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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Tuesday, November 14, 2017

    A History of Handwork | Giant Woman (Empire State)

    Guest blogger Julia B Smith, class of 2019, wrote this post as part of her coursework for ARH 280: Photography and the Politics of Invisibility taught by Post-Doctoral Fellow Anna Lee. This course informed the current exhibition A History of Handwork: Photographs from the SCMA Collection on view on the Museum’s second floor until December 3, 2017

             Anita Steckel. American, 1930–2012. Giant Woman (Empire State). 1974. Gelatin silver print photomontage with graphite. Purchased with the Dorothy C. Miller, class of 1925, Fund

    Anita Steckel’s Giant Woman (Empire State) is part of the Giant Woman series, in which she depicted mammoth women overtaking five New York City landmarks, including the Chrysler Building and Coney Island. Here, an illustrated female body straddles the phallic Empire State building as if she is King Kong. Drawn on a photographic background of Midtown Manhattan, the shapely woman seems almost too big for the confines of the picture. In a 1969 version of the image, her face was hand-drawn like the rest of her body – it was not until 1973-74 that Steckel superimposed a photograph of her own face on each image in the series, eliminating the woman’s anonymity and, according to some scholars, exemplifying her growing feminist consciousness.

    Although Steckel has integrated each layer of the photomontage, one can still distinguish between the photographic and the drawn due to the translucency of the woman’s legs and the disproportionate size of her hand. For the final version of the image, Steckel re-photographed the arrangement, flattening the layers into a single plane while maintaining traces of her presence as the creator of the image. 

    Gripping a paintbrush in one hand and the Empire State in the other, the woman dominates a space synonymous with male-centric corporations and class inequality. The paintbrush can be seen as symbolic of Steckel’s involvement in the feminist art movement of the 1970s, while her serene facial expression could connote her indifference or defiance towards patriarchal mores, including the notion that women do not belong in places of corporate male power. 

    Following controversy over whether her solo exhibition, “The Feminist Art of Sexual Politics,” should be closed on the grounds of obscenity, Steckel formed the group “Fight Censorship,” which united female artists advocating for equality and freedom of expression in the arts. Having been rejected from numerous shows on the grounds of pornography, Steckel and fellow members of Fight Censorship gained publicity through feminist and mainstream publications. Together they challenged the patriarchal conventions of female nudity as acceptable only if created under the male gaze. Steckel satirized this double standard by daring her subjects – now adorned with her own face – to take up space in places they were not typically welcome in 1973, and where, one might argue, they remain unwelcome today.


  • Friday, November 3, 2017

    A History of Handwork | Ausencias

    Guest blogger Renna Bushko, class of 2018, wrote this post as part of her coursework for ARH 280: Photography and the Politics of Invisibility taught by Post-Doctoral Fellow Anna Lee. This course informed the current exhibition A History of Handwork: Photographs from the SCMA Collection on view on the Museum’s second floor until December 3, 2017

    Luis González Palma. Guatemalan, 1957–. Ausencias. 1997. Gelatin silver print, asphaltum, kodalith on paper and mylar with staples, handwritten text on official documents. Purchased. (click here to view larger image)

    Luis González Palma is a postmodern South American photographer renowned for his photographic collages. González Palma’s photographs between t1989-2000 reflect the political state of Guatemala during the latter half of the 20th century, exhibiting the experiences of its citizens during the brutal Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). Ausencias, one of the most prominent works in González-Palma’s series, illuminates the violence that Guatemalan citizens experienced as a result of the war. It was particularly arduous for the Maya, as they were ostracized by Guatemalans of European descent (Ladinos). During the late 1990s, González-Palma created photographic collages illuminating the grief of indigenous peoples by utilizing symbols of loss, trauma, fear, and violence in contrast with beauty and human fragility.

    González Palma uses photographic and constructive techniques wherein multiple layers of materials such as passport photographs, vellum, and historical documents are combined to provide both symbolic and physical dimensionality to the work. By adding a dark dye called bitumen and printing his photographs on sepia tint, González Palma gives the work an antiquated quality.

    The title Ausencias -- Absences in English -- figuratively evokes nostalgia and sadness. Combining images of vacant chairs with passport photographs suggests that the people in the photographs once occupied the chairs prior to the war. The heavy wood of the chairs adds to the sensation of discomfort and being placed in a difficult situation, much like being faced with survival during a war. In the lower central portion of the work, a solitary rose symbolizes St. Rose -the patron saint of indigenous people of the Americas. Its presence suggests that the Maya are divinely protected regardless of the violence they experienced. On the lower right-hand side of the work, a small quote saying "que nos dice” --Spanish for “ what it tells us”-- is printed on a vellum rectangle, prompting questions about the work’s purpose. In the background of the second panel, a handwritten official document pokes out from behind a layer of chairs and passport photos to demonstrate the absurdity of how words on paper can permanently change human lives, or even end them. Given the political state of Guatemala, the documents in the background likely refer to the civil war, perhaps even a law that further perpetuated the violence against the Maya.

    Palma’s art transcends Guatemala’s borders and expresses a universal pain that lingers in the human psyche. González Palma and uses photography to reconcile with the past. The methods González Palma use transform his work into an emotional memorial that serves as an outcry for peace.


  • Friday, October 27, 2017

    A History of Handwork | Untitled #14

    Guest blogger Ana C. Ledgerwood, class of 2017, wrote this post as part of her coursework for ARH 280: Photography and the Politics of Invisibility taught by Post-Doctoral Fellow Anna Lee. This course informed the current exhibition A History of Handwork: Photographs from the SCMA Collection on view on the Museum’s second floor until December 3, 2017.


    Michal Mackü. Czech, born 1963. Untitled #14. 1988. Collaged gelatin silver tissue on rag paper. Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art. Purchased with the Hillyer-Mather-Tryon Fund.

    Czech photographer Michal Mackü created Untitled #14 using an unusual technique called gellage —a fusion of the words gelatin and collage— which he invented and perfected during the late 1980s and ‘90s. To make a gellage image, Mackü begins by developing a photograph using a glass plate covered with a thin layer of gelatin, a typical method of late nineteenth-century photography. Once the glass plate is chemically treated to develop and fix the image, Mackü, rather than making prints from this developed plate, instead dips the plate into a second chemical solution to separate the gelatin layer from its glass backing. Mackü then transfers this delicate film of gelatin onto a sheet of white paper. While both the gelatin film and the paper are wet, Mackü can slide, scrunch, fold, and tear the gelatin with his hands to create the various types of textures seen in Untitled #14. The artist sometimes spends several hours manipulating the gelatin film to achieve his desired result. The piece is then allowed to dry so that the gelatin will permanently stick to the paper.

    Mackü’s art focuses on three-dimensional structure. He has compared his work with photography to sculpture, a medium he appreciates for the way in which it allows the artist to create in a direct, hands-on manner. His early gellages, such as Untitled #14 are rich with complex textures. In a later series of gellages, titled The Multiples, Mackü pushed the physical limits of the technique further by layering multiple gelatin films on top of one another, producing images with even more pronounced structure. Both the early and later gellages speak to Mackü’s love of experimentation. They also call attention to the physical characteristics of photographic materials, characteristics that are not apparent in traditional photography.

    Mackü almost exclusively uses his own body as a model for his gellages, preferring to work with a subject that he already knows well: “It enables me to do focused work, in effect discovering the self, the physical manifestation of one’s being”.* Here, the subject appears to be peeling off his face, leaving himself without an identity. There is a tension in this gellage between individuality and anonymity: the artist has a deeply personal, intimate connection to the subject of the image (and to the process of its creation), while the viewer sees the subject as an anonymous figure.

    * Michal Mackü, interview with Jindrich Streit and Ladislav Danek, 1996.