James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.
He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got an MFA in painting, and then switched to art history, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 at Eochaill on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with specialties in Delacroix and Picasso.
Jim’s interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano (contemporary “classical” music), and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.
His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes). Recent books include What Photography Is, written against Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; Artists with PhDs, second edition; and Art Critiques: A Guide, third edition.
Note: What Photography Is is experimental nonfiction. Beginning in 2015, impelled by the general lack of experimental writing in art history, I rearranged my schedule to concentrate on writing a novel with images.
Here is the full vita, with lists of translations. It is updated live.