Posted on Aug 1, 2001

Louisa Stephens and Anastasie
Prokhorova, both seniors, have been awarded prestigious Watson Fellowships for a year of study abroad. Each of the one-year, self-directed fellowships carries a stipend of $22,000. Here is what they will be doing.

“You have to look twice”

As a first-year student, Louisa Stephens '01 read an article about Zane Riester '97, who won a Watson Fellowship to photograph similarities between train stations and cathedrals. “I'd like to do that someday,” she remembers thinking.

Someday is now for Stephens, who was
awarded a Watson for a proposal titled “Photographic Explorations: Pursuing the Sun.” She plans to take photographs during maximum summer sunlight in five countries: Peru, Argentina, Greece, Sweden, and Portugal. “In my portfolio, there is a strong element of sunlight,” she says. “Any photographer will tell
you that light is important. It enlivens every picture. But it may be even more true of me.”

Stephens, a native of Framingham, Mass., grew up in a darkroom, so to speak. Her father, an accomplished hobby photographer, would let her sit on a stool in the corner of his darkroom (“as long as I was still”). Her love of photography developed as she watched her father's black-and-white nature images emerge from the developing trays. She further
cultivated her love for photography as a student at Dana Hall School in
Wellesley, Mass.

But the economics major and computer science minor hadn't had any photography classes at Union until just this year, when she took Photography II. It was Professor of Photography Martin Benjamin who encouraged her to include a portfolio of her works with her written proposal for the Watson.

Stephens takes two cameras when she travels — a “point-and-shoot” with color film for the “normal tourist pictures,” and a manual camera with black-and-white film for more artistic work.

“Other tourists ask me, 'Why do you have your camera pointed at the ground when there is this amazing landmark in front of you?'” she says. “Often, you can't even really tell what country I'm in. But it's about little details: pebbles in a road, part of a fence. I'm often more interested in these than the broad picture. It's cool to find things that other people overlook.”

Stephens favors abstracts over photos of people and landscapes. Of her work, she says, “You have to look twice to know exactly what you're looking at.”

Describing her Watson as “open-ended,” Stephens says she wants to give herself some flexibility. “I don't want to close myself into a box and then get there and find out I can't do what I'd planned.”

Stephens has traveled to England, where her grandparents live, and to Canada. But it was a term abroad in Belgium last year, and travel by herself and with friends, that most impressed the Watson committee, she said. “I wouldn't have applied for (the Watson) if I didn't have that experience,” she says. “It was a real confidence booster.”

After the Watson, she hopes to do consulting work with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Boston. She completed an internship and training
program with the firm (arranged through Ron Kinghorn '90), but decided to defer
an employment offer to do the Watson.

Of her career plans, she is sure about one thing — she doesn't want to be a professional photographer. “I don't like people telling me what to shoot.”

On myth and reality

Anastasie Prokhorova recalls a bitter cold winter night in 1986 when her father dragged her past a crowd and through the heavy doors of Leningrad's Philharmonic Hall.

Inside, the concert already under way, people were standing on tiptoe, craning their necks to see a pianist working his way through Tchaikovsky's monumental Piano Concerto No. 1.

“When at last he brings the piece to a conclusion, the crowd explodes in a frenzy of applause and shouts of 'bravo!' ” Prokhorova recalls. “It is a memorable concert, but not because a master has conquered one of the most technically challenging and
emotionally complex compositions in the world. No, the conqueror is the
fifteen-year-old wunderkind, Evgeny Kissin, and his performance is a historical meeting between great
composition and great talent.”

So began Prokhorova's fascination with child musical prodigies, or, as Clara Schumann once said of Brahms, a “young man sent to this world already made.”

Prokhorova, who graduated with a major in French and a minor in history, will use her Watson to study “Cultural Phenomenon of the Wunderkind” in Germany, Italy, France, Austria, England, and Japan. She will focus on European countries and then compare them with the non-Western traditions of Japan. She plans to visit music festivals, competitions, and music schools, interviewing students,
parents, and teachers of prodigies.

“From Mozart to Jacqueline du Pre and beyond, the child prodigy has been the subject of intense curiosity and scrutiny for the vast majority of us who do not possess their gifts,” she says. “How can a five-year-old compose a symphony or play the repertoire of an adult musician?”

Our cultural construct – perpetuated by books and movies like Amadeus and Shine — would have us believe that while wunderkinder may be irresistible, effervescent, inspiring, and soulful, they are also maladjusted individuals. “When a child's capacities are discovered, the term wunderkind is thrust upon the child, and it is perceived that he or she is leaving behind a life,” Prokhorova says. “Some people say that the child has no childhood, that the parents or teachers were abusive. That's what I'm trying to discover, the relationship between this mythology and the actual individuals living the experience,” she says.

And finding how societies treat their prodigies could provide a cultural barometer of what people think about human intelligence and talent, she adds.

Prokhorova, an accomplished pianist who began her musical studies at age ten at a school in her native St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), recalls the wunderkinder who attended her school in isolation from the “regular” students. “They were five or six years younger, but were capable of playing a repertoire usually reserved for adults,” she says. “We used to see
them on stage at concerts, but I don't remember communicating with them very
much. But we were all fascinated.”

Prokhorova immigrated to Brooklyn with her physician parents when she was sixteen. (She was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in March, the same week she learned she had won a Watson.) “The piano gave me great comfort [in adjusting to life in the U.S.]; it was a strong spiritual bond with the country we left behind,” she says.

She enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music, and won a New York Piano Teachers Congress Competition. But without the supportive musical environment she had had in Russia, her musical education slowed down. At Union, she plunged into her studies in French and history, putting aside piano study. It wasn't until the spring of 1999, when she began to prepare for a performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto No. 1, that she realized that “music will always be an essential part of my life. This is what I like about my Watson. It marries my love of study with my love of music, much as I have tried to do in my life at Union.”