Associate Professor of American Art and Chair
Department of Art
Tanya Sheehan joined the Colby faculty in 2013, after teaching at Rutgers University (2008-2013) and Columbia University (2005-2007). Her first book, Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) takes a new look at the relationship between photography and medicine in American culture. Sheehan focuses on Civil War and postbellum Philadelphia, exploring the ways in which medical models and metaphors helped strengthen the professional legitimacy of the city’s commercial photographic community as well as define the physical and social effects of studio operations. Concluding with a chapter on digital culture, Doctored reveals important connections between the professionalization of American photographers and the construction of photography’s cultural identity.
Sheehan has edited two collections of essays, one on the writing of global and “other” histories of photography (Photography, History, Difference, Dartmouth College Press, 2014) and another on new approaches to photography’s beginnings (Photography and Its Origins, Routledge, 2015, with Andres Zerivgon). A compilation of the essays she commissioned and edited for Grove Art Online will be published in 2016 as the Grove Art Guide to Photography (Oxford University Press). Sheehan has recently published essays on popular images of the black in the US and Europe; writing about race in American art histories; the social politics of the photographic smile; vernacular digital photography; African American modernist Jacob Lawrence; the transnational art and legacies of James McNeill Whistler; and twentieth-century American photographer Mike Disfarmer. For a list of her publications, please go to the Department of Art website.
Supported by fellowships from the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and other major research libraries, Sheehan’s forthcoming book examines the prolific references to race in photographic humor, from 1839 to present. The objects of this study include comic photographs, graphic satire, popular literature, and contemporary art in which photographic processes express ideas about blackness and whiteness. While much of this humor originated in or makes reference to the United States, Sheehan traces its circulation and interpretation across the Atlantic and to the farthest reaches of the British Empire.
Interdisciplinary research has significantly shaped her teaching interests and practices. Her courses include explorations of American and African American art history, art and science, race and representation, and special topics in the history of photography. Engaging with a broad range of visual forms – from high-status paintings to snapshots and new media – these courses emphasize the relationship between images and social history, identity formation, and popular culture.
In 2014, Sheehan founded the Photography and Migration Project (PMP) at Colby. This project brings together scholars, artists, students, and members of the central Maine community to reflect critically and creatively on the relationship between photography and migration. The PMP has included a research seminar and academic conference, exhibitions, photo contests, film screenings, and other community events.
Since 2015, Sheehan has served as editor of the Archives of American Art Journal (Smithsonian Institution), producing the fall 2016 special issue on African American art and forthcoming issues on artist Robert Motherwell and Latino art.