Where did you work prior to the Metropolitan Museum and what prompted your move from that position?
After college, I traveled through Europe and parts of North Africa for a year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow—the backpack, Eurorail pass, and youth hostel thing—looking at art and architecture and, I think, learning to be independent. When I came back to the U.S., I looked for a job in my hometown, Baltimore, and very happily ended up in the Education Department of the Baltimore Museum of Art, running the school tour program, training the docents, and organizing small educational exhibitions. It was a great experience and a great collection to work with, but after five years I wanted to learn more than I could in that position and decided to pursue a doctorate in art history.
Why did you choose the area of photography?
I didn’t go to Princeton setting out to pursue photographic history, but a series of circumstances led me in that direction—none more significant than the excitement I felt in the seminars I took with Peter Bunnell, then the McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art. Peter, a protégé of photographer Minor White and a former curator at MoMA, who had established Princeton as the place to study photo history, possessed a deep, first-hand knowledge of the medium and many of its great practitioners, exuded enthusiasm for his subject, and was absolutely dedicated to his students. I was won over. One of the things that made photography so appealing as a subject—indeed, that still makes it so exciting—is that fact that it is such a young discipline and there are artists of the highest caliber about whom virtually nothing has been written. For me, the experience of doing primary research, of figuring out an artist’s life and oeuvre for the first time, was far more exhilarating than studying the work of an artist that was already well documented and much loved. The same holds true for me as a curator now: it’s particularly rewarding to introduce the public to a great artist and prompt the same sense of discovery that I’ve felt.
What was the first show that you curated at the Met and what were your expectations and the realities of that exhibit? I didn’t go to Princeton setting out to pursue photographic history, but a series of circumstances led me in that direction
The first major show I curated was in 1994 on the 19th-century French photographer of landscape and architecture, Edouard Baldus, who was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. The reality of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue was far beyond my expectations or even dreams and completely different from the experience that so many people have—struggling on their own to transform a dissertation into a book, often published in very small numbers and with a few halftone illustrations by an academic press. I had the luxury of working with great editors, book and exhibition designers, and a brilliant mentor (Maria Hambourg, who was then head of the department), of having the book printed at one of the world’s great presses, and most of all having the reputation and organization of the Met behind me as I sought to assemble what I considered to be Baldus’s greatest masterpieces.
I didn’t go to Princeton setting out to pursue photographic history, but a series of circumstances led me in that direction
Is it important to you that a museum show be accepted critically by the media and popularly by the public?
Sure. Sometimes we like to pretend that it doesn’t matter (usually after a lukewarm review!), but of course you want others to share your enthusiasm for your subject and to feel that you’ve presented it in a beautiful, intelligent, enlightening way.
The percentage of the Metropolitan Museum’s overall attendance attributed to the photography exhibits appears to be growing. How do you propose to boost that audience base further?
Our attendance is growing, for several reasons: the diversity of our exhibitions sends the signal that the Met is a place to come to for the whole history of photography, from its invention to the present day. I think there’s also a demographic factor, that for people who have grown up in the post–World War II period, and especially in the past twenty-five years, photography is an ever-present element of the world, a language they understand, a central piece of the modern art scene. One way we’re expanding our audience is by increasing our presence and visibility within the Museum; in 2007 we inaugurated a new gallery designed specifically for contemporary photography, the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography. That year we also presented a small but exciting exhibition of video and new media, an area that most people didn’t even know we were collecting.
What is most unique aspect of the Met as a place for presenting photography exhibits?
It’s the fact that the Met is an encyclopedic collection of art from around the world and from the beginning of history. We’re very conscious that the photographs we exhibit are just down the hall from paintings by Manet or etchings by Rembrandt or wonders of classical antiquity. Sometimes our acquisition or exhibition choices are colored by those relationships, knowing for instance that a misty woodland scene in the Forest of Fontainebleau by Eugène Cuvelier might be seen by the public a few minutes before or after a silvery sylvan painting by Corot; and at other times, we delight in the fact that photography is part of the history of art but also has its own history, and some of our photographs surprise our viewers because they are so unlike anything else in the Museum. In either case, we know that we are working within a broad, rich, inspiring context. That’s true for any curatorial department at the Met, but quite different from many other museums.
What have been your greatest challenge and your greatest achievement in organizing a photography show at the Met?
Deciding what to focus on, from among all the artists and periods and subjects that interest me and need research and exposure, is always a challenge. But on a practical level, like so many other things, there are the usual constraints of time, space, and money: carving out time for research and writing; space in which to present exhibitions (our special exhibition galleries are shared with other curatorial departments, each with its own needs); and the funding to cover the increasingly expensive costs of organizing an exhibition and publishing a meaningful, authoritative, beautifully printed catalogue. It can be frustrating, but I’m also very aware of the incredible resources—superb collections, and talented staff, dedicated supporters—that we have at the Met. And the stature of the Met counts for a lot, too; securing all the loans for something like our show of Degas’s photographs might have been impossible without the Met’s international reputation for excellence. Greatest achievement in organizing an exhibition? Always the most recent show or maybe the next one seems like the greatest achievement.
Fairly recently, the Metropolitan Museum acquired the Gilman Paper Company Collection of more than 8,500 photographs. What are the treasures within this collection and what is the greatest significance of this addition to the museum? the diversity of our exhibitions sends the signal that the Met is a place to come to for the whole history of photography, from its invention to the present day.
The acquisition of the Gilman Collection was a transformative event for us. In a single stroke— albeit a single stroke that took twenty years to happen—the Met’s photography collection went from respectable with some great highlights to the topmost ranks of photography collections worldwide. The Gilman Collection, which covers roughly the first century of photography, was long recognized as the preeminent private collection of photographs anywhere, setting the standards for connoisseurship in our field and providing many of the textbook examples, as it were, for photographic history. Particularly during the second decade of the collection’s formation, roughly 1987 to 1997, we worked closely with Howard Gilman and his curator Pierre Apraxine to shape their collection and ours so that they would fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In many areas the Gilman Collection alone was stronger than the Met’s collection, and together we now have deep, rich holdings of many of the most important artists of the medium’s first century. As for the specifics, the Gilman Collection is particularly strong in British, French, and American photography of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. There are superb works by the recognized masters of the medium; William Henry Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, and Julia Margaret Cameron among the British photographers; Gustave Le Gray, Edouard Baldus, Nadar, and Maxime du Camp among the French; Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Carleton Watkins among the Americans, for instance. But the collection also includes amazing, unknown works by artists who are unfamiliar even to most photo historians. The same is true for the turn-of-the-century and modernist periods with iconic works by Edward Steichen and Man Ray on the one hand, and wonderful little-known surprises on the other.
the diversity of our exhibitions sends the signal that the Met is a place to come to for the whole history of photography, from its invention to the present day.
With this large addition to the collection, how will your acquisitions program be impacted and differ curatorially from those of your peers at other institutions with large photography collections?
We now have almost unparalleled strength in the first hundred years of photography from the Gilman Collection, but also from the works donated and bequeathed by Alfred Stieglitz that came to the museum in 1928, 1933, and 1949; from the Ford Motor Company Collection of avant-garde photography from between the World Wars, a 1987 acquisition; from the Rubel Collection of early British photography acquired in 1997; and from our many individual purchases and gifts of the past twenty years. Certainly there will be newly discovered 19th-century masterpieces to bring into the collection (I hope so!), but they will be few and far between that rise to the standard of what we already have and meaningfully enrich the collection. So moving forward, an increasing proportion of our acquisitions will be from the post–World War II period, and particularly contemporary photography. We have a lot more work to do there and fortunately we have talented curators who specialize in these areas and wonderful friends and supporters with an interest in them. As far as how our acquisitions program will differ from those of other institutions, I think it’s just natural that it will. Each institution has its own personality; think how different the Met, MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and ICP are from one another, and that naturally inflects the decisions that are made. I also think that as individual curators, each having a different set of interests, different historical perspectives, different tastes, and different passions, we are naturally drawn to the appropriate kind of institution. I feel right at the Met; I enjoy shaping photography within a broader art context and wouldn’t be happy at a museum devoted exclusively to photography or to modern art. So the Gilman acquisition may shape our future acquisitions to a certain extent, but it also fits into an institutional character that was already present, a historical trajectory that was already set.
In a prior interview you stated that the Gilman Collection would now be at the core of subsequent exhibitions at the Met; how do you see these additions from the Gilman Collection in conversation with the contemporary photographic works currently in the collection?
Much of my love of 19th-century photography and my activity as a curator are rooted in a belief that there are lessons to be learned—not just beauty to be appreciated—from the art of the past, and I suspect that that’s also part of what motivates the millions who visit the Met each year. Many early British and French photographers, for instance, believed that the close observation of and spiritual connection with nature as intimate as a flower or as sublime as a rushing, rocky torrent could provide an antidote to the modern ills that attended the industrial revolution. Others found their greatest inspiration in familiar surroundings, family, and friends. Still others thought that the examination of foreign cultures or forgotten times could clarify their own cultural perspective. All of these observations are as valid today as they were then, and many of the issues and ideas present in historic photography are also being addressed by contemporary photographers. I vividly remember visits to the Baldus exhibition by Thomas Struth and Sally Mann, and it’s not hard to see links between Baldus’s work and theirs, not influences necessarily, but visual or intellectual connections. In our contemporary photography installations in the Menschel Hall, we’ve sometimes included works from the past that share ideas with the work of present-day artists. At other times, there are connections to be made between what’s in the modern gallery and what’s shown nearby—our visitors might see a cameraless image of a botanical specimen from the earliest days of photography by the medium’s inventor, Henry Talbot, and then walk a few steps and see an Adam Fuss photogram from 2000—that’s the sort of perspective that you’re unlikely to get elsewhere.
How has digital culture influenced contemporary photography?
In many of the best cases, the influence of digital technology on photography is invisible. It’s a tool, a change in technology like glass plates or roll film. I can’t necessarily tell by looking at a photograph whether it was captured digitally or on film, nor whether it was printed from a negative in an analog darkroom or from a file in a digital lab. But for the photographer, the tools of the computer allow very fine tweaking of the color and contrast, the adjustment of small details and such, and once perfected, it’s exactly repeatable—something that is always hard in the darkroom. In collecting for the Museum, it’s the finished product that we’re most concerned about, not the means of arriving there. We’re not setting out to collect digital photography per se, but it’s obvious that this is where the technology is going, and it’s inevitably becoming a greater and greater part of what enters the collection. On the other hand, I personally tend to steer clear of photographs that scream “digital”—that look like someone playing with a new toy and trying out all the bells and whistles. Mia Fineman, a curator in my department, is organizing a smart, fun, and timely exhibition for fall of 2012: a history of manipulated photography before Photoshop. It’s going to show that so many of the things we associate with digital photography have been around since the 1840s—they’re just easier to do now. I think it’s going to be an eye-opener for many people, and it’s a perfect example of how the Met can cast a new light on contemporary photography by presenting it in the context of a larger history.
From your perspective as the Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, what do you feel is the future of photography?
Hah! Wouldn’t it be great if I could predict the future! The most profound changes in photography’s appearance and role will be the ones that are least expected. Only the predictable can be predicted, and the predictable is rarely the thing that changes history in a revolutionary way. Sure, there’s no question that photographic imagery is ubiquitous, that it is now seamlessly entwined in contemporary art more broadly, that digital imagery increasingly shapes and supplants traditional, analog, light-and-chemistry photography, but the future of the art will be charted, as it has been in the past, by individuals with profound ideas and unique vision. We will only know the future when those artists have done their work, and perhaps not until years later, looking back.
Finally, tell us what you have in store for this coming fall.
From November 10, 2010, through April 10, 2011, we’ll be showing some of the Met’s greatest treasures in an exhibition focusing on three giants of early twentieth-century photography: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. Stieglitz was a photographer of supreme accomplishment. The exhibition includes work spanning his career but with concentrations on his photographs of New York City, his cloud studies and other pictures made at the family compound in Lake George, and—perhaps his most compelling body of work—his photographs of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who he married in 1924 and who he photographed more than 300 times between 1917 and 1937. Stieglitz was also a passionate advocate for the acceptance of photography and modern art, most visibly through his sumptuous journal Camera Work and through a succession of galleries. Steichen and Strand are, in a sense, bookends to that activity. At the turn of the century, Stieglitz held up the work of the young Steichen as the best of artistic photography; he reproduced it in Camera Work and exhibited it in his “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession”—works like Steichen’s iconic images of the Flatiron Building, his photographs of Rodin’s Balzac by moonlight, and his portrait of J.P. Morgan. By 1917, influenced by the Parisian avant-garde art that he had been showing—Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi—Stieglitz was rethinking what a modern photograph could be and was less interested in the painterly, fin-de-siècle, symbolist-inflected works (like Steichen’s) that he had earlier championed, and he found in the work of Paul Strand a directness and graphic power that signaled a new, modernist approach to the medium. Stieglitz devoted the final double issue of Camera Work to Strand’s photographs. The Met has extraordinary holdings of work by all three photographers, primarily from gifts made by Stieglitz beginning in 1928 and by Georgia O’Keeffe.
Simultaneous with that exhibition, my colleague Doug Eklund has organized a small show of work by other artists from the 1910s—a look back to a century ago. Many of the photographs are of a less aestheticized nature and show both the exhilaration and turmoil of the decade that included the first World War. It’s an exciting counterpoint to Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand. Doug has also organized the current installation of contemporary photographs and video in the Menschel Hall, Between Here and There, Passages in Contemporary Photography, which remains up until the spring, part of our ongoing presentation of the art of our own time. It’s an exciting line-up for anyone who loves photography.