What’s it like to be a Gallery Docent? Tracy Stuber shares her experience

This guest post is by Tracy Stuber, Gallery Docent and a Ph.D Candidate in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, where she is writing a dissertation about the changing status of American photography as a mass medium in the 1970s.

Tracy Stuber in the current History of Photography rotation

If you come to one of my tours of the History of Photography Gallery, no matter what rotation is on display, I’ll most likely start out the same way. Considering that photography’s been around for 179 years, the gallery is fairly small, and I want people to know why. I tell visitors that we change the exhibition three or so times a year, for two reasons:

First, the Eastman Museum’s collection of over 400,000 photographic objects is one of the best in the world, and by changing the show we’re able to show off different items in our collection; and second, and to me more importantly, changing the show allows the museum tell different stories about photography’s history and the technologies, people, and ideas it encompasses.

Beyond the introduction, no two tours are ever alike — and this is my favorite part. Each of the History of Photography (HoP) exhibitions, or rotations as they’re called, are curated by a different member of the Eastman Museum’s Department of Photography staff. All rotations span from photography’s beginnings to its present, but each takes a different focus (you can view some of the past rotations online).

Southworth & Hawes (American, active 1843–1863). [Woman], ca. 1850. Daguerreotype with applied color. George Eastman Museum.

Shared across all is a richness and depth that allow us to learn or discover something new every time I give a tour. In the current rotation about women and photography, curated by assistant collection manager Rachel E. Andrews, I noticed a similarity between the show’s first image and its last. It begins with a daguerreotype portrait of a woman from around 1850 made by the Boston-based studio of Southworth & Hawes. As such images were black and white (as was most photography for almost the first 100 years) they were often enlivened with hand-coloring, which was typically applied by women; in this case the artist was possibly Nancy Southworth Hawes, sister of Albert Sands Southworth and wife of Josiah Johnson Hawes. In the mid-1800s, such coloring would have helped smooth the transition from the chromatic tradition of painting to this fairly new monochrome medium, the exactitude and detail of which was likely already jarring enough.

Katy Grannan (American, b. 1969). Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2012, From the series The Ninety Nine. Inkjet print. © Katy Grannan

The show ends with an image of mother and child from Katy Grannan’s 2012 series The Ninety-Nine, featuring portraits of residents in rural California. As Rachel points out in her wall label, the photograph harkens back emphatically to Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression-era picture Migrant Mother. But after viewing Grannan’s work a few times, what eventually jumped out at me was its limited color palette: a blown-out white background focuses attention on the embracing figures who share both a family resemblance and a penchant for pink. The young girl’s pink shirt mirrors her mother’s dyed-pink hair, with the girl’s natural red locks visually tying the two together. In her choices of subjects, composition, and editing, Grannan performs a 21st century equivalent of hand-coloring that emphasizes the richer life captured in this single image.

I’ve been a docent for almost two years now, and these types of resonances and connections are always there: sometimes through the curator’s intention and sometimes coincidentally, owing perhaps simply to photography’s simultaneous diversity and coherence as a medium. When I give tours, one of my goals is to let visitors in on these observations that might not register in a single visit or viewing. I come to photography from an academic background-I’m pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Rochester-and I have a lot of practice in “close-reading” photographs. Giving tours is an indispensible opportunity both to spend time with photographs and to see them in continually different contexts. In this way, it’s a refreshing change from how I see most photographs on my phone, whether I’m quickly snapping an image I’ll never look at again or quickly scrolling through the seemingly-unpredictable assortment of images in my Instagram feed.

I’m convinced that none of this would be possible, however, without the endlessly fascinating insights of the visitors I meet on my tours. I love seeing what strikes people, what grabs their attention, and what jumps out at them, because so often it’s an aspect or element of a photograph on display that I would never have noticed otherwise. I’m always impressed by how far people travel to visit the museum, while at the same time I really value the conversations I have with Rochester residents who, either as former Kodak employees or their family members, have deep personal connections to the material on display. In a way, it makes me think of the earliest Kodak cameras, which people would mail to Rochester from all over in order to have their pictures developed and then sent back to them, along with their camera loaded with a fresh roll of film. In fact, it’s precisely through giving tours that I’ve come to see this idea of Rochester as a point of connection or similarity for all these diverse experiences as encapsulating photography’s broader capacity to bridge gaps and spark conversations. As a result of being a docent, I’ll never think about photography quite the same way again.


Do you love photography, art and history? Do you have a passion for learning? Engage and teach the museum’s diverse audiences by becoming a Gallery Docent! If you love sparking conversation, meeting new people, and sharing your knowledge, you would make a great docent.

Join for our ten-week Gallery Docent training course, August 9–November 1, 2018, Thursdays, 4–6 p.m., and start sharing your passion with others.

Visit eastman.org/volunteer and fill out the docent application form, or contact Stacey VanDenburgh, guest services manager, at svandenburgh@eastman.org. Register by August 1.

A minimum commitment of two years of active service is required, with two tours per month. Docents are required to be members of the George Eastman Museum, which comes with great benefits like free museum admission year-round, discounts at the Dryden Theatre and in the Museum Store, and more. Docents should be comfortable and confident with public speaking, and possess good interpersonal skills. Though our docent training is provided in English, we encourage volunteers fluent in any foreign language to apply to the program and help to reach an even broader audience.