Philanthropic Updates from The University of Texas at Dallas

Gift of Photography Captures Spaces for All Time

By Daniel Steele  |  February 11, 2021

In 1969, Carolyn Brown departed Chicago on the first flight of her life to Egypt to study Islamic art and architecture at the American University of Cairo. Her experience over the next three years began a career in photography that would take her across the Middle East, Mexico and the southwestern United States. After 50 years documenting the beauty of important cultural spaces around the world, Brown has committed to leave her entire life’s work to the Edith O’Donnell Institute for Art History. 

Her archive includes thousands of print and digital images from 14 countries, including 24 Mexican states and locations across Texas and the city of Dallas. 

“Collections like Carolyn’s mean the world to a place like UT Dallas,” said Michael Thomas, director of the O’Donnell Institute and Richard R. Brettell Distinguished University Chair. “Having meaningful art on campus opens up visual storybooks that engage audiences and bring them to our University. It brings individuals together to tell stories about people, cultures and history that you otherwise don’t have.”

Photographer Carolyn Brown’s archives contain thousands of images from the Middle East, Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Born in the grasslands of Colorado, Brown fell in love with art at a young age, originally working in ceramics and sculpture before teaching art at the junior high and high school levels. During her time in Egypt, she found herself inhabiting a space that enlivened all her senses. From bustling streets to endless desert landscapes strewn with timeless monuments, Brown was captivated by her surroundings. She purchased her first camera to capture what she saw, launching an obsession that later evolved into a professional career. 

Perhaps because of her background in the studio arts, Brown contemplates the spaces she photographs with an eye toward their design elements. She thinks in terms of lines, light, colors and the division of space. This helps her capture the unique aesthetic qualities of her subjects, which include archeological sites, culturally important architecture and the everyday life of human beings. 

“My work is fairly traditional,” Brown explained. “I like to document something as it is and show it in its most beautiful aspect.” 

However traditional her composition, what Brown really captures in her photography are fleeting moments that can be relived in the future. Much of her work depicts locations that are difficult to access today or have been lost to the erosion of time and human conflict. 

“Today it is practically impossible to travel to some of the places I’ve been, like Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Brown said. “But these photographs will always be there to look at and learn from. This material is a document that shows these places at their best.” 

Even for those subjects still existing and accessible today, Brown views the art of photography as a way to transport oneself in time and memory. 

“The beauty of photography is that by looking at it, one can immediately experience long-ago moments, never to be forgotten. The places and people I photograph will always be remembered exactly as they were on the day the shutter was snapped,” Brown said. 

UT Dallas is the perfect home for such artwork. 

“Documenting and preserving cultural heritage is a central idea for the O’Donnell Insitute,” explained Thomas. “Carolyn’s photographs are truly some of the last great documents of these places. They are beautiful photographs of artwork and architecture that constitutes our cultural heritage.” 

Brown’s relationship with UT Dallas began when she met the late Dr. Richard Brettell, founding director of the O’Donnell Institute. During the years before Brettell came to UT Dallas, he and Brown collaborated on several exhibitions, including a showing of Brown’s Egyptian work at the Dallas Museum of Art and an exposition entitled “Sacred Space: Man and Divine in Mexico, Central America and Southwestern United States.” When Brettell approached her to consider leaving her work to UT Dallas, Brown agreed. 

“Once I could work with Rick right here in Dallas, that was the best thing,” Brown said. “I feel very fortunate to know that my work will go on to help educate people about these places I’ve been.”