Photo finish

Graduating senior Wilson Fisher will use a Fulbright Award to study photographers and other artists in Ukraine.

Student standing in front of a stand of forsythia.
After graduation, Wilson Fisher will study the history of art in Ukraine through a 2019-2020 Fulbright Scholarship. (Photo: Wilson Fisher)

Wilson Fisher first heard of English lecturer Kenneth Goldsmith in a high school class and then saw the author’s latest book in a local shop window, inspiring him to apply to Penn in hopes of taking Goldsmith’s classes. 

“It felt like a sign,” he says. “I made it a goal of mine when I got to Penn to meet Professor Goldsmith as soon as I could.” 

During his freshman year, while in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood on a field trip with the Writing About Art course, he saw Goldsmith in an art gallery. “It was a serendipitous moment,” says Fisher. “Through that, I was able to cultivate an email connection with him, and then sophomore year I took two of his classes in back-to-back semesters.” 

Fisher could have hardly predicted the series of connections that would follow, starting in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, and threading through several academic, research, grant, and travel opportunities that combined his majors of art history and economics. The course of study created a path that landed the graduating senior a Fulbright Scholarship. With the award, Fisher plans to study events in Ukraine since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in support of integration into the European Union, through the lens of photography. 

Goldsmith says he is not surprised that Fisher, also known by the first name Alex, has been chosen for this opportunity. “Penn has so much to offer, and every time I turn around he’s getting another chance to go somewhere or do something cool. Alex takes full advantage of what we have to offer which is tremendous. He’s just extraordinary,” Goldsmith says. 

“He takes a breadcrumb and follows it because he knows it is the right thing to do. That’s the kind of self-propulsive initiative he has,” Goldsmith continues. “Alex is motivated by what interests him.” 

The first Goldsmith course Fisher took was Wasting Time on the Internet. “It’s the class that will be the defining course of my Penn experience,” says Fisher, who also is completing a minor in English, with an emphasis on cinema studies. 

“The inclusivity, with no syllabus, three hours a week of 12 kids sitting at a round table and working out ideas was empowering,” he says. “Professor Goldsmith talked about artists and philosophers and gave a shape to it, contextualizing the broader world of art and history.” 

One of the artists Goldsmith discussed was Cory Arcangel, who became well-known for modifying video games, specifically a piece that features only the clouds from Super Mario Bros. “I thought it was amazing,” says Fisher. 

By coincidence, Arcangel and Fisher went to the same independent high school, the Nichols School, in Buffalo. “I had heard of Cory in my high school art classes as someone who had really made it,” Fisher says. “I grew up seeing Arcangel jerseys hanging up in the rafters.

“It was almost too good to be true. There was this web of connections being built,” he says. “As I have progressed weaving together economics and art history in my curriculum, that is something that has really stuck with me.”

Art history courses, he says, have interesting intersections of qualitative and quantitative.

Studying abroad in Sweden his junior year at the Stockholm School of Economics through Penn Global, Fisher immersed himself in the world of contemporary art. “I had this wonderful opportunity which opened my eyes to that part of the world, and I decided to specialize,” he says, and learn more about emerging art in Scandinavia. 

Student standing by research poster with several other students nearby.
Fisher spent last summer in Scandinavia on a grant-funded project focusing on artists. He presented his research at the fall research symposium sponsored by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. (Photo: Isabel Zapata)

During the spring of his junior year, Fisher received a Pincus-Magaziner Family Undergraduate Research award through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships to fund a trip to 12 cities in five weeks in Scandinavia that summer, with Goldsmith as the faculty sponsor. “It was incredibly special going from looking at his book in a window to having him sponsor my research trip to Scandinavia,” he says. 

The ambitious itinerary took Fisher to museums and galleries, meeting with government cultural ministers, curators, artists, musicians, and a fashion designer. While there, he studied the collections program at Wanås Konst, a sculpture park on the grounds of Wanås Castle, where he stayed in southern Sweden. This summer, he will return to Wanås as an exhibition coordinator for Benoît Lachambre’s “Fluid Grounds.”

“My dream is to work in the cultural realm, so this opportunity to have Penn’s support to go out and meet people who had been role models online was super special,” Fisher says.

While in Sweden, Fisher spent a couple of weeks with Arcangel, who had relocated from New York to the Norwegian city of Stavanger, seven hours southwest of Oslo, to develop Arcangel Surfware, his multi-faceted business that combines art, publishing, and fashion. 

Fisher interviewed Archangel extensively about his newer artworks, many of which are commentaries on consumer trends. 

“My experience in Stavanger was a great lesson in how a small group of creative individuals can set the tone for a whole city,” Fisher says. “There was energy, color, and enthusiasm for arts and culture. It’s a really exciting moment in this place’s story.” 

A freelance photographer as well, Fisher received a Seltzer Family Digital Media Award through the Penn Libraries that allowed him to document the people he met and places he went in Scandinavia on the website “Watching the Paint Dry.” 

The experience formed the basis for a term paper on Arcangel’s feature films for his American Independent Cinema course, taught by senior lecturer Meta Mazaj. He is also interested in film production and is a member of the Kinoki Senior Society

“One of the things that is most special about the College is that when the semester ends, the life of the ideas that you’ve been discussing is just beginning. I don’t throw the binder of notes away. It stays with you,” he says. “I have been able to bridge the Internet class from sophomore year to my cinema studies course my senior year.” 

Fisher has worked as a senior photographer for the independent student newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian and its 34th Street Magazine, and was a founder and lead photographer for “33 to 40,” a book of photos and essays about student life at Penn.

He and senior Sofie Præstgaard, whom he met on the first day of freshman year in Writing About Art, created a new project in the fall, Refrigerator Residency, which showcases the “words, works, and wanderings” of contemporary artists through postcards and refrigerator magnets, on Instagram and on a white Frigidaire in his West Philadelphia apartment. The project was funded through Penn’s Sachs Program for Arts Innovation

A collage including a photo of student and postcard of Stavanger superimposed over a map.
Postcards are central to projects created by Fisher. This collage resulted from his research in Scandinavia last summer, including a photo of him in Cory Arcangel’s studio and a postcard of Stavanger, Norway. (Photo: Wilson Fisher)

Fisher also created Mugshot Magazine, which features photos and essays about the culture of coffee and cafes. He is on the Institute of Contemporary Art’s student advisory board and is a CURF research peer advisor

During his senior year, he transitioned from studying Swedish to studying Ukrainian with Leonid Rudnytzky, adjunct professor of Slavic languages and literatures, focusing on his goal of applying for the Fulbright. 

Through an analysis of photographer Boris Mikhailov’s portfolio and that of the generation of photographers he has inspired, Fisher plans to probe how Ukrainian artists are capturing contemporary community, looking at how artistic innovation corresponds to political and social experimentation in the wake of the country’s revolution. 

Based in Kyiv, he will conduct art historical studies in association with a mix of public and private arts organizations. Fisher plans to write regularly about his subjects for international arts publications in addition to compiling and launching a photobook. He also hopes to stage an exhibition in Kyiv to share his research. 

“I feel very empowered by Penn to pursue subjects I am passionate about, from the classroom into the world,” Fisher says. “My passion is working with artists. I think they have a fantastic ability to charge movements. Artists’ insights are infinite, and my life will be dedicated to supporting their work.”