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ART H 400 A: ART History and Criticism

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Theories of Photography

Meeting Time: 
MW 10:00am - 11:20am
ART 317
Joint Sections: 
ART H 525 A
Adair Rounthwaite
Adair Rounthwaite

Syllabus Description:

Art History 400/525: Theories of Photography

M/W 10:00am-11:20am, Art Building 317

Office hours Mondays 12:30-2:30pm or by appointment, Art Building 367

Prof. Adair Rounthwaite,

Francesca Woodman - Self Portrait Talking to Vince

Francesca Woodman, Self-Portrait Talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78, 1975-78


Course description

This seminar-style class explores the question of why and how photographs are powerful, and how they have shaped our understanding of what it means to be human in the 20th and 21st centuries. Beyond simply reflecting or representing the world, photographs in these centuries have embodied hopes and fears about what we as humans are becoming in the contemporary moment. Across discussion of both art and documentary photographs—and the complex territory between those categories—we will analyze how photography has participated in constructing us as political and aesthetic subjects, but also how it charts the limits of our ability to see, experience, and understand. Specific themes in the course will include the relationship between photography and nationalism; its ability to speak about trauma; its work in doing and undoing gendered and raced identities; and its relationship to contemporary art in a conceptual lineage.


Learning goals

  • To practice close looking at and discussion of photographs in order to gain an understanding of their visual and semantic richness.
  • To familiarize students with foundational texts as well as recent scholarship in the theory of photography, and to help them become conversant in this material.
  • To analyze the relationship between photography and the various histories and social movements of the 20th and 21st centuries in which it has played a pivotal role.
  • To consider the boundaries and connections between photography as a tool for contemporary art since the mid-20th-century, and various non-art and documentary genres of photography from the modern and contemporary periods.
  • To give students the opportunity to develop a full-length research paper based on an original topic of their choice.


Grade breakdown 

25% - Take-home essay based on readings, due February 11th at 8:30am via Canvas (no hard-copy submission)

5% - Initial abstract and bibliography for paper, due Friday, February 1st at 8:30am via Canvas. To receive a grade for this component you must meet with me (in office hours or at another time) to discuss your initial topic idea before the abstract is due on February 1st.

40% - Final research paper, 10-15 pages double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font for undergraduates and 15-20 pages for graduate students. Due Friday, March 15th at noon via Canvas.

15% - Group-based reading presentations and oral responses (see below). This is a collective grade where the whole group receives the same evaluation unless I determine otherwise in conversation with group members.

15% - Individual in-class participation, including bringing the assigned texts to class, arriving punctually, contributing to class discussion of the readings, and attending office hours if necessary. Includes 1% for first-day reading assignment and post to Canvas, due Monday, January 7th at 8:30am.

See this attachment for the full syllabus: Rounthwaite photo theories WI19 v3.pdf

Catalog Description: 
Courses on special topics, frequently by visiting faculty, which cannot be offered on a continuing basis. Consult art history office for subjects offered.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:11pm