Self-Portation: Portrait Types of the Classroom

Title page of F. W. Putnam's "Portrait Types of the Midway Plaisance," published 1894.


Released after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the 130-page photo album Oriental and Occidental, Northern and Southern Portrait Types of the Midway Plaisance was created to capture “the evanescent panorama” of the Fair, particularly the images of the people or “types” on display at the (in)famous Midway.

One hundred and twenty-four years later, we, the students of “American Fetish: Consumer Culture Encounters the Other,” set out to create our own photo collection of self-portraits. What started as an exercise in self-invention—and an effort to critique the terms by which photography helped solidify knowledge of the sexualized, gendered, and racialized Other—turned into an opportunity to question the very nature of agency and self-representation. Ultimately, our self-portraits respond to and question the images of human difference that have circulated in museum spaces, shaping public knowledge about civilization and savagery, colonizer and colonized, citizen and alien. In the act of capturing our own images, we faced the complexity of making ourselves intelligible to you, the Other whose gaze we have anticipated in our self-portraits. How might the contemporary act of “selfie”-making challenge the boundaries that separate “I” from “You,” Self from the Other?

     – The Students of WGS1424: American Fetish, Spring 2017


Peabody–Student Exhibition

When F. W. Putnam published Portrait Types of the Midway Plaisance, he cast the individuals pictured there as stereotypical representatives of their cultures. Asked to create a personal response to this book, students in Professor Caroline Light’s class created self-portraits that speak to their individuality, their roles in multiple communities, and the complexity of cultural representation.

Over the past decade the Peabody Museum has developed new and innovative ways for faculty and students to use collections for learning and research. These experiences are diverse, as seen in this project, but each brings fresh insight and perceptive reflections to museum collections.

With Special Thanks to Prof. Caroline Light and the students of WGS1424: American Fetish.

     – Academic Partnerships, Peabody Museum