Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doctor Jessie Morgan-Owens, Ph.D.

Last week, Jessie finished her dissertation, 250 pages entitled "Black & White: Photographic Writing in the Literature of Abolition." Her abstract reads:
In Black and White: Photographic Writing in the Literature of Abolition, I examine the influence of photography on American abolitionist literature and culture following the Compromise of 1850. My study of the diverse print culture of abolition focuses on instances of what I call photographic writing, or description reconceptualized in relation to a distinctly photographic way of seeing. I compare visual and verbal representational modes in anti-slavery rhetoric to show how this new technique of persuasion was intended to prompt the reader to action.

Photography was introduced into the United States in 1839, but four decades would elapse before innovations in print technology enabled the dissemination of photographs in the media. During this period, abolitionist authors used photographic writing in their didactic texts to convince audiences of the truth of their claims. My dissertation offers an analysis of the production and dissemination of anti-slavery photographs, before pursuing a second order of photographic testimony in texts in which actual photographs play no part. Throughout the daguerreian period in the United States, “to daguerreotype” meant to represent or describe with minute exactitude. This figurative connotation builds on the assumption that photographs register a neutral copy of what they represent without mediation or interference. I argue that photographic writing functions as a means of borrowing the immediacy, veracity, and accuracy promised by photography. When Harriet Beecher Stowe offers to “daguerreotype” Uncle Tom for her readers, or when Frederick Douglass describes scenes as “daguerreotyped” upon his memory, they express the culture-wide assumption of the medium’s fidelity and claim its representational authority for their narratives.

Historicizing the innovative literature of abolition within the history of photography, my dissertation offers a new perspective on these early attempts to appropriate the power of visual evidence. Abolitionism in the 1850s provides a test case for radicalism in America. I argue that the modernization of the art of persuasion began with these efforts to deploy images strategically in antebellum political discourse.

She has been researching and writing this dissertation for many, many years under the guidance of her advisers at New York University, Nancy Ruttenburg and Bryan Waterman. The first thing most people read when they look at a dissertation is the acknowledgments page:

I would like to thank my advisor Nancy Ruttenburg, who, with a singular warmth, has directed these thoughts into writing. Her praise, though effuse, must be earned, and for that I am grateful. My gratitude also goes to Bryan Waterman, who has guided me through graduate study with unflagging energy. He makes scholarship look cool.

This study was enriched from the start by conversations and seminars with Virginia Jackson, Elizabeth McHenry, Patrick Deer, Ulrich Baer, Mary Poovey, Eduardo Cadava, Cyrus Patell, Mary McCay, and Leslie Parr. My final year of writing was made possible and pleasant by the Humanities Initiative. My thanks to our roundtable of Fellows for the opportunity to test and refine my ideas in your distinguished company.

I was lucky to come to NYU when I did, for I found in my cohort Maeve Adams, Sam Anderson, Alan Page, Melissa Hillier, Susan Harlan, and Jon Farina, my most brilliant and jovial companions. Maeve, the dearest of these, tells me she admires this work so often that I have begun to believe her. Even so, I hope to keep her by my side. For our long summertime conversations about writing, life, and politics, I’d also like to thank Raphaëlle Guidée and Xabi Molia. I also count among my educators the members of GSOC, who taught me about solidarity, equity, and long campaigns.

This city has provided me with both the resources to do my research and the environment to make pictures of my own. I’d like to recognize my photo editors, for the assignments near and far that have refreshed my vision with the steady clicks of practice, and to express my gratitude for the esteemed photographers I am lucky to count among my friends, for indulging my theories about the art we produce.

I come from a large and far-flung family that has kept pace with every turn of this dissertation. My thanks to all of you, siblings and parents, aunts and uncles, Morgans and Owenses alike, for your pride and understanding have blessed my labors with love. In everything I do, I owe my success to the women who have taught me balance, my mother Missy Cotita and my grandmother Ruth Liuzza.

And I must acknowledge my partner in art and in life, my beloved James Owens, who makes my dreams possible.

On Wednesday, May 27th, Jessie will defend her dissertation before a committee. On that day she will have completed all of the requirements for her PhD. So last Wednesday she turned in a copy to her department for them to read. Here's her desk on the last day of a long road.

Her family came up to New York last weekend to celebrate her graduation. Her Mom and step-dad Tim from Monroe, Louisiana, her dad who works in El Salvador, her sister Katie and her husband Nick from Tuscon with their little girl Emma, and her brother Andy, who lives in Belgium, and his girlfriend, Quinn. We had a wonderful weekend eating and celebrating all over Brooklyn. This was a week to remember.

After the ceremony at Lincoln Center:


Leslie Campisi said...

YAY!! This is fantastic news. Congratulations, Jessie!

Anonymous said...

congratulations, sorry I miss the drinks but my dad was in town, will make it up to you! say hi to james!!
david n

Lily said...

Congratulations, Jessie, and good luck on the 27th!

craig said...

I have followed your blog for a while and, though I read this post long ago, it is only now that I post a comment. I admire the work that the two of you produce, but even more so the journey you are on. Rereading this post and your most recent posts about beginning afresh in a foreign land for some reason remind me of the journey my wife and I have been on. With luck, I will begin a PhD program soon, and who knows what the future holds!

So, from one photographer to another (or 'anothers'?), we wish for you blessings and good tidings in your endeavors. Just know that I, along with the one 'how makes my dreams possible,' will be following your work and progress. Who knows, I might even build off or bounce off of your studies in my own research.

Craig (first-time commenter)

john oldfield said...

Jessie, could you please get in touxh with us about your essay in our Palgrave volume. We're about to sent out proofs. Contact us at: OR

Best, John

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Victoria Card said...

it is always great to complete something you can call you own. And with the degree of PhD, you can really say that you have a body of knowledge by your thesis topic ideas that you can share to the world. Anyway, I know it might be soooooooooooo late, but, congratulation, Jessie!

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