Arts, Science & Culture Profile: Shane DuBay & Carl Fuldner

Shane DuBay (Committee on Evolutionary Biology) and Carl Fuldner (Department of Art History) are one of seven collaborative teams to have received a 2014-2015 Graduate Collaboration Grant from the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative. In their proposed project, Photographing Evolution, the two set out to create a photographic archive of local bird specimens that have been collected by The Field Museum over the past century. The photographs Shane & Carl are taking create a "time-series": a way of visually perceiving evolutionary change within a species over time. As the project has evolved over the past few months, the two have come across unexpected discoveres and are reshaping their project accordingly. We caught up with them this Winter Quarter to see what they've been up to at The Field.

Can you outline in a few sentences your respective backgrounds and research interests?

Shane: I am an evolutionary biologist. I study birds that have evolved to live at the tops of mountains where temperatures are cold and oxygen is low. High-elevation environments are harsh, but some birds do exceptionally well under these conditions. My research relies on current natural history collections, such as those at The Field Museum, and building those collections for posterity.

Carl: I’m in the art history department, where my primary focus is the history of photography. I’m interested in the ways that photography structures our conception of nature. Recently I’ve been exploring a period starting in the mid-1890s, when it first became practical to photograph birds and other wildlife in the field. A lot of the work is visually captivating, but as an art historian, my practical knowledge of birds is limited. That’s what initially led me to Shane.

How have your individual research interests overlapped or shifted as you have been working on this collaborative project? 

We’ve had a number of discussions since we first met about how our working methods are not so dissimilar. Both of our disciplines are essentially organized around the concept of comparative morphology — meaning, we both study changes to form across time. It just happens that [Carl’s] archive is made up of images, while [Shane’s] consists of bird specimens. Natural history collections capture specific moments in time and space, preserving that information for future inquiry. Photography does something quite similar. So we share an interest in modes of historical inquiry that don't rely on text, and this forms the core of our project.

What unexpected discoveries or frustrations have you found along the way?

Joliet, IL was a dirty place at the start of the twentieth century. If you look in a cabinet of bird specimens at The Field Museum, the sootiest individuals are likely from Joliet around 1900. Since we made that discovery, we’ve shifted our research energy to tracing the history of coal consumption in the region, trying to figure out why Joliet was exceptionally polluted compared to industrial centers like Chicago proper. The information is out there, but it's scattered and spotty, especially when you get to the nineteenth century. One of our hopes is that the project will actually function as a historical air quality index, albeit an indirect one.

Would you consider the work you are producing art or science or a third category (and what would that category be)?

Our work integrates art, science, and history to explore environmental change in the US over the last 150 years. Rather than defining the project in terms of one of these categories, we’re more motivated by how it will offer something of value for people coming from each of those backgrounds. We’re both committed pragmatists on this question.

Where do you expect to show this body of work?

Our current plan is to present our work in three distinct forms: a scientific publication, a gallery-style exhibition, and an interactive web-based experience. The first two will tap into traditional platforms for presenting scientific and artistic material, while the third is intended to function as an open-ended archive that anyone can access and explore.

Shane DuBay is a Ph.D candidate in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago and the Bird Division at the Field Museum of Natural History. His research addresses how interactions between organisms and their environment affect biodiversity. His current work focuses on evolutionary mechanisms of high-altitude adaptation in birds. He will be traveling to the mountains of China this spring to conduct further field research on high-altitude birds.

Carl Fuldner is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the history of photography and specifically on the development of nature photography in the the late-19th and early-20th century. He was a 2013-2014 Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Intern at the Smart Museum of Art.

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