Fall Winter 08

The Core


The Ambassadors

They've Got Game

Meteoric Metcalfs


Editor's Note

Vox Populi

Secret History

It's A Small World

Remembering One of the Greats

Full Circle

Photo Finish

Ugandan Diaries

Go Ask Alumni

Beyond the Quads

Photo Finish

After 36 years spent building the Art Institute’s photography collection, David Travis, AB’71, turns to new projects and passions.

David Travis, AB’71, is a man consumed by his passions. He became interested in building bicycles two years ago, and they’ve now taken over the first floor of his Hyde Park home. Before that it was sailing; he’s completed the grueling 300-mile yacht race from Chicago to Mackinac at least a dozen times. And before that—way before that— his passion was photography.

When Travis became assistant curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1972 at the age of 24 (he was made full curator three years later), he joined a fledgling field of enthusiasts who were making the case for photography as a serious art form. “Now it’s in every museum,” he reflects, “but at that time everybody was saying, ‘Why are photographs in the museum?’ We had to do a lot of justifying, which I think was very good for us.”

From those early days of typing labels and framing photos himself until his retirement last July, Travis shaped the Art Institute’s photography collection inside and out. He acquired major collections, including that of New York art collector Julien Levy, and built substantial holdings in modernist photography (from 1920s and ’30s Paris in particular) and contemporary American photography. In the early 1980s he helped design and complete a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility to store and exhibit photographs. And he held major photography exhibitions ranging from retrospectives of individual careers to a 150-year survey.

Travis’s career began with an eclectic art education at Chicago. While in the College he sharpened his eye behind a camera trained on the tumultuous events of the 1960s and in a Chicago Maroon darkroom. Travis arrived in Chicago from Omaha in 1966 toting a small camera and planning to study math or science. But in his Core courses, it was the art that really grabbed him.

He concocted several independent-reading courses on art, including one with renowned art historian Joshua Taylor on the history of American photography. He experimented with making gum prints, an obsolete photographic technique, with professor Harrie Vanderstappen, AM’51, PhD’55, a specialist in Asian art, and learned about the chemistry of early photography with Joel Snyder, SB’61, a local freelance photographer who had started a business duplicating 19th-century photographic processes and later became a professor of art history at Chicago. Taylor, Vanderstappen, and Snyder were the first in a line of inspiring mentors who taught Travis to draw insights into photography from chemistry and French literature to math and modern poetry.

Meanwhile he put his camera to use. As staff photographer for the Maroon, he photographed campus sit-ins, the 1969 student occupation of the administration building, and members of the Chicago Seven, the protestors later charged with inciting rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. “It was a great period to be a student reporter,” Travis says. “There was really something to photograph.” National periodicals wanted pictures of the political unrest and were willing to pay students for them. When controversy erupted over a Chicago professor who was denied tenure, Newsweek ran Travis’s photo of her. Then, taking pictures for a Life magazine article on the state of college campuses, he snapped a shot of a happy couple strolling through bucolic quadrangles. It was an image that could reassure Americans that the nation’s campus uprisings were over. The editors at Life loved it.

They told him they were even considering running it on the cover. Travis glimpsed a possible future as a photographer: “I thought I could have a career here.” But at the last minute a picture of outer space grabbed the cover, and they buried Travis’s picture inside the magazine. With his visions of instant fame vanished and the vagaries of the editorial process all too apparent, Travis’s thoughts turned from photojournalism to his interest in the history of photography.

Not long after he graduated, Travis won a competitive summer photography internship at the Smithsonian Institution. Almost simultaneously, he was hired by the Art Institute. In the new post, his thinking continued to be shaped by what he had learned from taking photographs.

“For me the most interesting thing is, how did the picture come into being?” he says. “Unless you’ve had some experience trying to make pictures or create things, you’re kind of guessing.” The kind of intelligence that guides artists’ creative process is often inaccessible to scholars approaching photographs from a more critical perspective, Travis says. For insight into pictures, he turns to his own experiences, photographers’ statements about their work, and poetry—his speech is peppered with allusions to the likes of Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and Billy Collins.

Retirement does not mean slowing down for Travis. He’s finishing two last exhibitions at the Art Institute and a book on Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian-Canadian photographer who took disarmingly intimate pictures of twentieth-century figures such as Fidel Castro and Winston Churchill. He’s also teaching a class at Columbia College in Chicago this fall on the city’s contemporary photography scene.

“I’m so exhausted after retiring, with all these pursuits that I have yet to do, I will never retire again,” he laughs, adding that he expects he will write more after retirement than he did as curator.

One of his next projects will explore artists’ patterns of creativity in old age. In At the Edge of the Light, a collection of essays based on his lectures about photography and published in 2003, he considers the career of American photographer Alfred Stieglitz alongside a 16th-century description of the five stages of a Japanese tea master. Only after age 50, it says, does the artist “transform tea altogether as one’s master did before one, like pouring water out of one vessel into another, and making one’s performance as a master the standard in every respect.”

Now 60, Travis reflects that as they get older, “a lot of people do something they would never dare to do, and it turns out to be fabulous.”—Jerome Tharaud, AB’02