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A Snapshot of Campus

Over 2,000 color images of Harvard's architecture now available through library partnership with photographer Ralph Lieberman

 
Class of 1959 Chapel

July 22, 2014—In May 2012, Ralph Lieberman began photographing Harvard's architecture ― from bicycle racks to library stacks ― for a project commissioned by Harvard College Library's Fine Arts Library (FAL) and the Graduate School of Design's Frances Loeb Library.

"These photographs may be useful to multiple disciplines at Harvard, from Design and Fine Arts to the Humanities, as everyone has their own lens through which they see Harvard," said Alix Reiskind, digital initiatives librarian at the Frances Loeb Library, who was involved in the project's organization.

The images, which cover nearly every campus building, are now cataloged and available for use by the entire Harvard community through the Library's Visual Information Access (VIA) system, and the campaign is not yet finished: Lieberman plans to add another 500 images to the database in next few months.

Lieberman has had a long association with Harvard. In the early 1980s, the Fine Arts Library began acquiring his photographs. Now, some 15,000 of his black-and-white prints and negatives—principally documenting Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture and sculpture, but also covering medieval, modern and classical structures—are part of the FAL's special collections. The library partnered with ARTstor, a nonprofit resource that provides over 1.6 million digital images in the arts, architecture, humanities and sciences, to scan 3,500 of Lieberman's images and make them accessible online.

Lieberman received his PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and has taught history of architecture at a number of colleges, including Amherst, Williams, the Rhode Island School of Design and Harvard, where he taught a Graduate School of Design course with architectural historian James S. Ackerman on images of architecture.

During a recent trip to Cambridge to photograph Harvard, Lieberman, along with FAL head of collections Amanda Bowen, sat down to discuss his work, his favorite spots on campus and the process of creating art while also teaching it.

Tell us about your experience photographing Harvard. How did you begin such a large project? What are your favorite spots on campus?

Ralph Lieberman: The first thing I did was the Yard and then the areas immediately around it: Memorial Hall and Sanders, the science buildings, Oxford Street, the Divinity School, the quads around that area and so on. Then, the Law School. I did all the [residential] Houses: no dorm rooms, but the “public” spaces like common rooms, dining halls and house libraries. All the houses have libraries, and some are quite beautiful. My favorite is Winthrop House, but Adams and Lowell have nice ones, too. Leverett has a very nice modern library.

My first foray to the other side of the river was to the athletic center and the Business School.

As for my favorite buildings, I like the Business School chapel—it's Moshe Safdie. And I like some of the Law School dorms in the quad back behind Wasserstein.

Amanda Bowen: Some people say they're by [Walter] Gropius, but I went to a talk where they said it's not Gropius, it was TAC―The Architects' Collaborative.

RL: Well, even if it was actually by one of his junior colleagues at TAC it's “Gropioid.” If not Gropius propia mano, it certainly shows his heavy influence.

I think the two best buildings on the whole Harvard campus are probably the two by [Henry Hobson] Richardson: Sever and Austin. They are just wonderful.

Is this an archiving project, an art project or both?

AB: The idea was to show Harvard at a particular moment. To make pictures as though for a time capsule.

RL: There are probably round-and-about, hidden in various places, pictures of everything at Harvard. Some of them are of things that have since disappeared. The problem was there was no set of pictures taken to the same standard at the same time, so if someone wanted a picture of this building and that building they might get a 1988 picture here and a 1914 picture there and they didn't look alike and they were obviously not in color, and so on. The idea was to do it all with a kind of coherent point of view. That doesn't mean to suggest that it's my interpretation of Harvard, but it means that all of the pictures were taken with the same standards whenever possible so that they could be compared and understood.

If the pictures have particular character it's because I am first and foremost an architectural historian. That's how I began my career—making pictures because I couldn't afford to buy the ones I needed for my dissertation. And then people started asking me to photograph things for them.

All the pictures I take I imagine as illustrations in art history lectures so that there will be a point to this picture and a point to this comparison. That's how I think about it: they are very pedagogical in that respect.

AB: When you take a picture, depending on the interest of the building from an architectural perspective, you might have 100 pictures or five pictures. You might get every detail.

RL: Yes. The details around Harvard are often striking. Phillips Brooks House has fabulous woodwork; the newel post is a masterpiece. Another beautiful one is in Apthorp House, the master's residence in Adams House. I've made a lot of discoveries of that sort of thing just walking around. The doorknobs in Memorial Hall are stunning.

As an architectural historian and a photographer, is it self-reflective to create a record of what will be studied?

RL: Especially for modern buildings, snazzy photographs sometimes misrepresent the work of mediocre architects. You can photograph things to make them look better than they are. I try to take pictures that people can teach from and to make them look as much like the buildings as possible. Someone once said about slick paper architecture magazines that the pictures bear the same relationship to the buildings as fashion magazine covers do to real women. You know, smile for the camera, look as good as you can. I tend more towards using photography as information.

Sometimes things are included because they are of archeological rather than aesthetic interest. On the Widener side of Houghton there is a big patch in the brickwork. That's where a bridge that connected the libraries used to be—that is an echo of history. It isn't very pretty, but it's interesting. But there is a lot of great historical sensitivity in the buildings at Harvard. In the brickwork of the Johnston Gate, for example, McKim, Meade and White deliberately revived masonry to imitate some of the buildings in the Yard.

On the other hand, some historicizing efforts fall pretty flat. The attempt at Hauser to revive the Richardsonian for a Law School building is not very successful. It's interesting that that such historicizing doesn't happen much in libraries, where the point is to be modern. While there are old-fashioned card catalog files behind the librarian's desk in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library in Countway, most things now are super-efficient and neat and clean and the English-club quality of libraries is out of fashion in library design. Nobody sits comfortably in a chair and peruses a book, they sit at Formica workstations and their computers go lickity-split.

There have been a number of requests to photograph specific areas of campus, to help in planning and teaching. Now that the photos are available, how can they be used?

AB: This has been a commission for our collection of art and architectural photography—we've been buying photographs from Ralph since the early '80s. His material has been in this collection for decades. This project is a logical extension of that, and it ended up being more of a collaboration between the photographer, librarians and other Harvard staff to get what was needed.

On the most prosaic level, we are purchasing the rights to these pictures so we have the ability to use them.

LB: Any official use the University wishes to make of them in any of its manifold departments is OK. The pictures belong to Harvard. 

Lieberman's photographs can be viewed through the library's image catalog VIA by searching for Harvard and including the photographer's name.

This article was adapted from an earlier version which ran here on June 30, 2014.