The current issue of BYU Magazine, organ of the Alumni Association and tireless fundraising vehicle, is in mailboxes now–or, if your dining room table looks like mine, buried under gleaming drifts of your husband’s voluminous correspondence with the American Medical Association. In all honesty, I’m not generally a cover-to-cover reader of this publication: I’ll scan through Richard Cracroft’s regular “Book Nook” feature, read the “After All” micro-essay at the back thinking “I could have written that!”, and pore over those strangely absorbing “Alumni Updates” (Jonathan J. Toronto, (BS ’95, JD University of Iowa ’99; Allison Walker [BS ’94]; Andover, Minn.) has been elected a principal of the law firm Gray Plant Mooty. Really? Wonder how many kids they have? And, more importantly, who came up with the punctuation template for these little blurbs?). That’s about it, usually. This most recent issue, though, features a long photo essay, “24 Hours at BYU,” that conveys, by means of some 183 color photographs, the surfaces and substances of these 600 acres. I read it start to finish.
I’ve often thought that still color photography, as a representational medium, is uniquely suited to take on the vast institutional subject of BYU. Still photography attends to surfaces and images, and BYU, with its groomed students and manicured grounds, obligingly supplies both in abundance. Both BYU and the still photographer realize that attention to image need not be shallow, aesthetically or spiritually—at its best, a photograph uses contour and surface to figure forth a felt truth, and, at its best, BYU does the same—but both are susceptible to the ease of superfice and mere prettiness. Still photography, particularly in its documentary and photojournalist forms, is a crucial means of producing, revising and disseminating the collective memory—from Iwo Jima and Iraq—that suffuses history book, public space and official discourse; BYU functions in much the same way for the church, as the principal site at which official history and culture of church and state is packaged and distributed, by means of CES and correlation, through our collective memory. And still photography is most engaging from the very close or the very long views; in the middle distance, nearly any photographic subject will look snapshotty and banal. BYU, in my experience, is the same: genuinely stirring, as a high-minded experiment in faithful reason and clean life, from the long view, and from the close view, as a thousand daily interactions between student and teacher, spirit and logos, authentically uplifting—but, from the middle distance of administrative bureaucracy and academic turf wars, occasionally petty and bromidic.
The lavish color spread, then, is in many ways just right. The physical facilities in these pages are, alas, perhaps less photogenic in their homely orange brick than they have ever been, despite the glittering fields of glass and blond wood in the new Joseph F. Smith building. The BYU students themselves are, as ever, a motley bunch as well. But there are some great photos here. A butcher stands above an expanse of bloody chuck roast ready to be wrapped and delivered to the Creamery. Hordes of students crowd a tight campus intersection–but nobody cuts across the grass–between classes, faces a catalog of human sociality. The snowy concrete fins of the “Tree of Wisdom” cast a wing-shaped shadow across the lawn. A coed peers into the glassed fudge case at the Wilkinson candy counter, glacial bergs of chocolage in the foreground. An electrician works beneath the “Y” smokestack, that aging campus mast. Freshmen flirt, cell phones in hand, against the cinder blocks of a Helaman Halls lobby.
The photographers missed some indispensable BYU images, though. The merry squallor of south-of-campus apartment buildings was absent, for one, and the sepulchral basement passages of the JKHB, papered in photocopied flyers. There weren’t enough strollers in the halls, or baby carriers in the classrooms. Nobody praying over lunch in the Cougareat. And the one-on-one interaction between student and faculty mentor, one of my most valuable experiences at BYU and, in my view, one of BYU’s greatest gifts, was nowhere to be seen.
What images are indispensable to your personal BYU photo-essay?