Stolen Moments

cemetery medium

by Will Katerberg

Travel to conferences is a regular part of academic life. Give papers, go to panels, meet with publishers, find new titles at the book display, and enjoy debates, dinner and a drink with seldom seen colleagues. For some of us, conferences are a professional obligation to be endured, mostly, while others angle for a bigger travel budget so they can go to more.

For me it’s somewhere in between. I usually enjoy the conference, especially seeing colleagues and talking together about our research, but increasingly find traveling to and from them unpleasant. I can hardly remember when staying in a nice hotel for a few days was a perk or flying a thrill. (I still like airplanes when I can jump out of them, but that’s another story). The one thing I do like about traveling is the opportunity to photograph.

In the past couple of years I’ve started doing photographing more systematically, a minor hobby mostly indulged on vacations in distant places becoming a weekly, even daily habit. I always have a camera with me, even if only my iPhone.

I’m not an expert on the history of photography–the evolving technology, genres of photography, masters of those genres, and the like–but I am an interested student. There are some good podcast sites and YouTube playlists and many great books on this history. My own perception of this history is that while the technology has changed, what has not changed is that the “eye” of the photographer–seeing what there is to see, and her or his skill in composition–is still the most important thing in making great pictures. (Or bad ones.) Digital cameras and Photoshop make it easier to manipulate images and fix problems, but photographers have long been able to “airbrush” out elements of images (since the late 1800s) and otherwise manipulate them.

My own experience fits this judgment. I’ve gotten technically proficient at using a camera, and I’ve learned how to use Photoshop and other software. The hardest part has been learning–still slowly–to see what’s interesting in something that I’m photographing and learning how to make that work in an image. Workshops can help, as can studying the work of other photographers. But there’s no substitute for practice, trial and error, looking over your work with a critical eye, and deleting and shooting some more.

Traveling to conferences has become an opportunity for me to steal moments to photograph, and capture on camera some of the people and places I encounter. Occasionally I also find interesting sessions on photography at the history conferences that I attend. The photographs in this blog post are mostly not about history, but a few of the people, places, and things this historian saw on trips in the past two years:

  • New Orleans (American Historical Association, 2013)
  • Tucson (Western Historical Association, 2013)
  • Calgary (lecture series, 2013)
  • St. Louis (Council of Independent Colleges, 2014)
  • San Rafael, CA (International Big History Association, 2014)
  • Newport Beach, CA (Western Historical Association, 2014).

The historical exception is an image from the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans. The others are taken from airplane windows (can you guess where?), a bus on the way from San Francisco to San Rafael, inside airports and hotel meeting rooms, and on side trips during breaks from the meetings.

The “side trip” images here include scenes from Newport Beach, at the beach and at the Fashion Island shopping center near my conference hotel, and Banff National Park and its famous hotel, near Calgary.

I particularly like to photograph in airports, partly because it’s fun watching and photographing people, trapped like me and at the mercy of an airline, and partly because of the architecture. The large windows in the gate areas and terminals are perfect for capturing reflections that blend and confuse inside and outside.

All of the conferences listed above were worthwhile, and mostly fun. The college got its money’s worth in the professional work I did, as did I. The images that I captured during these trips, in stolen moments here and there, made the hassles of travel much more of a pleasure. You can find more of my photographs, including many of Grand Rapids, and recent trips to Florida and Italy (visiting in-laws, not doing tourism, so no exotic “old world” looking scenes), at my Zenfolio website.

Enjoy the gallery below! (Click on an image for a slide show.)


William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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