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2017 Distinguished Scholar Session

Kaja Silverman

Kaja Silverman

Katherine Stein Sachs CW'69 and Keith L. Sachs W'67 Professor of Art History

Kaja Silverman is the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of nine books: The Miracle of Analogy, or The History of Photography, Part 1 (2015); Flesh of My Flesh (2009); James Coleman (2002); World Spectators (2000); Speaking About Godard (1998); The Threshold of the Visible World (1996); Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992); The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (1988); and The Subject of Semiotics (1983). 

Silverman’s most recent book, The Miracle of Analogy (Stanford University Press, 2015), is the first installment in a three-volume reconceptualization of photography. Since this book is primarily concerned with photography as the agency through which the world reveals itself to us, it focuses on images in whose formation the photographer played only a nominal role: on the pre-optical camera obscura's images, and photographs made during the first three decades of chemical photography. And although Silverman discusses works by a number of contemporary photographers, they are all close in spirit to the photographs of the nineteenth century photographers who figure most prominently in Miracle: William Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

The second volume, A Three-Personed Picture, is about the gradual emergence of a very different kind of image:  one that is pictorial in nature. This picture has two very unusual features. First, it is shaped both by the aesthetic intelligence of the photographer, and that of the world. Second, it depends for its existence as much upon the sitter and the beholder as it does upon the author, and it links them to each other through a three-person chiasmus. Through this picture, the saving power of photography finally becomes social, as well as ontological. The final volume in the trilogy, The Promise of Social Happiness, is focused on the re-emergence of pictorial photography in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first, through two closely-related forms:  photo-painting, and large-format photography.

Before joining the History of Art Department at Penn, Silverman taught at Berkeley for many years. Earlier in her career, she taught at the University of Rochester, Brown University, Simon Fraser University, Trinity College, and Yale University.

Silverman was recently awarded a Distinguished Achievement Award by the Mellon Foundation, and has been using it to fund a series of conferences, lectures, public conversations and artist residencies, along with a Knut Asdam exhibition, that included a commissioned work. All of these events have taken place at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration either with the ICA, the Slought Foundation, The Penn Musuem, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The 2017 Distinguished Scholar Session took place on Thursday, February 16, 2017, 5:30–7:00 PM, at the New York Hilton Midtown. Silverman was joined by Richard Meyer, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University; and Homay King, Professor of Art, Bryn Mawr College.