stage for Connor’s Zoom visit to the virtual classroom and a presentation of her work beyond the Lick Observatory prints. Three of the short component clips are shown below at the end of this blog.
Bringing her unique voice and artistic vision into the classroom, Connor perfectly informed the students as to how art's interpretive possibilities can empower their engagements with observational stratgies and scientific method. Connor notes: “Although art was my area of education where I was most successful, I’ve always had an interest in the “observable” sciences and the natural world. But I approach these things more with an interest in their visual power and with my own sense of wonder. The fact that Beth is bringing in a wide range of materials and ideas beyond the norm or the canon is terrific. I feel it is essential to find a balance in education, to involve the senses, to engage with different points of view and different types of knowing, to engage with your imagination."
Above. Linda Connor. “Sand Mandalas, Mindrolling Monastery, Tibet” (1993). Gift of David Knaus, 2019. Linda Conner photograph collection (M2436), Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.
Kessler continues: “All of these historical materials gained new resonance and dimensionality when seen alongside Linda Connor’s reprints of Lick Observatory’s glass plate negatives and her other works. Students admired the beauty of the Moon, an eclipse of the Sun, and the Milky Ways as recorded in these exquisite photographs. In addition, Connor's artistic choices – perhaps most evident when she reprinted cracked and broken plates – helped students see and appreciate the photographs as artifacts from a particular time and place, with their own histories, rather than seeing only what they represent. And I like to think this also inflected how they saw all the objects featured in our virtual trip to Special Collections.”
As the Library’s Photography Initiative continues to acquire photographic materials by significant photographers, we search for opportunities to introduce these collections into the University environment of research and instruction. Curriculum in disciplines ranging from Astronomy to Religious Studies and beyond can benefit from interactions with photographs. If you know of faculty or courses who might be interested, please do contact me. As Connor's and Prof. Kessler's collaboration makes clear, engaging with the senses and committing to the imagination offer powerful pedagogic opportunities. Work for a Spotlight exhibition on our Linda Connor holdings is now underway.
Above. “Starstuff clip. October 2020. Prof. Kessler presents Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius (1610). 3:48.”
Above. “Starstuff clip. October 2020. Prof. Kessler presents two planispheres (1856 & 1880). 3:34.”
Above. “Starstuff clip. October 2020. Prof. Kessler presents Linda Connor’s Lick Observatory prints (glass plate negatives made c.1892-1939, prints made 1995-2000).”
With special thanks to Libraries' staff, Ben Albritton, Andrew Berger, Tom Cramer, Ray Heigemeir, Annie Schweikert, Deni Wicklund, and Geoff Willard for their support and guidance.The Linda Connor prints were generous donations to the Stanford Libraries Photography Initiative by Linda Connor and David Knaus.