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MIT professor exhibits photos in Compton Gallery

How do we read a landscape and what does it tell us? "Knowing Where to Stand: Photographs by Anne Whiston Spirn," an exhibition of 45 color works which explore these questions, is on view at the Compton Gallery (Room 10-150) through Jan. 30.

Professor Spirn, who has been at MIT since 2000 and has joint appointments in the departments of Urban Studies and Planning and Architecture, uses photography as a form of language, leading viewers to read landscapes more deeply to decipher their meanings and tell their stories.

"Photography is to seeing what poetry is to writing: a way of thinking, a disciplined practice that produces insight, a condensed telling," she writes in her comments accompanying the exhibition. "Deciding where to point the camera, where to stand, I choose subject and stance."

The exhibit is drawn from "The Eye is a Door," Spirn's forthcoming book.

Spirn, professor of landscape architecture and planning, calls landscape a "kind of language born out of living. Knowing the language of landscape, one can read a forest, field, town and city like a text and tell the stories of their making and becoming. One can read the world not as separate things but as dynamic associations."

An award-winning author and distinguished landscape architect, scholar, educator and activist, Spirn was awarded the International Cosmos Prize in 2001 for research contributing to the "harmonious co-existence of nature and mankind." She was the youngest person, first woman and the first designer/planner to win the award.

Since 1984, Spirn has worked in inner-city neighborhoods on landscape planning and community design and development. She is director of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, a program that integrates teaching, research and community service that was cited as a model project by the White House Millennium Council in 1999.

"Knowing Where to Stand" is complemented by a web site ( with additional information, including a link to Spirn's MIT class "Site in Sight: Photography as Inquiry," where visitors can see students' work from past years and follow current students' work-in-progress.

The Compton Gallery is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 253-4444 or see

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 2003.

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