We've all heard the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" so often that it has begun to lose its meaning. A single image, according to the saying, can tell a story better than mere text. So how many words is an entire archive of photos worth? What stories does a photo archive tell? And how can it capture an entire city?
These questions are at the center of Catherine E. Clark’s research. The USC College Ph.D. candidate specializes in modern Europe, urban history and visual culture — her current project combines all three areas.
Clark’s focus is on 20th-century vernacular (non-art) photography — images taken to record everyday life. “What I’m really interested in,” she said, “is how a photograph becomes a privileged historical document for understanding a city.”
The city is Paris, and Paris is where Clark will spend the coming months studying image archives as part of her dissertation research.
This is not the first time Clark will be in an academic setting in France. She received her M.A. in French cultural studies from Columbia University in Paris, France, in 2005.
Her interest in French culture was piqued when she learned the language in high school. “It was this completely different and fascinating world, and I wanted to know more about it,” she said.
Clark will be immersed in this world for the next ten months thanks to the Bourse Chateaubriand Dissertation Fellowship she received.
The French government dissertation research fellowship is awarded annually to 30 American graduate students: 15 in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and 15 in the hard sciences. The fellowship covers travel expenses, insurance and funding for nine months of research in France.
During her time abroad, which ends in August 2010, Clark will be affiliated with a graduate school in Paris, the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), as well as with the school’s visual studies institute, the Laboratoire d’histoire visuelle contemporaine (LHIVIC).
Clark will conduct her research at a variety of institutions throughout the city. The photo collection at the historic library of the city of Paris (BHVP), just one of the archives Clark will study, contains images of Paris — streets, bridges, monuments — and its inhabitants.
These images, some of them over a hundred years old, were taken by a combination of citizens, professional photographers, and government and municipal organizations. Clark’s goal is to study the images, their uses, and the nature of Parisian photo archives.
“What happened at the end of the 19th century is that people started collecting archives of the city in photos,” Clark explained. In her dissertation, Clark focuses on the nature of this archiving trend and examines the impact of archives on illustrated histories of the city.
In addition to her research, Clark is looking forward to being, as she said, “an emissary for the American academe in France,” and collaborating with her fellow academics. She has already met with experts in anthropology, art history, history, political science and film studies from both her host school and other universities around the world.
Interdisciplinary work is not new to Clark. In addition to her Ph.D. in history that she will have earned at the end of her academic career at USC College, she will also have a Visual Studies Graduate Certificate. This program, she said, has provided her unique opportunities compared to other universities.
“I’ve taken classes with historians but also with students from cinema studies, the school of policy, planning and development, and I’ve met people from a variety of disciplines,” Clark said. “So I’ve already been forced in many ways to talk across disciplines just by being involved in the program.”
After graduating from USC College, Clark would like to teach European or French history, or the history of urban images and visual culture.
But for now, Clark is enjoying her stay in Paris. In the two months since her arrival, she has spent her time “sorting through tons of documents” and examining the papers that describe the history of the library’s photo archive.
Part of spending a year in France is taking advantage of the many opportunities available to her. Despite her focus on images, Clark appreciates all the types of experiences — educational, cultural, culinary, informational and visual — that The City of Light has to offer.