Professor Jason Hill joined the faculty in the Department of Art History in 2015 with a focus on modern and contemporary art and visual culture. Lately, Professor Hill has spent a lot of time teaching, contemplating and researching photography, art, and journalism, most notably in his new book Artist as Reporter: Weegee, Ad Reinhardt, and the PM News Picture (UC Press, 2018). The book examines the artistic contributions within the pages of the progressive New York City tabloid newspaper, PM, and the paper’s role in midcentury American modernism.
After a busy year publishing a book, teaching courses, and co-organizing a symposium, Professor Hill took some time to answer a few questions.
Q: After choosing the field of Art History, when did you first decide you wanted to focus more on modern art and photography and why?
A: I have always been mainly interested in the role of modern art and visual culture in the shaping of political consensus. This is how I came to be so preoccupied with photography: photography is everywhere (really, everywhere) in the work of shaping public opinion, largely on account of a reputation for truth-telling that it has not at all earned. How strange is that? I like thinking about the claims photographs make on the world, the kinds of work they are asked to do, and the way that they exert pressure on other media and forms of record and communication. Right now I'm increasingly focused on how photography (as a technology but also as a way of thinking about the world) intersects with popular understandings of crime and criminality. This is a field where it seems to me especially important that photography not be asked or expected to do more than it's capable of!
Q: You earned your Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 2011 and your recent book came from your dissertation. How does it feel to get it out there as a published book? What was the process like for you?
A: I am so thrilled to have published this book, a study of the role of images in the 1940s tabloid newspaper PM, and I really love that the publisher, UC Press, worked with me on the art program so to allow readers to really read that great newspaper, pictures of whose pages are interspersed with my own throughout, along with my own analysis. The road from dissertation to book is a long and winding one and in this case amounted to something pretty close to a re-write. My dissertation was much too long and anyways my thinking about what PM meant evolved quite a bit while I developed a second book project on visual journalism that… was developed and published while I was working on the PM book, the anthology Getting the Picture: The Visual Culture of the News. This was a hugely collaborative undertaking involving almost fifty unique voices which I co-edited with Vanessa Schwartz, and it really put a lot of pressure on the way I was thinking about news imagery. The process of completing that book probably informed the final shape of Artist as Reporter almost as much as the dissertation did!
Q: You recently co-organized the symposium, “The Black Box of History,” at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, which focused on the intersection of history and photography, as well as the physical and technical aspects of photography. How did “The Black Box of History” come about?
A: I was thrilled when Thierry Gervais invited me to collaborate with him on a big international conference on the role of photography in the historical imagination, to be held at the Ryerson Image Center, where he is the head of research. Thierry and I have been going back and forth about the history of the illustrated press for ten years now, and we got to thinking about the deeply complicated role of the press archive as a source in historical research, which in turn got us thinking more broadly about photography and history, and about all the great work that scholars are doing on this question. It's a great topic but it as also a sufficiently broad one that we were able to bring together a group of scholars whose work we've always admired. Right from the beginning we agreed that it would be important to build a solid pedagogical partnership into the project, so, with some help from OGPE, Conservation, and Art History here at UD, we were able to bring a number of our graduate students (Anne Cross, Dorothy Fisher, and Meghan Angelos, plus Amber Kehoe from Art Conservation) specializing in photography to Toronto for a workshop with Ryerson's photographic preservation and collections management graduate students. We had a dynamite seminar with all these students and very exciting senior scholars. Our hope is to continue this partnership with a companion event here at UD in a year or two.
Q: The Media Old and New Working Group is a working group through the Center for Material Culture Studies that you co-created with English professor Sarah Wasserman. What inspired you to start the group and how else do you see Art History and English, or other departments collaborating?
A: Sarah Wasserman and I arrived at UD at the same time and almost immediately realized that we were reading a lot of the same out-there work in media studies, she from her position in English and me from my own in Art History. We were fortunate to find in CMCS a generous sponsor to allow us to create a transdisciplinary workshop to explore and promote our common thematic or methodological concerns via workshops with UD's doctoral students and via lectures by some truly outstanding guests. I'm very happy with what we've been doing and absolutely I hope to explore further opportunities for productive exchange across departments here at UD. I've got some exciting things cooking, but everything is still top secret!
Q: Now that it’s summer and students and faculty (maybe) have more time to got to museums and exhibitions, what is a favorite exhibition that you've seen recently?
A: The Zoe Leonard show at the Whitney is dynamite (I'll never see Niagara Falls the same way again), but I need to get to New York again to see the Museum of the City of New York's new show about Stanley Kubrick's 1940s work as a news photographer for Look Magazine. I'm also really really looking forward to the suite of shows DAM put together to commemorate the 1968 National Guard occupation of Wilmington.
Professor Hill will be teaching ARTH319, “History of Photography in the United States,” and ARTH402, “Arts of Crime and Punishment in the United States” for the Fall 2018 semester. Also be on the look out for upcoming activities from the Media Old and New Working Group.