Thinking Critically About Photography

Makeda Best ’97

The black-and-white photograph, taken by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner in 1863, captures a tree-lined street with a row of sun-washed brick buildings in Alexandria, Va. On one facade are the words “Price, Birch & Co. Dealers in Slaves.” The image entranced Makeda Best ’97 when she first encountered it as a master’s degree student at the California Institute of the Arts.

The building in the photo housed a pen where people were held while waiting to be auctioned. “This wasn’t just any pen—this was the major center for slave trading in the mid-Atlantic,” says Best, who was appointed last winter as the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at Harvard Art Museums. Yet Gardner, she points out, focused not on the signage, but the road—a major thoroughfare between plantations in the countryside and the wharf from which slaves would be shipped—to give the image a narrative meaning.

Best, who made the photo the subject of her master’s thesis, seeks images that “force you to be curious.” She later wrote her dissertation at Harvard on Gardner’s photos and is expanding it into a book. “I like photographs at the intersection of a moment of great historical change.”

Growing up, Best found her curiosity stoked by the documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which illustrated the struggles of the civil rights movement. She began taking her own photographs at age 16. As a history major at Barnard, she fashioned an independent study to merge history and art, creating her own images of the changing urban landscape of San Francisco while taking studio art courses with professors Joan Snitzer and Benjamin Buchloh.

Later, while a professor at the California College of the Arts, she developed a curriculum called “Essential Lens” to teach middle and high school students to analyze photos on topics as varied as garbage, climate change, and civil rights. In her new role at Harvard, she will continue educating both students and members of the public in how to read and understand images. “Photography is a particular kind of reading skill that is really needed right now,” she says. “It’s important we understand how images are created, packaged, produced, and disseminated, and to think critically about what they say.” —Michael Blanding

Latest IssueWinter 2023