Studio art professor archives 40-year student photo collection

Since he began teaching at Geneseo in 1966, professor of studio art Michael Teres has led an effort to preserve Geneseo's history through the eyes of students. At first, he didn't even know he was doing it.

He has saved student photography projects every semester from his first year onward, intending to provide examples of unique work for his future classes. The current collection amounts to about 3,000 photographs spanning 47 years, crammed into cupboards and onto shelves in the Brodie Hall photography studio. Teres is confident that Geneseo's is the largest undergraduate photography collection in the State University of New York system.

Flipping through the stacks of photos is a trip to the past for Teres, and his goal is to share that history with the rest of the community.

“It's sort of like going back home and visiting. I recognize some of the students. I remember some of the stories behind these photos,” he said.

Since fall 2012, Teres has worked with students in an effort to archive the collection. He received an incentive grant in 2012, which was renewed again this year, to conduct research on the photos and hire students to work alongside him. Senior Lauren Hannel, together with senior Carly Fowler who helped out last year, have recorded roughly 1,500 of the photos since the start of the project. They scan each image and then record as much information as they can find in a spreadsheet.

Many of the photos are permanently matted on black or white boards, some of them sustaining damage over the years that will take ample time and money to repair. Artist identification is difficult, depending on whether the students decided to write their names on the back of the mattes. A large portion of the collection remains currently anonymous.

Each photo has its own character, though, some of them involving darkroom techniques that can't be replicated with digital photos. Teres encouraged his students to paint and burn their film to create artistic effects in the darkroom.

The administration closed the Brodie Hall darkroom in 2003, replacing it with a Mac computer lab. Soon after, photography classes went completely digital. Darkroom photography has not been practiced at Geneseo in years, while according to Teres, most other colleges are “ambidextrous” with a darkroom and digital developing available as options.

As one of the few people to examine Geneseo's photography collection, Hannel said she has noticed a definitive change in digital images.

“It seems to be a pattern that, prior to digital … people were more creative with their photography,” she said. “It just seemed like they put more thought into the technique and even like the art of developing it yourself.”

Teres has exhibited the photos in a surprising range of locations in Geneseo since he started the collection. The first exhibit was in Erwin Hall in the spring of 1967. Teres hung a series of interchangeable photos on what is now the distinguished professors wall for a period of years. Images from the collection are currently hanging in Books & Bytes Cafe.

In order to preserve the photo collection permanently, Teres said he hopes to create a website with an archive that people can browse to find their own photos or explore Geneseo's history.

After Hannel finishes scanning the photos, the next phase of the project will include contacting the artists and attributing currently unattributed images. Teres plans to utilize the Alumni Association and the Office of the Registrar to locate long-graduated student photographers. He wants to interview some of these students about Geneseo's history and their photography to substantiate the collection.

As far as preserving and organizing the physical images, Teres and Hannel are still unsure about what will happen when the studio art department is deactivated at the end of this school year. Teres has reached out to a number of organizations to donate the collection, including the George Eastman House in Rochester. Hannel said they are also making a plan to hang the photos at local businesses in Geneseo and in residence halls.

Teres is negotiating an extended retirement process that will allot him two more years to finish the project. He supported Hannel in applying for the Council on Undergraduate Research's Poster on the Hill program, which would allow Hannel to present the project in Washington, D.C. in hopes of receiving more funding. They will find out if the photo archive project was selected in February 2014.

Above all, Teres and Hannel see keeping the legacy of Geneseo's student photographers and the history it holds alive beyond the life of the studio art department as the most important aspect of their project.

“It's just amazing, what is in our history,” Teres said. “It is a stark recording of changes on our campus.”