William R. Kenan, Jr. Associate Professor of Art
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 (Penn State 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.
Winner of a 2018 Terra Foundation for American Art International Publication Grant, Sheehan’s newest book shows how photographic humor was used in the United States and across the British empire to express evolving ideas about race, black emancipation, and civil rights. Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor (Penn State Press, 2018) employs a trove of understudied materials to write a new history of photography, one that encompasses the rise of the commercial portrait studio in the 1840s, the popularization of amateur photography around 1900, and the mass circulation of postcards and other photographic ephemera in the twentieth century. It also places historical discourses in relation to contemporary art that critiques racism through humor, including the work of Genevieve Grieves, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.
Sheehan has edited three volumes on photography and its histories, including Photography, History, Difference (Dartmouth College Press, 2014), Photography and Its Origins (Routledge, 2015, with Andres Zerivgon), Grove Art Guide to Photography (Oxford University Press, 2017), and Photography and Migration (Routledge, 2018). Sheehan has published numerous essays on popular images of the black in the US and Europe, on race and American art, and on vernacular photography from the nineteenth century to the present. A list of her publications is available on the Department of Art website.
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). Based at Colby, this project brings together scholars, artists, students, and members of the central Maine community to reflect on the relationship between photography and migration. The PMP has included a research seminar and academic conference, exhibitions, photo contests, film screenings, and community events. It will also result in a volume titled Photography Migration, edited by Sheehan and forthcoming from Routledge.
Since 2015, Sheehan has served as editor of the Archives of American Art Journal (Smithsonian Institution). During this time she developed special issues on African American art, artist Robert Motherwell, Latino art, and art and the environment.