Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 26, 2000Volume 29, Number 16

President A. Bartlett Giamatti gives advice to his successor, Benno C. Schmidt, at the latter's inauguration ceremony in 1986.

During World War II, students learned to swim fully clothed as part of the military training excercises held in Payne Whitney Gym.

'A Yale Album' captures century of history in photos

When asked for his ideas on how Yale could celebrate its 300th birthday, School of Art Dean Richard Benson suggested publishing a book of photographs that could serve as a visual record of the past.

Benson -- already busy with his responsibilities as dean (see related story) as well as his own scholarly and artistic pursuits -- hadn't expected to be personally involved in putting such a book together. But in the end, the renowned printer, photographer and teacher was the hands-down choice for what turned out to be a very hands-on project.

The fruit of Benson's labor is "A Yale Album: The Third Century," a collection of photographs taken at the University between 1901 and 2001. While intended mainly as a celebration-year memento for alumni, "A Yale Album" has also been hailed solely for its artistic merit. Artful photographs capture specific moments in Yale's history. The book's 11 chapters cover such themes as "Old Yale, from the Bicentennial to World War I," "Life at Yale During World War II," "The Turmoil of the Sixties and Seventies," "Athletics at Yale," "Challenges Facing the University" and "Commencement."

In his foreword to the book, President Richard C. Levin says, "I trust that these photographs ... will cause graduates to reflect upon why and how the years at Yale change the lives of students forever."

Benson wrote the commentary and photo captions for the book, and solicited essays from Levin, Provost Alison F. Richard and Jules D. Prown, the Paul Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Art. The book also includes speeches or parts of speeches by such University figures as Yale College Dean Richard A. Brodhead and former Yale President Charles Seymour, as well as an excerpt from the memoirs of an 1899 Yale College graduate named Henry Seidel Canby describing college life at the turn of the century.

In addition to photographs culled from various University archives and private collections, "A Yale Album" features images taken by Benson and by such current chroniclers of Yale life as University Photographer Michael Marsland and Robert Lisak, a 1980 graduate of the School of Art and freelance photographer.

Benson used his computer to scan in every image and design each page of the book. Assisting the dean in shaping the overall content and design of "A Yale Album" was a committee of administrators and faculty members led by Yale Vice President and Secretary Linda K. Lorimer and Director of Tercentennial Operations Janet Lindner.

Benson recently talked to the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about the book. An edited version of that conversation follows.

You write in "A Yale Album" that you detest coffee-table books, and were intent upon not having this book be one. How did you achieve that?

Let's talk about the thing I object to in coffee-table books, which is that I don't think coffee-table books explore the world visually. I think what they do is render the preconceptions of the authors. When people do a coffee-table book, I think they have an idea of the flavor and the visual content of the book, and then they set out to find or make pictures that fulfill that. The result is a book that is not about the thing that's being portrayed; the book is about the writer's preconception. I think the person putting the book together is less important than the thing that's being depicted in the book. What I tried do with this book -- not trying to imply that it's been successful -- was to look at photographs of Yale not knowing what I would find, and to try to learn about Yale from the photographs, and put together a book that showed something that was reasonably objective about what happened through the last 100 years.

I didn't have any idea what was going to turn up in the archives. I did have an idea of significant events over the last 100 years, because I had a committee that was tremendously helpful in saying to me, "Oh, keep your eyes out for the snowball riot," for example, as well as other important Yale events. But I didn't have some advance idea of what it was going to look like.

Also, the pictures are not coffee-table pictures. For example, I've got a picture in there of A.C. Gilbert dissecting a cadaver. That's not your typical coffee-table book material!

Have you had much response about the book?

Yes, I've gotten responses from a lot of people, a number of whom are alumni. People seem to like the book, which I'm thrilled with. Of course, I've been terrified that the book would leave things out or that people would be upset with its flavor. I haven't found that and that's been a great pleasure -- I don't know if people are just being nice to me or not.

How many photographs are there altogether in the book?

There are 236 altogether, but there should be one more. I meant to make a picture to accompany the essay by Jules Prown, and I very stupidly left it out. I feel very badly about that.

What is the oldest photograph you used?

I used a couple of pictures made before 1901 -- even though the book covers the period 1901 to 2001. There's a wonderful picture looking up Hillhouse Avenue that shows Sachem Wood at the end. That's a 19th-century photograph, and I thought it was very good background to show how in this century the University expanded beyond Sachem Wood. That was one of the big moves the University made. So I let that picture slip in. There may be others dated before 1901, but that's the one that stands out.

You also included some of your own photographs. Were these taken specifically for the book or are they from your own collection?

These were made for the book. There aren't too many, maybe 10 or 12. I took these if I couldn't find anything to illustrate something I wanted in the book.

For example, I wanted a nice picture of the Grove Street Cemetery, and it seemed to me that in every picture of the Grove Street Cemetery I ever saw, the photographer was very careful to show the inscription "The Dead Shall Be Raised." So I took a picture where you don't see that. Then I walked around the University with my camera and I found stuff that was wonderful to look at. For example, there's a great portrait in the Hall of Graduate Studies of the economist Thorstein Veblen, done by Edwin Child, and since I wanted to make sure that Yale portraits were represented in the book, I made a photograph of that. I also made a photograph of the card catalog area in Sterling [Memorial Library] where computers are sitting on the table in the middle of the old card catalog. It portrays what's going on in our midst now, and is something that I just came upon in my travels with my camera.

How did you go about choosing which of the photographs you'd gathered to include in the book?

It's a very interesting process and not one that lends itself well to logic because the nature of it is visual. What happened is that the committee I worked with gave me a sort of time line of the century and talked to me about the high points of the century that should be included. I went through Manuscripts and Archives, Michael Marsland's and Rob Lisak's photographs, and my own, and other ones that came here and there. In the back of my head I had this structure of the century and what things were important in it. So that became an intellectual skeleton in my head. Then hanging the pictures on that framework was a visual process that I did by tacking pictures on the wall -- making prints and tacking them on the wall and moving them around.

I think that if you do a book of pictures you can't edit the pictures' sequence, scale, et cetera, without, in effect, having them be integral to the design of the book. And so quite quickly after doing this on the wall I was doing it again on the computer -- where I could arrange the pictures and get their size figured out. You know, when you put two or three pictures on a spread in the book they interact with each other: there are a lot of issues about the scale of the pictures, the visual form of the pictures, the color of the pictures. I tried to attend to that aspect of the book as an integral part of its making. In other words, you can't edit the book without designing it; those two things are connected.

How long did all of this take you?

It took me six months less than it should have. I should have had another half a year to do it. When the book originally began in the beginning of 1999 I assumed it would come out in 2001, and then it turned out that for completely good reasons it had to be available in the fall of 2000. So I had to finish the book in the beginning of June 2000. I have to say I rushed it to get it done. I wish I had had another six months.

You had to become a historian of Yale, of sorts, to write the commentary accompanying the photographs. Did you have to do extensive research?

No, because I had a great committee which knew a lot of the history. I think the original conception of the book was that we would get 100 or so pictures and then get as many different people at Yale to write about the pictures. I think that's a wonderful idea, but in practice it would have been almost impossible, because we then would have had to figure out who the 100 people were, and we would have had to hold our breath and pray that they'd write something intelligible about the picture. And then who knows what it would have been like once it came together. So, kind of reluctantly, I admit, I realized that the way to do it would be to have a small number of essays -- some historical, some new -- and for me to write a running commentary.

Did you learn anything about Yale during this process that surprised you?

I learned tons of things about Yale while putting the book together, but nothing that particularly surprised me. One of the net effects of the book on me is that it made me really like the place more. Maybe that's just familiarity breeding affection ... I mean I've always liked Yale, but I think as I've come to know it I've come to like it more.

Also, before doing the book I had not really understood the dramatic effect the two world wars had on the place. I think one of the gaps in the book is the war-time classes; there are a lot of people in the war-time classes who were left out. But one of the best pictures in the book is of people doing an underwater war-training exercise in the pool.

You write in your acknowledgments that the book brought you occasional periods of "grumbling" as you were putting it together. What were some of your biggest challenges?

I suppose I grumbled a lot of the time I was doing it because it was so much work and I was terrified that the book would be a turkey. What better reason to grumble! The challenge was making a good book and making it on time. I was worried about finding good pictures; I was worried about the writing, about having the book be complete and coherent.

Also, one of the difficulties was finding adequate pictures of the educational process. Pictures of people in the classroom have a tendency to look uninteresting. I think there's a deficiency in the book because I had a really hard time finding those. That challenge was imperfectly met.

One of the things I feel badly about is the fact there are an awful lot of pictures in the book that have no photographer's names and dates attached to them. There are a lot of unattributed pictures, and it is unfortunate that we couldn't find out who made them.

You mentioned the photo of the wartime underwater training exercise as one of the best pictures in the book. Do you have any other favorites?

No, I think there's a lot of very nice pictures in the book. I think the picture of [Yale presidents] Bart Giamatti and Benno Schmidt together is a terrific shot; I think the Robert Frank picture of Yale at graduation is terrific, so is Robert Lisak's photo of the rainy-day Commencement. I could go on and on, pointing out the good things in all of them. The rainy-day Commencement photo and Mike Marsland's photo of [artist and School of Art graduate] Dawoud Bey are, I think, some of the best ones I included by current Yale photographers.

I have to say that I had some great pictures to work with, and that's what makes this book what it is and what made my job putting it together so interesting for me. The book also would have been impossible without the help of Linda Lorimer's committee and the staff at Manuscripts and Archives.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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'A Yale Album' captures century of history in photos

Benson reappointed to second term as dean of School of Art

Talks trace the evolution of the 'democratic soul'

Nuns' library donation reveals new aspects of artist's life

Beinecke exhibit explores 18th-century views of theater


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Historian David Kennedy to discuss World War II

Grant supports nurse's effort to prevent diabetes in teens

ITS announces appointment of new CMI director

Art gallery appoints its first deputy director

Musicologist Claude Palisca, scholar of Baroque opera, dies

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