Posted by: lindseymhc | December 14, 2020

Photography Beyond the Photographer’s Intentions – MHC Edition

Something we often considered in class was how photographs could be interpreted relative to the present in opposition to when they were taken. Photocollages such as our beloved “Mixed Pickles” seemed to mean something to someone once upon a time, but it is hard for those of us today to figure out exactly what.

However, meaning is more often gained than lost. I would like to consider the predicament of the photography of Mount Holyoke’s original seminary building.

Bult in 1837, it served as the primary home and learning facility for Mount Holyoke students until a fire burned it to the ground in 1896 (while the first notable campus fire in our history, it ended up being far from the last!).

The above photograph was taken in the 1870s. Blissfully unaware that it only had a good few decades left in life, the scene depicted is that of a peaceful fall day, if the leaves on the ground are any indication. For the photographer and those who saw the photo when it was taken, this photograph serves to show-off an impressive piece of architectures, but not much else. It was only after the fire that it became a piece of historic preservation. Now things that may have been previously overlooked, such as the trees obscuring the view, become more frustrating. If it bothered the viewer in the 1870s, they ideally would be able to take a trip to South Hadley themselves to get a better view. Anyone who viewed this photograph today and sauntered on over to our campus today would be in for quite the surprise.

This photograph, taken in 1893, shows the inside of a student dormitory in the seminary only three years before it was destroyed. There is much to observe here about student life in the 1890s from this photograph alone – the excess of pillows and blankets, the rocking chair with the absolutely charming cat pillow, the guitar hiding in the corner – if it were not for giveaways like the very detailed tea set and the dated wallpaper, you could convince me this was a modern dorm. Except what really gives it away isn’t particularly what is in the room, but the fact that the environment itself no longer exists. If one of the jobs of a photograph could be considered to convince the viewer that they could experience it themselves, what happens when the place it was taken is gone? It is an expected and accepted fact that people remain in photographs long after they die. The same is often not considered for their environments, even though manmade buildings are just as fallible as their creators.

Both of these photographs gained a meaning their photographers likely never anticipated. Rather than being fond callbacks to the past, they remain the last remnants of a place that we can never return to. A haunting aspect is therefore added to otherwise innocent imagery.

Find these photographs, and much more MHC historical goodness on Compass:


  1. Interestingly, you mention that both the photographs discussed in your post gained a meaning their photographers never anticipated. It is no secret that photographs are usually intended to serve a particular purpose –the photographer having a clear intention in mind –but it is pretty much open to interpretation. I think that is the beauty of the process. Also, the ‘haunting aspect’ that you stated is an accurate descriptor of these specific images. The first image of the original seminary building almost seems like an old abandoned building with no one around. Usually, if we were looking at an archival photograph of the old college building, we would also expect to see students walking and lounging around on campus; the emptiness gives it an eerie feeling.
    The second image of the student dormitory is rather ordinary. As you point out, the tea set and the wallpaper are the only indicators of time passage. I do agree with you; the dorm looks relatively modern. It is intriguing to see random moments captured on camera. We get to observe the evolution of time and space through them. Although we might not always comprehend the photographer’s intention, we can form our own story from the clues in the picture.

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