Stephanie Sparling Williams at UMass Lowell: Qualitative Research and the Camera



Spring brings great speakers to campus.  Yesterday Stephanie Sparling Williams, a curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art and teacher at Phillips Academy, presented a talk, “Astride the Lens: Radical Self-Staged Portraiture and the Black Female Body.”

She discussed the work of three important Black female photographers:  Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Zanele Muholi, of which, sad to say, I had been unaware.  Each photographer used self-portraiture in ways that created new perceptions of race and gender at a time of great contradictions, openings, and contestation around these issues.

While the photographic work was striking, as usual I was listening for the methodological discussion, and I was not disappointed.  The paper Williams presented grows (as so many things do) from long experience, personal quest, and the dissertation.  She completed her dissertation at the University of Southern California in American Studies (rather than art history), which she believed allowed her more freedom in crafting her methodological approach, self-described as a combination of phenomenology and ethnography.

What was particularly significant about the way she conducted her study was that she was not seated alone studying these photographs in some museum vault.  Rather, her methodology required that she be present with the photographs in a public exhibit so she could view museum goers interacting with the challenges presented by the self-portraits of Black women.  Williams described packing herself up and heading out to exhibits of the works and then “camping” for hours, days, and weeks in a gallery watching the public responding–through comment and physical reaction to the photographs.

In tandem with her methodological approach, her theoretical approach drew together the notion of “the gaze” as described by Mulvey and Diamond; “the mirror” as described in the work of Lacan and Fanon; and, again, the issues phenomenology brings to understanding the lived experience of the participant.

Williams’ focus on the work of photography–by photographer and model–is informed by her unique experiences as a fashion model and an artist with training in photography.  Demonstrating, yet again, how important the subjective is in the development of this thing called a dissertation.

Williams is developing several exhibits for the Addison Gallery, which is also in the midst of a fascinating emphasis on photography that shouldn’t be missed:  Addison Gallery of American Art





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