director, B.A. in History program
M.A., Ph.D., University of Virginia
B.A., Northwestern University
Nicole Hudgins' C.V. (.pdf)
As a devourer of 19th-century novels, I was always intrigued with the contrast between British and French dispositions: On the one hand, you have Great Expectations, on the other, you have Madame Bovary (this was before I had discovered D.H. Lawrence). Despite their proximity to each other (about 20 miles apart), the English and French languages and attitudes toward life—not to mention the food—are so different. Historically, the British considered the French people to be frivolous, irrational and vicious. The French considered the British to be cruel, cold and unimaginative. Cultural antagonism between the two nations goes back to at least the Hundred Years War in the Middle Ages. But by the 20th century, they were fighting on the same side in two world wars. This early interest of mine led me to graduate school in Virginia, where I wrote a master's thesis on the reception of Emile Zola’s novels in London. In the 1880s, Zola’s English publisher was prosecuted for selling what some Britons felt was pornography.
After completing my master’s degree, I decided I needed to switch gears a little. The next task was to create a dissertation project, and I wanted to find a topic that would keep my interest for up to five years (which is more or less the average time it takes to complete a history dissertation here in the States). I still wanted to do Anglo-French history, but the question was, with which materials? Meditating on the problem, the idea came to me that I was fascinated by old photographs. They seem so mysterious and are often so beautiful or sad. I can never resist pondering the fates of the people they contain. So I decided to pursue a comparative analysis of the history of photography. I was curious about photographs’ ability to reveal and conceal information. But most of the literature on the subject failed to answer my questions about how photography became so popular or how the practice evolved. What I found was timelines, a handful of inventors and exhibition catalogs, but very little explanation. There was no social history of photography.
My research led me to fascinating Victorian networks of amateurs and professionals, artists and tinkerers, printers and female artisans. While doing research in Lille, a northern town in France, I realized that much of this activity came to an abrupt halt in 1914, when the First World War broke out and Lille (and much of northern France) was soon occupied by the German army. I knew quite a bit about the German occupation of France during World War Two but little about the situation in 1914-18. My curiosity led me to discover the sufferings of the northern French people during World War One, and I wondered how soldiers and civilians coped with the invasion and occupation of their country. These are the questions I’m currently working on and figuring out what role photography and other forms of visual culture played in France during the war.
I love incorporating photography and visual culture into my teaching, too. I’ve been fortunate enough to hone my teaching methods at Morgan State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, before arriving at UB in 2009. The Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies is a great place to teach courses on the ethics of war photography and “crisis photography.” If there are any students in the schools of Communications Design or Information Arts and Technologies who would like a history of photography course, send me an e-mail. I am proud of joining UB’s tradition of interdisciplinary learning.
When I was doing my doctoral research, I was often appalled at the condition of archival collections of pictures here and abroad, the lack of their organization or the lack of documentation. Also, it was frustrating to find beautiful portraits in antique shops or flea markets with nothing written or printed on the backs to indicate their origin. I wondered how such lovely prints of men, women and children ended up lost amidst the commerce of strangers. To some extent, a photograph remains a cipher if there is absolutely no accompanying information about it. It became my personal crusade to encourage individuals and institutions to organize, preserve and, most of all, label their photographs. Help the historians of the future, I say! I know from experience that there are people out there with incredible collections of old photographs lying in dusty shoeboxes under their beds or in closets. Consider taking some time to go through your collection and label your photographs with names, locations and dates with a wax pencil on the back of the pictures. Never write on the front of a picture, and wear cotton gloves, if you can, to prevent fingerprints. You never know where those pictures will end up in 100 years.