The Photographers

Benjamin Busch ’91

By Vassar Quarterly


When I attended Vassar from 1987 to 1991, as an art major, there was no course in photography offered. We were some of the first to test a radical “intranet” that allowed us to send on-campus messages by computer. We conducted research using books and card catalogs, received off-campus calls through pay phones on the landings of dorm stairways, and few of us even had a camera. I probably took no more than 24 pictures during my four years as a student. There is, in photographs, little evidence that my class was even there.

Returning to campus was, in most ways, arriving back at the scene of my awakening. Some things were as they had always been. The great gate still channeled me into the feeling of another era, and Main Building looked the same. Many trees seemed familiar. But time had passed, and for all of the new buildings I felt mostly the absences. Few of our teachers remained, but I found my art professor, Harry Roseman, and followed him for some of his day.

I first met Harry during the fall of 1987 in the declining ruin of a greenhouse that, for many years, had served as the Vassar College sculpture studio. The cluttered space held the smell of damp clay, steam, and something like rust. Abandoned figure studies and fragments of work from years of classes littered the uneven studio tables. It seemed like a museum for a people who knew that their artifacts were never going to be important enough to take out of that room, but that the room itself, with their offerings, would be preserved. The experience in that space was what had been important. Harry arrived on time but moved as if he were late, hastily placing a folder spilling handwritten notes on an easel and hanging a camera by its strap on a nail. He always had his camera. We formed an arc around him as if he had ordered it, and he introduced himself. “Hi. I’m Harry Roseman, and this is Sculpture 204. We are going to explore how to consider volume, mass, space, and materiality.” I thought that he had invented the word “materiality.” He continued, “This isn’t technical instruction, it’s an intellectual exercise. I’m not here necessarily to tell you that you are wrong about anything that you do…but more to engage in conversation about how you could be more right—if that makes any sense…because it does.” He paused. “OK, so you should probably introduce yourselves.” Then he took a moment, and we waited. I happened to be standing closest to him, and he turned to me with raised eyebrows. “And you are?” I said, “Benjamin Busch.” It was a time of telling people who we were. We were away from the places where everyone knew us. We were finally moving into our names.

Harry is now the chairman of the art department, and he still carries his camera and a folder of handwritten notes. This time, I took his picture. But the greenhouse has been removed, and there is now just trimmed lawn where so many of us first met Harry Roseman, and each other. It was in that glass space that he taught me that I could be an artist and, through sculpture, explained the fragility and endurance of photography. Students are still meeting him, but not in the greenhouse of my Vassar.

In the Quad I noticed, again, the dark red brick, greening with moss in the shadowed sides of buildings, the certain colors of the outside more memorable than the wallpaper and paint indoors, the blood-rust bricks and the old trees joined somehow by roots below the surface, aiding each other’s survival beyond us. There are so many things about Vassar that I hadn’t seen as a student, and couldn’t see now. Much of our college is composed of dark matter, its weight keeping us in orbit but the source beyond our ability to visualize and articulate. Dark matter was, in part, discovered by Dr. Vera Cooper Rubin ’48. I felt it draw me to Davison House.

I remembered all of us in our dormitory, Davison—not sleeping, awake with excitement and discomfort—those cold dark nights above the whir and spin of washing machines and driers in the basement, our unbalanced loads of towels and underwear thumping and panting steam out into the cool darkness, our dependency on home growing distant as we began making decisions about who we were. But Davison was different now.

It had been “renovated,” the basement stripped down to the bare brick, all the original doors replaced with new ones. There was administrative enthusiasm about these improvements, and the clean brick was beautiful, but I found the removal of the old doors very disappointing. The doors to my rooms in Davison had been made of old growth wood, probably original to the 1902 construction, stained dark, paid for by John D. Rockefeller, and scuffed by a history of students closing themselves in and sharing their secrets in the morning. The doors were heavy, and we covered them with newspaper clippings, postcards of artwork, political cartoons, beer coasters, and rock band photos. We would sometimes walk the empty hallways as if we were in an art gallery, reading the doors and getting a sense of who lived behind them. But the new doors were largely expressionless, lightly stained honey pine adorned only with a small dry-erase board for messages. I was told that nothing could be taped to the new doors, and I was drawn to them with as little curiosity as I would be walking through a hotel. Even the “White Angels” who once greeted us and screened visitors were replaced with key cards, the doors permanently locked. The renovation had erased more of my Vassar. But there were alcoves, places in shadow, made of bricks laid in the turn of the century, that were unchanged, eternal, small unlit spots where students don’t go but everyone has somehow noticed in passing. They had the same feeling that they did 20 years ago. I didn’t take photos of these rediscoveries because they were not photogenic compositions. Their resonance was in an emotional familiarity, remembrance, sensory beyond imagery, and only imaginable walking past.

The places destroyed at Vassar were of more importance to me than the new places built. Those attending now can never know what has been lost by change. They will instead one day remember with affection places I never knew. That will be their Vassar. I cannot know what Vassar was to fellow photographers Nancy Crampton ’56 or Dixie Sheridan ’65, or how it feels to them now. Vassar is like that. It is both enduring and transformational. It is a place that requires the time we lived there, and where, exactly, we spent our nights, to define.

This Day in the Life of Vassar was not my day. I was almost entirely unrelated to it. My friends were gone, my sculpture studio dismantled, my rooms all refurbished and reoccupied by people I did not know. I felt old here, displaced rather than at home, intrusive rather than embraced as I had been at 19 years of age. It was strange to walk the entire campus unrecognized, no one calling out in the quad, no one pulling me into a dorm room discussion, no roommate. We had all passed through like smoke.

It was interesting to spy on the new Vassar, walk amidst the energy of a young hive. But spying was as close as I could get. Vassar was, for me, almost entirely dark matter now, an invisible mass of memory. I had come thinking that I would capture my Vassar again but found, instead, that it could not be photographed. I realized, seeing the campus in a later time, that Vassar is truly a landscape of students at the moment of their awakening. Even recent graduates quickly become foreigners.

Vassar is my alma mater. She raised me for four years and then let me go out into the world again. Not truly alone though. I am still in touch with many classmates, and I visit Harry Roseman several times every year. I met my wife, Tracy Nichols ’91, here, our first kiss on the roof of Rockefeller Hall. The windows onto that roof are padlocked shut now, but they were open in my Vassar.

In my day, I had avoided the Mug, but I ended the night there with Evan Abramson ’00 and Ryan Muir ’06, listening to a superb student band. We sat at a table, with our cameras out, in a dark corner behind the new Vassarians as they danced in orange light around the shirtless musicians. It was a little primal, this mass of plenary pleasure, the swaying band members marked by tribal body paint, and I felt strangely like an explorer witnessing the sacred ritual of an undiscovered people. I was not a participant. I was something different now, but I wished, at that moment, that I could be a Vassar student again…just for a day. I took a few photographs and left, disturbing as little of the magic as I could.


Benjamin Busch, a Vassar studio art major, accepted a commission as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps shortly after graduation. The images in his photographic exhibitions The Art in War (2003) and Occupation (2005) are from his two combat tours in Iraq. His work has been featured in Five Points, War, Literature, & the Arts, and Photography Quarterly. His memoir “Bearing Arms” recently appeared in Harper’s, and his essay “Growth Rings” in the Michigan Quarterly Review. Busch has appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, Generation Kill, and several other television shows as an actor, and he was writer/director on the 2008 film Sympathetic Details. He lives on a farm in Reed City, Michigan, with his wife and their two daughters.

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