Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Posing for the Camera

Smile for the camera...
Erasmus, by Holbein the Younger (1523)
In years past, an Oxford academic might have had just one ‘official’ photo of themselves, stuck in an album, tucked away in the Senior Common Room, which college colleagues could consult if they had forgotten your name. Nowadays, photographs of academics are ubiquitous - on Departmental webpages, academic network sites like academia.edu, blogs and Twitter icons. Somerville this summer prepared a new undergraduate prospectus, for which I had to be photographed because I had no suitable image in a sufficiently high resolution – this involved standing in front of a hedge in the Fellows’ Garden, on a very warm day, facing an editor armed with a huge lens.

Producing, or choosing, an ‘official’ visual image of yourself as an academic is tricky, because it’s not entirely clear what an academic is meant to look like. I think this is true of both men and women, although with women (as Mary Beard, for example, has found in the UK) other issues quickly come into play. Doctors, lawyers and politicians have unofficial codes regarding what they wear, and what kind of demeanour they might adopt on camera. But, as the sheer heterogeneity of images of historians on academia.edu shows, the scope which academics have to depict themselves is much broader, and the messages conveyed more varied. A holiday shot might say: ‘I am a calm and relaxed person with a life outside the library, a family and dog’, or ‘I’m so committed to my subject, I visit historical sites all over the world’. Quite a few photos, of both men and women, are so glamorous, in their lighting and pose, that they look as if they have come straight from a modelling agency portfolio. Others chose images which catch them in the act of doing history – speaking at a conference, standing outside an archive, holding their newly published book. I make do with two images which I keep telling myself are temporary, until something better emerges – a photo taken by Somerville College porters for my security pass on the day I arrived in college in 2007, looking slightly alarmed & wrapped up in a very large scarf, and, yes, a holiday shot in a 16C chateau garden, in which I may actually have my eyes closed.


In the Renaissance, scholars might have had a narrower range of image-producing technologies at their disposal (the woodcut, the painted portrait, the ink sketch), but they did at least operate in a world which had a clearly established, homogenous iconography of scholarship – they knew what scholars looked like, as Dora Thornton demonstrated in in her book The Scholar in His Study(1997). A scholar, in the Renaissance, was a grave man who sat eternally at a desk surrounded by books, and he didn’t smile for the camera. Our 21C scholarly self-fashioning, for better or worse, lacks such easy orthodoxies.