“I am a historian of the visual and material culture of modern Japan. I write about the politics of photography culture and optical technologies in Japan from the 1930s to the 1970s. “
Prof. Kelly McCormick joined the UBC History Faculty in January 2020. Get to know her through a short Q&A discussing her area of expertise, her teaching style and interests outside of her career. She also answers the famous “why should you study history” question.
What is your area of expertise? What inspired you to dig deep into this area?
I am a historian of the visual and material culture of modern Japan. I write about the politics of photography culture and optical technologies in Japan from the 1930s to the 1970s. In this time period I bring to light the first women to become professional photographers in Japan in the 1940s and 50s, marketing the camera as a symbol of Japanese modern design, and female student uses of the camera to document environmental degradation. Doing so, I aim to find new ways to understand the values embedded in the Japanese camera.
I started out practicing photography and studying history separately and then felt like a lot could be learned by combining the two perspectives. I am always trying to infuse my study of the past with a sense of the processes that go into making an image and vice versa. I am really interested in seeing how we can write history to include missing perspectives by focusing on images and objects.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I am always looking for ways to help students see history from new angles and to understand why studying history might help them learn more about themselves and the present. I like to do this by choosing “objects” – such as: ink stones, art museums, the bob haircut, a performance piece. I choose objects from across time periods and encourage students to learn how to extract information from these objects in order to see them as the crystallization of complex historical and social processes. It’s my goal that we all develop a literacy for reading the world around us to make us more engaged and informed.
If you weren’t pursuing a career in academia, what types of careers would you be interested in?
I love research, so the law profession called to me for a while but when it comes down to it I’d love to write novels. I’ve been working on the plot for a piece of historical fiction full of Japanese monsters and ghosts set in the 19th century. Or I might move to a pottery village in Japan and become a potter.
Why should students study history?
It is in understanding what motivated people in the past that we can understand ourselves better. Deciphering a letter, map, or photograph and understanding what motivated someone in the past to produce, use, or collect it empowers us to decode power structures of the past and present.
What types of activities do you enjoy outside your career?
When I spend longer periods of time in Japan I usually join a pottery studio and I am looking forward to finding a place to continue learning in Vancouver.
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