By Isabel McCullough, Reference Assistant
The study of architecture is an interesting endeavor. Buildings are generally large, immobile, and subject to change. Buildings are rarely in a convenient location, and even if you are able to see a building in person, you can never take in the entirety at once — you cannot be both inside and outside or standing on multiple floors simultaneously.
The forms through which we study architecture, including photographs and various types of architectural drawings, have their own kind of permanence. In the case of drawings, these forms of documentation were the place where the buildings began from conception. And often, photographs and drawings are all that is left of structures that have been torn down or fallen to ruins. In other cases, buildings are planned in concept only. The structure never comes to be, or at very least not in the way it was drawn.
One of the architecture classes I took as an undergraduate student posed one big question on this topic: What is the true expression of architecture? Is it the concept as the architect imagined it? The three dimensional manifestation of the concept as the structure itself? Or the collection of two dimensional plans, drawings, and photographs that collectively try to represent a three dimensional space? I never came to a satisfying conclusion, but I think the question bears asking, and it’s a question that has stuck with me.
As a Reference Assistant at SCRC, I’ve worked on several research projects on the history of SU, and in particular SU’s buildings and grounds. Often, the research included looking for photographs. Nearly every time this unanswered question was in the back of my mind and grew to encompass far more than just a question of architecture. Studying the history of a University is an equally complex endeavor. Universities, too, are large, immobile, and subject to change. Not to mention the fact that they tend to have several pieces of architecture of their own.
For the most part, the images in the Syracuse University Photograph Collection were created and saved with the intention of documenting the complexities of this University and its changes over time. These are the breadcrumbs through which we make history. But as I’ve spent time with this collection, I’ve come to see how much more it has to offer.
Both the problem and joy of documenting something as immense and multifaceted as a building or a University stems from the fact that by creating a piece of documentation, such as a photograph, that documentation becomes a new medium of its own. Photographs recontextualize SU’s campus into new expressions of art and architecture.
Yes, these photographs document SU’s history, but they also capture moments of whimsy and synchronicity.
When taken as a whole, these images can show how one structure can be both light and dark.
How one sculpture can by turns be sorrowful, pensive, or imposing.
By adjusting the lens through which we view these pieces of documentation, we can take them in as art in their own right. We can see the different elements of the photograph other than the primary subject.
The framing and lighting.
The unintended subject in the foreground or background.
The elements that make these images seem something more than what they were intended to be.
These details compiled across a collection of images are what make the whole greater than the sum of its parts and what brings some humanity into studying the history of a University campus.
The Syracuse University Photograph Collection (Syracuse University Photograph Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of our University Archives collections.