Pathbreaking artist Betty Hahn receives College's Distinguished Alumni Award
Friday, November 18, 2022
In a ceremony at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Art Museum in Albuquerque Thursday, November 17, renowned photographer Betty Hahn was awarded the 2022 College of Arts and Sciences’ Distinguished Alumni Award.
The Indiana University alumna (BA ’63, MFA ’66) played a key role in expanding the definition of fine art photography in the 1960s and ‘70s and “helped usher in the post-modern period,” according to Eskenazi School Ruth N. Halls Professor Emeritus of Photography Jeffrey A. Wolin. At a time when photography was “constrained by an adherence to formalism,” wrote Wolin, “Betty used the photographic image as a starting point for experimentation and self-expression.”
Hahn’s genre-defying practice revived nineteenth-century photographic processes alongside contemporary and experimental ones; integrated an array of media including embroidery, painting, woodcut, collage, and silkscreen; and often tackled vernacular imagery, with humor and a wink at the art historical canon, gender politics, and the mythology of the Old West.
Hahn’s work belongs to the country’s preëminent art collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian Institution as well as museums in Canada, England, France, and Japan. The IU Eskenazi Museum of Art has twenty-four of her works in the Henry Holmes Smith Archive, and nine additional works. Over the course of her career, Hahn received three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Born in 1940 in Chicago, where she grew up, Betty Hahn came to IU for college, where she focused on drawing and painting. Pursuing photography for her MFA, Hahn studied with Henry Holmes Smith, IU’s first professor of photography, at the helm of the nation’s second graduate photography program. At Smith’s suggestion, Hahn began to experiment with non-silver photographic processes such as gum bichromate printing, a nineteenth-century process in which multiple layers of pigments are exposed to ultraviolet light. Bichromate printing was one of numerous archaic processes – such as Van Dyke prints and cyanotypes – Hahn resurrected and would come to wield alongside contemporary and even non-professional tools, including a Polaroid camera, or a Mick-a-Matic 126 cartridge toy camera, and eventually, an iPhone GS4.
The culture of Smith’s program encouraged the sort of technical risk-taking Hahn is known for and produced photographers who changed the course of fine art photography. “IU was an incubator for some of the most important photographic artists of that time period,” Wolin wrote. “Betty joined such luminaries as Jerry Uelsmann (2014 Distinguished Alumni Awardee), Jack Welpott, Van Deren Coke, and Robert Fichter, all of whom shared Henry’s passion for pushing the boundaries of photography.”
Fifty years after Hahn first took needle and thread to a photograph on fabric, the doors she opened and barriers she knocked down have created a lasting legacy.
Within that cohort, however, “Hahn was one of the few women from the program to gain such national recognition at the time,” wrote Nan Brewer, Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. Beyond her own gender identification, Hahn integrated feminine-associated media into photography. “Fifty years after Hahn first took needle and thread to a photograph on fabric, the doors she opened and barriers she knocked down have created a lasting legacy,” wrote Eskenazi faculty members Osamu James Nakagawa and David Ondrik. “Important contemporary female photographers - including Odette England, Amy Friend, Pryia Kambil, Morgan Ford -- as well recent Eskenazi School MFA alumni Sarah Fahling and Morgan Stephenson -- continue Hahn’s legacy, blurring the proscribed lines that distinguish Art from Craft and questioning what it is that makes a photograph.”
Because of Betty my definition of an image maker changed. I started to realize that you can make pictures instead of take them.
After earning her MFA in 1966, Hahn worked briefly in the slide library at Cornell University before moving to Rochester for a job at Kodak and a teaching position at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her first one-person show, “Betty Hahn,” opened in New York City at the Witkin Gallery in 1973. In 1976, Hahn was hired by fellow IU alum Coke as a photography professor at UNM, where she taught until her retirement in 1997.
In 1995, the New Mexico Museum of Art mounted a mid-career retrospective of Hahn’s work titled “Photography … or Maybe Not.” “That title is a great elevator pitch for Betty’s philosophy of art and photography,” said Ondrik, who studied with Hahn at UNM. “If someone was struggling to resolve an image and idea,” recalled Ondrik, “it would be more likely you’d be told to try tearing up the print and sewing it back together with copper thread than you would be told to try something technical with, say, contrast filters.”
Ondrik, lecturer in photography, was among the Eskenazi alumni and faculty members honoring Hahn at the November 17 award presentation. Executive Dean of the College Rick Van Kooten and Eskenazi School Founding Dean Peg Faimon provided remarks and presented the award. Also attending were Nakagawa, Ruth N. Halls Distinguished Professor of Photography, and his former assistant, Eskenazi alum Andrés Mario de Varona (BFA ’19), who has been featured on the NPR Picture Show.
“When I first got to IU I was on track for a journalism degree, and was particularly interested in photojournalism,” said de Varona. “I thought it would be a good idea to take fine art photography classes to get a sense of the differences or similarities between these two fields. Through these classes I was introduced to Betty Hahn’s work and it changed the way I was thinking about photography."
"I started to realize that you can make pictures instead of take them," continued de Varona, who was named one of the Top 12 New Mexico Artists to Know Now. "Because of Betty my definition of an image maker changed. She really exemplified that for me; not to witness but to participate. A journalist takes, an artist makes.”