John Tagg is a salvager of sorts – a salvager of the past. Walk into his office in the Art History Department and you’ll find an amazingly uncluttered desk which, like the chairs in Tagg’s office, has been rescued from the discard pile. He values “the overlooked,” he says. He also values the connections he has made for himself and his students across campus and beyond its borders.
A professor of art history and comparative literature, Tagg grew up and was educated in England, teaching in a number of institutions there before coming to the United States.
He joined Binghamton’s faculty in 1986, immediately delving into work across the disciplines. His enthusiasm for Binghamton’s academic climate hasn’t waned. “There’s a tremendous field of possibilities at Binghamton,” he says. “The university was very early in making it possible to do really interdisciplinary work in the humanities with a global perspective. Here, I have been able to develop my own curriculum and my own research and to establish connections across the campus, without worrying about crossing borders.”
“My aim is to fill the classroom with students from as many departments as I can,” he says. “And, with our very international student body, what I also encounter there is a unique range of languages and cultures.” Tagg has advised students in art history and comparative literature, but also in the Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture Program; the Philosophy, Literature and the Theory of Criticism Program; history; and English. “The campus has been very open to this and my seminars are always extensively cross-listed,” he says. “The meeting of so many languages and national backgrounds is a tremendous experience -- quite incomparable and in many ways unique to this public institution.”
A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2002, Tagg also brings his research into the classroom and to the students he mentors. His forthcoming book, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, University of Minnesota Press, provides a perfect example.
“It looks again at the problem of the meaning of the photograph, especially where photographs are offered as documentation, evidence or proof. The status of photographs always depends on the way they’re institutionally framed, handled and talked about,” he says. “But historians too depend on documentation and evidence, so thinking about the history of evidence and the photographic document folds back reflexively on historical investigation itself.”
This new kind of history of photography therefore demands an engagement with theory and critical method, but it also leads back to archives and to the material objects themselves. Tagg recalls with pleasure a graduate student from Korea who was “entranced” when seeing a daguerreotype for the first time and being able to turn it in her hand as a physical thing. “Digital archives have greatly facilitated research but they will never replace the encounter with the object,” Tagg says. “We still need to see and handle the physical photograph, to understand what kind of thing it is and open up the excitement of this dimension for our students.”