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Vail Symposium brings Clay Jenkinson back to discuss the eroding trust in American institutions and the 10 greatest photographs of all time

'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper' was taken atop Rockefeller Center in 1932 by Charles Ebbets.
Courtesy photo

Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author and social commentator, returns to Vail this week for two programs. On Wednesday, March 20 at Vail Interfaith Chapel, he’ll moderate a panel discussion on “Eroding Trust in American Institutions.” On Thursday, March 21 at Eagle River Presbyterian Church, the conversation turns to the 10 greatest photographs of all time. Jenkinson’s programs are always well-balanced and impeccably researched; these events promise to deliver an excellent experience.

“We’ll see Clay’s true intellectual breadth across these two programs,” said Vail Symposium Executive Director James Kenly. “Trust in institutions is the glue that holds a democracy together and this program will explore its history of ups and downs and try to put the trends of 2024 into context. In the photography program, Clay will welcome audience participation and a lively discussion about what qualifies as a ‘great photograph’ and which moments in time resonate with us the most.”

These topics frequently land in the headlines and have short-term impacts and long-term implications here in the U.S. and around the world.



Wednesday, March 20 at Vail Interfaith Chapel, 6-8 p.m.: The Eroding Trust in American Institutions

In October 2020 in The Atlantic, David Brooks wrote, “Social trust is a measure of the moral quality of a society 鈥 of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”

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In an era of increasing polarization and shifts in how individuals perceive and interact with systems such as law enforcement, churches, the press, politics and education, what are the factors that influence confidence? Do declines in trust occur evenly across demographics and systems? Is this eroding trust unique to this time in our history?

In this fireside-style discussion, Jenkinson and UC Berkeley political scientist Dr. Henry Brady will explore the unique characteristics of the American experiment that depend on trust in our institutions, other epochs in American history that were riddled with distrust and how we recovered, and what we can do to rebuild this critical component of life in America.

Thursday, March 21 at Eagle River Presbyterian Church, 6-7:30 p.m.: The Ten Greatest Photographs of All Time
Photography began in 1826-1827, when Joseph Nic茅phore Ni茅pce exposed the first photograph in human history. Now, thanks to smartphone technology, more photographs are taken each day than were taken in the entire history of the world before the start of the 21st century.

Jenkinson has chosen 10 magnificent photographs (in addition to plenty of runners-up and honorable mentions) to explore how great photographs epitomize a moment or an era, capture an extraordinary event, provide a window into the human condition, or make us ache with appreciation and wonder. One perhaps obvious choice is “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” (1932), taken atop Rockefeller Center in 1932 by Charles Ebbets, Thomas Kelley and William Leftwhich. Recently it has been alleged that the photograph was staged, but it is in fact authentic, taken 69 floors above the New York streets.

In each instance, Jenkinson tells the backstory of the photograph: who took it, when, under what circumstances, what has happened in the aftermath and what influence the photograph has had on the world. Audience members will be encouraged to nominate their own favorites, which we will call up to examine together.


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