The Photographers

Dixie Sheridan ’65

By Vassar Quarterly


My work at Vassar, over a 23-year period, was always challenging, often thorny, sometimes vexing, or contentious, but still more satisfying and more fun than I can ever explain.

Here’s a memory from the challenging, but finally fun department: As editor of the Vassar Quarterly, I signed off on my first issue of the magazine with some trepidation. It would be sent to 32,000 mostly smart and exacting alumnae/i. One of the first responses was a letter, in longhand, many pages, quite detailed, and very stern, from Grace Lewis Case ’25. She was truly perturbed about the use of commas in that issue. “Oh my,” I thought, “will I lose my job over commas?”

With The Chicago Manual of Style by my side, I sat down at the typewriter to respond—the first of many times we exchanged letters, as Grace was prompted to write after each issue of the VQ. Finally we met, at one of her reunions, and we had a spirited and affectionate discussion of grammar and punctuation over a few drinks. We had become comrades in maintaining standards.

After the VQ, my work at Vassar was decidedly administrative—overseeing various campus offices including publications, media relations, the Powerhouse summer theater endeavor, and other summer programs. My work also included planning such special events as a yearlong celebration of the 125th anniversary of the college, the inauguration of a new president, and implementing the President’s Distinguished Visitor Program. Six of us who were “senior officers” met weekly with the president to solve problems and plan for the future; and we attended all the trustees’ meetings.

During my time working for Vassar, I shot thousands of photographs, even though photography was never included in any of my job descriptions. I found my way to the tops of many buildings, some harder to manage than others. (Don’t try it without permission!) There were basements to explore, and the library was a favorite haunt for photos. I had two opportunities to be in helicopters and shoot the campus from above, which I remember as the best of all. The first year I was responsible for college publications, and after the catalog had been published, a faculty member challenged me, “Why is it that every year, the catalog has a photo of someone from the English department, and someone from the art history department, and no one from my department?” Aside from making me realize that departmental balance needed to be corrected, that challenge led me to a deliberate consideration of content in photographs as editor, rather than photographer, in all of Vassar’s publications.

In the early ’80s, the visual depiction of campus life was lagging behind the reality of campus life. We needed to stop willy-nilly photo assignments and root out our conventional selection of photos, in order to portray campus life in a true and balanced way. Yes, there were women teaching biology and chemistry, and women taking those classes. Yes, there were men teaching in the arts, and men enrolled in art history and dance classes. Women played rugby too. There were people of color among the faculty and student body. There were people who were not hetero. And yes, we needed to get over the insidious defensiveness that hung over the campus for too many years, after deciding to admit men. (The “outside consultants” were often difficult, insisting that stereotypical images were our keys to the kingdom, despite the fact that Vassar prided itself on not seeking stereotypical students or faculty.) So, returning for A Day in the Life of Vassar, I returned as just a photographer, and what a gift that was.

--- First observation: Where are all of the people? All day long, I was thinking, “Where are the people?” From the bell tower on Main, from the library roof, walking around the quad, going to ACDC and the Retreat twice, returning to Arlington three times, going to Prentiss Field, going to Kenyon and Walker, the computer center…looking, looking, trying to find people. Where are the crowds? And then I realized maybe I’ve been living in New York City too long.

Later I thought, my dorm rooms in the early ’60s had a bed, a bureau, a desk, a lamp, a record player, and a typewriter; and oh yes, the telephone was at the end of the hallway. Now dorm rooms are replete with refrigerators, TVs, computers, iPods, cell phones, Kindles. Who needs to leave “home”?

--- One surprise: There I was on the Vassar farm at 6 a.m., our start time for the 24-hour photo marathon. That was definitely a first. Drama majors usually are not awake at that hour, unless they haven’t gone to sleep the night before. It was a lovely morning, and I was the only one there until a couple of other photographers arrived.

--- Last assignment, a standout: Toward the end of my day, around 10 p.m., I went to a drama department rehearsal of Rent, at the Martel. It was early in the rehearsal process, which meant no sets, no lights, no costumes, no props, but an impressive rehearsal with a large cast. I felt sure the final result was going to be worthy of a professional New York production.

---And finally: two of my favorite quotations.

“I photograph to find out what the world looks like photographed.”
--Gary Winograd

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
 --Dorothea Lange


Dixie Sheridan, a New York City-based freelance photographer, specializes in the documentation of theater productions; her photographs have been published regularly in national and international newspapers and magazines. The New York Public Library recently acquired Sheridan’s photo archive of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater productions for its Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, where it will eventually be made available to the public. After receiving an M.A. in drama history and criticism from the University of Oklahoma, Sheridan returned to Vassar and spent more than 23 years serving as editor of the Vassar Quarterly, assistant to President Virginia B. Smith, and vice-president for college relations.

View additional images from Dixie's "Day in the Life of Vassar" shoot.