Distinguished Professor of Art History
Office: Fine Arts 227
Phone: (607) 777-3077
Teaching and Research Interests: Histories of photographies; twentieth-century American cultural history; cultural theory and criticism; the history of art history
John Tagg has taught widely at universities in Britain and the United States and has
directed programs in art history and critical theory for more than forty years. He
was born in North Shields, a shipbuilding and fishing town at the mouth of the River
Tyne in northern England. Following undergraduate studies in fine art and art history
at the University of Nottingham, England, he went with a First to the Royal College
of Art, London, where he graduated in 1973, having completed a critical study of the
methodology of the German Marxist art theorist and historian Max Raphael (1889-1952).
He then taught for three years at the University of London, Goldsmiths' College, with
Michael Craig-Martin, Richard Wentworth and Tim Head, and at St. Martin's School of
Art with John Stezaker, while beginning to contribute regular critical essays and
reviews to a number of periodicals, including Studio International and Art Monthly. His interests at this time combined an engagement with contemporary, post-conceptual
art with theoretical studies of art history and its methodologies.
In 1976, following his appointment as the first Arts Council of Great Britain Fellow in Photographic History and Theory at the Polytechnic of Central London, Tagg began to concentrate on the history of photography and the analysis of visual culture, collaborating with Victor Burgin and producing the first of the studies that were later to be gathered together in The Burden of Representation—a work that focused on the intersections of power and the photographic image. At the same time, he continued his involvement with broader debates in the field, publishing criticism, joining the editorial board of Screen Education, co-organizing with Andrew Brighton, Peter Fuller and Richard Cork a major international conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on "The State of British Art," and, with Paul Smith and Angela Kelly, curating Three Perspectives on Photography, the first national survey of contemporary photography, shown at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1979. In the same year, Tagg was asked to go to the University of Leeds to head the graduate program in "The Social History of Art" founded by T. J. Clark—the first to have as its focus the methodological and theoretical debates that, in Britain, came to be known as the "New Art History." After five years at Leeds, in which he also published his first edited book and played an active role in regional arts administration, Tagg left England to teach in the United States, going first to the University of California at Los Angeles and then, after two years, to the State University of New York at Binghamton.
At Binghamton, from 1986, Tagg initiated and organized a series of conferences and publications under the rubric, Current Debates in Art History, while also serving as Chair in a period in which a distinctive profile was shaped for what can claim to be the first art history department in the United States to have defined itself by an explicit commitment to new theoretical perspectives and to cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and global approaches to the history of art, visual culture and the built environment. The same theoretical commitments were evident in the two books he published at this time––The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories and Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field––along with a second edited collection, The Cultural Politics of "Postmodernism," and numerous critical articles. Support for his writing and research came from an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1990–1991), a Senior Fellowship at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (1996–1997), a Clark Fellowship at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (2005), and a J. Clawson Mills Art History Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2007–2008). Tagg also delivered the Lansdowne Lectures at the University of Victoria (1990) and the Benenson Lectures at Duke University (1994) and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar both at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and at the University of Toronto.
Tagg's most recent book, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (2009), looks at the ways in which photographic technologies have been claimed and
instrumentalized and analyses the discursive and institutional relations of power
that have framed photographic meaning. Starting out from a reconsideration of the
relation between documentation, documentary and governance, the book moves on to engage
the formation of disciplinarity and the conditions of disciplinary knowledge in a
way that turns back on the disciplines of history and art history themselves. Tagg's
current project focuses on questions of social and political crisis, sexual politics
and meaning in the photographs Walker Evans made in Cuba in May and June of 1933,
on the very eve of revolution.
Tagg's teaching at Binghamton explores similar intellectual territory, drawing students not only from Art History but also from Comparative Literature, English, History, Philosophy and Sociology. His courses fall broadly in the areas of the history of photography, American twentieth-century cultural history, the history of art history, and critical theory—though this is not perhaps the best way to describe his interests. Recent graduate seminar titles have included: "Photography and Death;" "The Politics of Documentary;" "RE: Thinking Photography;" "Photo/Text;" "Archiving Machines;" "The Civic Space of Photography;" "Picturing Crisis;" "Marxism and Representation;" "Cultural Strategies and the State;" "The Vision Thing;" "Meaning and Melancholia;" "Art History: Genealogy of a Discipline;" and "Art History After Structuralism." In all his teaching, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, Tagg sets out to engage students in close critical reading and in a process of reflexivity that does not take the narratives and analytical strategies of art history as given. In 2002, he was awarded both the Binghamton University Award and the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.
2013 saw Tagg promoted to Distinguished Professor, the highest rank of academic excellence in the SUNY system and a rank that can only be conferred by the SUNY Board of Trustees. Described as "perhaps the most influential historian of photography in the world and one of the most important art historians of his generation," Tagg continues to lecture across the U.S., Europe and Asia, while his publications, translated into more than a dozen languages, continue to engage not only art history but also a wide range of other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences.
Biographical interviews with Tagg can be found in the British Library National Sound
Archive's Oral History of British Photography:
And through the Center for Creative Photography's "Voices of Photography" archival oral history project: