Walk onto the second floor of Sterry Hall, and you’ll find a man with pure-white hair, and a matching beard, tucked into an office. Dressed in his signature purple suspenders and peering over spectacles, Jan Boles has archived the 125-year history of The College of Idaho since 1997. But his business card reads “Photographing Idaho and the American West since 1963.”
And it’s because of Boles’ work as a photographer, archivist and historical preservationist that the Idaho Humanitarian Council will honor him with the Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities Award during its annual award ceremony, set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Rosenthal Gallery of Art inside Blatchley Hall.
The award came as a surprise to Boles when he was notified by letter of his achievement in December.
“I turned it around and looked at the back—this should have gone to somebody else, I thought,” Boles said. “I just hadn’t thought about anything like this.”
As an award-winning photographer, Boles has artfully documented Idaho landscapes. His work has been featured in newspapers, books, magazines, Idaho Public Television documentaries, and many gallery shows.
“We look forward to recognizing Jan for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities,” IHC Chair Margo Aragon said. “Through his wide-ranging work as a public humanist, he has enriched the heritage of the Intermountain West.”
Influenced by Leo Marx’s book The Machine in the Garden, which centers on how technology influences landscapes, Boles has been interested in the way human activity impacts nature and how nature recovers.
Backpacking into the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness with former C of I Professor Jim Marshall in 1969, Boles photographed and reported on mining activity near Castle Peak. His report, published in a local newspaper, helped to effectively close down the mine.
Born in Missouri and growing up in Texas, Boles spent a year in art school in Los Angeles before the smog and congestion choked him out of southern California. With two weeks to kill before going back home to work a summer job, Boles decided to go fishing and visit his uncle, who taught school in Caldwell, Idaho. That’s when he discovered the C of I and decided to transfer.
“I’ve never really left Caldwell since then,” Boles said.
Although he graduated with a degree in English literature in 1965, photography always held his heart. The unpredictability of the art form attracts him. Boles likens it to the quote from Gene Smith, “Always, I am on the threshold…”
“You never know with photography,” Boles said. “You might think you’re starting off to have an ordinary day, and then something happens. And if your eyes are open, you have your camera turned on and the batteries charged, there is a chance you can do something with it. There is always this sense of opportunity.”
His early influence in photography was the great wilderness photographer Ansel Adams. And he approaches photography the same way, carefully visualizing and analyzing each photo he takes. While times have changed to digital cameras, and Boles has effectively shut down his dark room, film is his medium of choice.
“My favorite camera, if I can do everything my way—and this hasn’t happened in a long time—I’d be working in black and white with an 8x10 view camera,” Boles said.
For Boles, there are similarities between photography and archival work—a sense of discovery which brings excitement. A real “serendipity” quality, as he puts it. So if you don’t catch him in the Robert E. Smylie Archives, chances are he is discovering another picture-perfect view of Idaho, and bringing another aspect of the American West into focus.
The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.