Although these days I work mostly on my computer, there is something special about the chalkboard. The expansiveness of the surface has a way of absorbing me into my work, whereas the outside world and all its distractions are in full view when typing on a laptop or writing on scratch paper.
So it was gratifying to see that experience celebrated in Jessica Wynne’s new book, Do Not Erase, when I logged into my first JMM event this afternoon. Wynne, a photographer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, photographed over 150 mathematicians’ chalkboards for this project. Each photo in the book is paired with an essay by the mathematician whose board is pictured. The book will be available this June, though you can preorder it now with a 30% discount using code JMM21.
Wynne started off by describing how the seed for this book was initially planted–through her friendship with Amie Wilkinson and Benson Farb of the University of Chicago: “One day, Benson is working at his dining room table. For several hours he sits, thinking, jotting down the occasional note. He is creating something beautiful and expansive beyond words.” When asked to explain his work, Farb replies that he can’t.
Later, Wynne traveled to an elementary school in Jaipur, India with her photography students. The school’s chalkboards caught her eye–covered in lessons written in Hindi, they were as incomprehensible as Farb’s mathematical notes. “The writing on these boards reminds me of the symbols in Benson’s notebook. There my project begins to take shape.”
Wynne’s story of her experience leading up to and throughout the project was followed up with a Q&A with the audience. Some highlights–edited for length, clarity, and my inability to transcribe quickly enough to keep up:
Q: What was the most surprising to you after seeing all the blackboards?
JW: Initially, when I started working on the project, the most surprising thing to me was how creative math at this level is, and the connections I saw to the artistic process. One of the things I loved about doing this project was spending time with mathematicians and having conversations with them.
Q: What is the aesthetic difference between math on a chalkboard vs a whiteboard?
JW: One of the reasons I restricted to chalkboards was that these boards could have been from 100 or 200 years ago. There’s no sense of time and I liked that. From a visual artist perspective, I liked the way chalk on a board looks and how you can see the different layers through eraser marks and the like. And as a photographer, I think about light, and the way light reflects on a chalkboard has a very different quality.
Q: I’ve always found the eraser blurs as a distraction from the black-and-white contrast. Any thoughts on the smudges?
JW: I think they’re very beautiful, I don’t find them distracting. I’ve shot over 150 boards all over the world, and when I see the eraser marks I can sense the energy and time and frustration of the work.
Q: How did you go about choosing who to include in the book?
JW: A lot of it came about organically. I started by getting to know Amie and Benson and they introduced me to some of their friends. I also was at the common room at Columbia quite a bit and met people that way. Traveling, it was different because I would email people in advance. But there wasn’t a specific agenda in terms of reaching out to particular people. There were also mathematicians that I met who referred me to other people, they were aware of one another’s boardwork which was exciting.
Q: Were people nervous about the content they were writing on the board?
JW: There were a couple of people who panicked when they noticed there was a mistake in their photograph and I reshot the photograph later. I didn’t have anyone that seemed particularly nervous in the moment, though.
Q: Are there enough pictures for a sequel?
JW: I want to keep shooting. I did get a lot of the work done before everything was shut down but there are a lot of places and countries I still want to go and photograph.
Q: Are there any photos you know have mistakes?
JW: I don’t know, but I’m sure there are. That’s part of the artistic process; it’s not interesting if everything is too perfect.