A page from LIFE Magazine's 1938 photo essay on Vassar College.

On the second floor landing of the Art Center, earlier photographs of the Vassar campus complement our current exhibition, 150 Years Later: New Photography by Tina Barney, Tim Davis, and Katherine Newbegin (on view through Sunday, March 27). In today’s post, Anna Rogulina, Vassar College class of 2011 and Art Center student docent, discusses the work of one of the featured photographers, Albert Eisenstaedt.

Do you ever wonder what life at Vassar was like half a sesquicentennial ago? The cover story from the February 1st issue of LIFE Magazine, entitled “Vassar: A Bright Jewel in U.S. Educational Diadem” published in 1937 provides us with some clues. The story consists of twenty-four photographs taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt and the captions accompanying them. The feature was the first ever to be dubbed a “photographic essay”, a format that is said to have been pioneered and popularized by Life. The photographic essay was the seed from which a new genre of reportage would eventually emerge – photojournalism. Henry Luce, the founder of LIFE, promoted the camera to the status of a reporter when he wrote,  “it tells the kind of thing that only the most skillful (and now obsolete) literary essayists have hitherto managed to tell in words.” Eisenstaedt’s photographs offered both a descriptive richness as well as a formal clarity.

Eisenstaed’s photographs of Vassar show many traces of the college as we know it today. The photographic essay opens with an aerial view of the campus. Main Building, check. Residential Quad, check. Rocky, check. Library, check. Taylor Hall, check. Noyes Circle (minus Noyes buildings), check. As the camera zooms in, its focus shifts from the familiar architecture of the school to the academic and social life as it was unfolding in the year 1937. It is here, at a close-up range, that the contemporary reader finds some surprises. For example, the spread entitled “Vassar Clothes” reveals what “what a Vassar girl wears on a fair day” and “what a Vassar girl wears on a rainy day.” After the article was published, Macy’s ran an advertisement campaign saying it would sell all the clothes seen in the “Vassar” essay.

Another page from LIFE with Eisenstaedt's photographs.

The actual clothes pictured in the photographs do not seem particularly striking. Rather, it is the caption next to the photographs that creates the impression of a fashion-forward school; it lists all of the items that made up a typical wardrobe – a Brooks Brothers sweater among them. While the purpose of a photographic essay such as this one may have been to tell stories through images, here, the voice of captions is still very strong. Captions were usually the work of the magazine editors, so it is highly probably that Eisenstaedt did not write them himself.  While his photographs certainly hint at Vassar’s reputation as a highly desirable liberal arts college, the captions are much more explicit about the privilege and prestige associated with the “richest women’s college”. Today, the essay comes off as overly sensationalist and reads somewhat like an advertisement campaign. It is as much a testament to the photographic and journalistic practices of the time as of the school itself.

Captions aside, it is fascinating to see Eisenstaedt’s classic photographs of Vassar in relation to the more contemporary photographic work of Tina Barney, Tim Davis, and Katherine Newbegin featured in “150 Years Later” currently on display at the Art Center. Every visitor can conduct his or her own comparison by venturing up to the second-story landing above the main galleries of the Art Center, where several of Eisentaedt’s photographs of Vassar can be found.

(For more information, please click here to read “LIFE and the Photo Essay: Challenging the Role of Pictures in the American Press”. This student thesis includes portions of the Vassar photo essay in Appendix B).

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