This summer, I have found myself working remotely in Colorado, away from my home in Minnesota and my school in California, reporting to my boss in Paris. It’s a bit of a geographical whirlwind.
As a student of history at Stanford, I often find myself focusing on the “who” or the “why” of a situation, rather than situating each person or event in its place in the world. However, as a historical research intern for Galatée Films this summer, the notion of place has become intricately tied to my work, despite the disparate networks I am navigating.
Each week, I tackle a new research question related to the American West in the 1800s. So far, my research has centered around the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the people who made it happen. The most important of these figures for the people at Galatée Films is William Henry Jackson, the photographer who inspired their upcoming film. Jackson, along with the painter Thomas Moran, created art on the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey that became influential in the designation of Yellowstone as America’s first National Park. Researching this topic involves scouring databases, reading biographies and scholarly articles, making maps, hunting in the stacks of the library at Colorado College (where I am lucky enough to live this summer), and writing reports. Ken Burns famously dubbed the National Parks “America’s Best Idea,” but it has been fascinating to learn about a time when many Americans remained skeptical, and how art played a role in changing their minds.
While learning the history of the subject is a huge part of my day-to-day work, it has also been important to realize how gaining historical perspective for character creation in a film is different from writing a typical research paper at Stanford. Through communicating with my boss, I’ve learned the kind of specific historical details that will help their characters come to life in a way that is true to the past. Details that illustrate the troubles and personality of the historical figures are the most helpful, like how Thomas Moran had never camped or eaten bacon before the Hayden expedition, or how Jackson had to make four round trips to photograph Tower Falls in Yosemite because his equipment was so heavy. This mindset shift has allowed for greater autonomy and creativity in my work than I ever expected, and I am excited to bring this way of thinking back to my academic life at Stanford.
Living in the West throughout this internship has fundamentally deepened my connection to the historical figures I research and how I interact with the places I go each day. Little did I know when I started my research that William Henry Jackson and I both have experienced the majesty of Pike’s Peak, which I can see from my walk to the library, and experienced a sunset view of at Garden of the Gods park. It is a beautiful thing to walk with the knowledge that everywhere you go comes with its own history, and I am eager to see where else I will walk and what else I will learn as this summer of “places” continues.
Read more at the Out West Student Blog »