Leap Then Look Active Archive Digital Residency 


Julie J. Thomson

Photography was first taught at BMC by Josef Albers until former student Hazel Larsen (later Larsen Archer) was employed as the first photography tutor in the late 1940s. Larsen Archer believed that photography was a process of learning to see, developing a state of awareness of the world. As with many subjects at BMC, photography was taken by students and staff members who specialised in other disciplines. Photography then played a key part in the college’s overall philosophy of developing the individual and opening students to unexpected opportunities for self-development.


In contrast to the Eastman Kodak slogan of the time ‘


photography at Black Mountain was seen as an active artistic process, using both light and the camera as tools in the act of learning to see. Larsen Archer wrote, in the publication 5 Photographers, 1950; “We do not use light meters, we believe that one can train one’s self to see light under a variety of conditions”.

“Pure observation puts thinking on hold, creating a stillness, fully alert…. We become receptive, able to receive, able to respond, it is through this exchange that we have a firsthand experience, and we are changed by it.“

Hazel Larsen Archer




We have been looking for moments where light and shadow interact, catch the eye and make us see our everyday environment in new ways, or constructing objects and situations which explore the effects of direct natural light.

We invited people to create images by using the natural light available to them, or by exploring artificial light sources and post them on Instagram.

“Try to see the light in any situation, how does it effect the way you perceive objects and your environment? Can you find ways of using light to see things in new ways? Take your time, construct the image, be attentive and responsive to what’s there.”

You can see all the responses on Instagram and take part yourself usign the hashtag #activearchive 



We had planned to explore Hazel Larsen Archer’s use of natural light in many of the beautiful pictures she created at BMC today, but it’s been a grey and cloudy day. However, in the spirit of restrictions leading to unexpected creative opportunities, we have tried out different light sources and stumbled upon using the torches from our phones to create layered shadows and unexpectedly vivid images.

Click on the arrows to see more images in this slideshow.



“Each photograph cannot help but be a new experience.”

Hazel Larsen Archer

Hazel Larsen Archer worked with dancers Merce Cunningham and Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn, as well as student Robert Rauschenberg, to capture images of movement.

Larsen Archer had limited mobility, due to childhood polio, and we can see this as a decisive element in the creation of these photographs. Shot from a seated position, the framing of the camera is not what might be expected, giving Cunningham a sense of elevation and framing only part of Schmitt Jennerjahn and Rauschenberg’s moving bodies. Set on a fixed tripod we could also see that it was the dancers who performed for the camera, adjusting their movements toward it, rather than the camera following them. This use of the camera created a new situation, prompting an exploration of both movement and framing. “Larsen Archer was in the habit of writing DO NOT TRIM OR CROP THIS PHOTOGRAPH on the back of her prints, so that there would be no attempt to ‘correct’ or improve the way she had cropped them herself” David Vaughan.

Recreating the situation of Hazel Larsen Archer and Merce Cunningham’s photography shoot, we set the camera on a fixed tripod and took turns to explore moving in front of it, while the other clicked the shutter. After the initial awkwardness the realisation comes that we are not dancing exactly, the flow and sequence of our movements is unimportant as only certain moments will be captured and selected. Something unexpected is created, something which owes its existence as much to the camera as to the dancer. What became clear was how the camera prompted and enabled new experiences, both for the person behind the camera, and the one who is performing in front of it.



“If you set up a camera […] and ten people looked through the viewfinder, clicked the shutter and each developed their own picture, then you would have ten uniquely different photographs. The camera faithfully records not only what is in front of it, but what is behind it as well.”

Erika Archer Zarow, recounting her mother’s photography teaching and her insistence on the act of looking as a revelatory experience, something personal and unique.

In this spirit we chose this simple image of a woman’s hands taken by Larsen Archer and asked a group of people we know to recreate it. The hope was that even in faithfully recreating the image they would express something of themselves and their own particular way of seeing. Their responses were sensitive, beautiful and, despite their similarities, each incredibly personal.

Images credits: Leap Then Look, BMCM+AC permanent collection, Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer, Cy Twombly Foundation, SF MOMA collection.