ARTH 559
Photographing City Life: Diane Arbus/James Van Der Zee Fall 2022
Division I
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Class Details

Diane Arbus and James Vander Zee in Manhattan. In this seminar we will discuss two photographers of city life: Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and James Van Der Zee (1886–1983). So doing, we will also observe how life in New York changed during their years of great productivity. In the first part of the course, “Diane Arbus in Manhattan,” we will talk about Arbus’ relationship to New York–the city of her birth. For most of her career, Arbus worked in Manhattan; indeed, one could think of the city as another character in her work. Arbus’ relationship to myth–to storytelling–was profound. A great reader throughout her life, she was drawn to those writers who saw cities as very individualized places. In addition to looking at Arbus’ photographs of life in Manhattan in the nineteen fifties, sixties, and in 1970, we will read her published letters, and those authors who inspired her with their artistry, and fascination with myth, including Borges, and Kafka. In the second part of the course, “James Van Der Zee and the Black Village,” we will discuss the great Black photographer whose archives were just purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where Arbus’ archives are as well). Born in Lenox, Massachusetts, Van Der Zee settled in Harlem in 1916; there, he opened a photography studio where he became known for his portraits of Black life as it was lived uptown. Admired by Arbus and others, Van Der Zee’s interest in and commitment to his community extended to all aspects of Harlem life, including death. To support our discussions of Van Der Zee’s Black village, we will read modernist classics, including Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” and Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” that deal specifically with village life.Please note that seminar meetings will be held biweekly on 9/8, 9/29, 10/13, 10/20, 11/3, 11/17. The seminar will include several mandatory viewing excursions outside Williamstown. The dates of these excursions are TBD, but will be restricted to Fridays or weekends. Professor Als will hold office hours following the seminar at hours TBD. Application may apply.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 12
Expected: 12
Class#: 2014
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Class participation, graded writing assignments
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: Grad students only. Application may be required.
Distributions: Division I
Attributes: ARTH post-1800

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