Professor Joseph Ho unrolls a painting that stretches across his desk. The delicate material is almost paper thin, the edges splintered. He tells me a hushed tone that it was found in the wall of a church library in New York, is around 140 years old and has not been seen in decades before carefully rolling it back up.
The painting, he explains, depicts what an upper-class woman’s life would have looked like in Imperial China from the Qing Dynasty. He says it is called an ancestor painting, which he has been using in his classes to visualize East Asia.
“If you have this painting described to you in a text, it doesn’t have the same impact as you seeing it here in person. The original material, you can see how it’s kind of frayed and falling apart. There’s something about it that really touches people, both the visual and the material aspect,” said Ho.
Professor Ho is a new history professor to Albion this year. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego, and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. He says that he came to Albion to teach and continue his research because it was such a good opportunity.
“The Albion history department was really welcoming,” he said, “And I felt like I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college, where there’s more student interaction.”
Professor Ho’s research focus looks at history through photographs and film. His office is filled with photographic equipment from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as original research materials like the painting he showed me. He has been a photographer since middle school, when he found and restored an old camera, and believes that images can help us to visualize history.
Professor Ho has done research for his dissertation in the archives of other small colleges before taking this position, and enjoys the community that such institutions offer.
“Here in the history department, you get a stronger sense of historical experience, and a closer interaction with what the professors do in their own research,” said Ho. “At a larger university, research and teaching is divorced. Here at Albion there is more opportunity for creative work and collaboration with students and professors.”
While Professor Ho was growing up, his interest in history was piqued from hearing stories from his family about the Second World War and going back to generations before that. He was later drawn in by how people saw and represented history through images.
“Images are the closest thing we have to time travel. Images are windows onto history,” said Ho. “We can look through them and see what people saw or what the camera represented in that moment. Text can do that in a representational way, but when we see images, there’s a more emotional, imaginative impact that shows us what parts of that time look like.”
Professor Ho teaches Modern China and East Asia Cultures and Civilizations classes in the History department. Next semester, he will be teaching a new course called Visualizing East Asia, incorporating images and visual technology that he hopes will help students gain a richer understanding of East Asian history.
Photo courtesy of Joseph Ho