MoMA’s New Chief Photo Curator Turns to Studio Photography for First Show

Interview by Conor Risch

© 2014 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Man Ray. Laboratory of the Future. 1935. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Johnson Sweeney.

The first exhibition organized by new Museum of Modern Art Chief Curator of Photography Quentin Bajac opens this weekend in the museum’s Edward Steichen Photography Galleries. “A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio,” features 19th century, modern and contemporary photographs made by photographers and by artists who have used photography in their practices. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition includes work by Man Ray, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, Seydou Keïta, Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper, Lucas Samaras, Julia Margaret Cameron, Cindy Sherman, Walead Beshty, Uta Barth and many others. It also features several film and video pieces.

"The exhibition considers the various roles played by the photographer’s studio as an autonomous space," reads the introduction to the show. "Depending on the time period, context, and the individual motivations (commercial, artistic, scientific) and sensibilities of the photographer, the studio may be a stage, a laboratory, or a playground."

Last week PDN spoke with the former Centre Pompidou and Museé d’Orsay photography curator in his MoMA office. He discussed his decision to spotlight studio photography in his first exhibition at the museum, how current photography trends can be understood by looking at photography at the turn of the 20th century, and his plans for photography at MoMA—including the future of the "physical space of the museum." Bajac’s interview with PDN has been edited.

PDN: Why did you choose to begin your exhibition work at MoMA with a show about studio photography?

Quentin Bajac: Looking at what was happening, especially in the United States today and in New York, a lot of photographers from a younger generation are interested in studio practices. In the ‘90s there was still that strong current of objective, descriptive documentary photography. I think that today there’s a strong current of experimental photography that is interested in the materiality of the image, that is going back sometimes to analogue processes, to experiments in darkrooms, [that is] interested in advertising and fashion in very different ways.

I think it’s really interesting to try to explain the past from what’s happening today. I didn’t know if I would be able to tell that story with MoMA’s collection. I discovered by opening the boxes and looking at the collection online that there were great bodies of work that I didn’t know, and that there was also a possibility that you could write another history of photography that was not only about that documentary, descriptive photography that was for a long time associated with MoMA. There are, in the collection, some works that could take you elsewhere, and that could write another history of photography that would be a history [of photography] done indoors and not outdoors…. There’s a very strong tradition of studio photography in the United States, in the 20th century, and I think that tradition is today being reconsidered by a younger generation.

PDN: What do you think of the current movement of photographers questioning and experimenting with the medium?

QB: I like to try to explain the present with examples taken from the past. At the end of the 19th century you had the arrival of the Kodak [camera] and the Pictorialist reaction to that, with photographers going back to old processes, to painterly images, insisting on Gum bichromate processes, platinum prints, trying really to distinguish themselves from the amateur crowd using the Kodak. In a way it seems that … that the going back of the younger generation to analogue processes, trying to rediscover the materiality of the object at a time when, through the internet, photography is becoming less and less material… is the same kind of reaction. I think today there are some interesting, in a way, neo-Pictorialist works. But there is also something conservative or nostalgic about the evolution of photography.

PDN: Do you feel the volume of imagery now being produced has given rise to a greater number of ideas in photography?

QB: I am not sure, because the greater the amount of images, the more difficult it is to read them. That was a problem that scholars and photographers were facing in the [19]20s and ‘30s. If you look back at some texts written by Siegfried Kracauer or German theoretician [Walter] Benjamin in the ‘20s and ‘30s, they talk about that ocean of new images, that blizzard of images that is due to the arrival of the illustrated press. And they had the feeling that they were not able to read that amount of images. In a way the history of photography keeps repeating itself, just with new techniques. In a way everything was invented in the first 30 years and each generation keeps repeating and expressing new ideas with new tools…. Maybe each generation has that feeling that that new amount of images is going to be difficult to absorb, and yet they do.

PDN: Is it more difficult for curators and editors to find ideas or movements that will endure, because there are so many images out there that you could potentially focus on?

QB: The problem of the generation in the [19]60s and ‘70s was that they did not have access to images. There were great bodies of work that were not known. Today we have too much access, and scholars, historians, critics, journalists, could spend days on the Internet. This makes in a way the physical space of the museum even probably more relevant. Also we must probably find new ways that we haven’t found yet of getting connected to what’s happening on the web, maybe trying also to invent a kind of digital museum that would be a complement of the physical museum and that would not be just a website, that would be something really where we could work with the photographers, we could commission work and have some online portfolios, etc.

Sometimes you have great work online that is not meant to be put on the wall. This is something totally different. What we are more aware of today than we were 15 years ago is that photography is very ubiquitous, that it can take many forms. During the [19]80s and ‘90s it seemed that photographers were wall oriented, thinking of the gallery space and the museum space and producing images that were meant to be framed and seen in that context. I think that a younger generation expresses itself through the internet, though self-published books, and in very different forms, and we museums have to adapt to that.

PDN: Do you see an important place for photographs that have been produced for commercial or editorial use in your programming here?

QB: I think that we probably should be more open to popular culture than we are. This is definitely a fact. I think if you have a look at MoMA’s collection, there is a mix of images. If you take, for example, photographers from Man Ray to Avedon to Penn, the frontier and the border between artistic work and vernacular photography is sometimes difficult to establish, and there are some bridges. That has always been the case in the history of photography. If you have a look at our collection, you have what I would call artistic photography, but you have vernacular photography, [by which] I mean fashion photography, advertising photography, also photo reportage, photojournalism. Not to mention amateur photography, which is also a part of the collection. Right from the start, from Beaumont Newhall’s [first] exhibition here, MoMA has had the idea of mixing these diverse types of photography and has collected photography as a whole. Steichen did that in a way, John Szarkowski did that by trying to reunite all these approaches, and I think that we should go on and continue to collect [photography as a whole]. Having said this, we are a museum that is focused on artistic practices. Considering the evolution of photography, maybe there is, today, a gap which is deeper than 60 years ago between artistic practice and vernacular practice, applied photography. But nevertheless, I think we should go on probably trying to be more open to popular culture and sometimes to do some exhibitions that would address some of the issues of photography that are not directly connected to art.

PDN: To what would you attribute the widening gap between artistic and vernacular photography?

QB: I think it has to do with the way that, from the 70s, photography has been taught and began to be something academic. Both in the way that photographers were trained, and also in the way that scholars were trained.

PDN: You mention that during the ‘60s and ‘70s a lot of great photographic work was missed because of access. Is there an inverse problem now, where great photography is lost in the flood of images? Will it be up to scholars and curators 10 or 20 years from now to look back and assess what’s going on now?

QB: Yes, probably, and that’s something that’s always a little tricky with the museum, because we have to take our time. We don’t have to rush. And yet as you know, the art market urges us to rush and to focus on very young artists. I think we must give the photographers, the artists, a little time. You have to develop. You can do a great series, you can do a few great images, but becoming a real photographer takes a little more time. You have to edit your work, you have to see how it evolves as time goes by. This is always the difficult balance and position to find: stepping back and yet being aware and reactive to what’s happening.

PDN: Is there a distinction between the ideas that artists who identify as photographers explore in the studio and the ideas that artists who are working with cameras explore?

QB: I’m not sure there is. Some people that you would call artists really like to call themselves photographers. Someone like Jeff Wall, who is often called an artist, would say “No, I am a photographer and I belong to that history of photography.” The frontiers are sometimes a little blurry. Photographers would maybe start with what’s in front of their camera and then maybe edit their work in a more intellectual way. Whereas the artist using photography thinks and then tries to in a way illustrate—even if that’s not the right word—their thoughts through photography. I think that could be an interesting distinction. But probably having said this I could find many counterexamples [laughs].

PDN: You mentioned before we began that the best photographs are made from the encounter between an idea or concept and reality, the way the outside world can take a photographer’s idea or concept and change it. How do you see concept being affected by reality in the studio setting where photographers weren’t interacting with the world?

They were working in the studio, but in a way the studio is the world. It is a physical place, which has its specificities. Some of the most inventive studio photographers played with that enclosed space, using it as a stage, as a set, and in a way recreating a world within a world.

PDN: What do you hope visitors will take a way from this exhibition?

QB: I hope they will take away the fact that each photographic image is a construction, that the studio is also about the world, and that photography is about recording and playing with space. You can do that outside of course, but you can do that inside. I also hope that they will understand that photography is a whole, and that artistic practices can have connections with vernacular practices, and these frontiers between portraiture, advertisement photography, artistic photography or scientific photography are really blurry, and artistic photography has always nourished itself from these other practices.

PDN: You’ve acknowledged in other interviews that the photography curator at MoMA is highly scrutinized by the world of photography. How do you think that more specialized audience will receive the exhibition?

QB: I hope they will be surprised. I hope they will discover images they didn’t expect to find in MoMA’s collection. I hope they will understand the fact that I am trying to show that there is another way of writing the history of MoMA’s collection. And that focusing on studio photography is not saying I’m not interested in documentary practices

I hope they will like the way the exhibition is hung, because I did try to have quite a lot of space between the images. I didn’t want to have too many images in each room, so I decided to have fewer images than we used to have in the photo galleries. I hope that they will understand the fact that there are very few texts in the exhibition. In each gallery I chose a two-sentence text that explains the general content of each room, and a quote from one of the photographers included in the show. I really wanted to have the ideas expressed through the images and to make images work together through the way they are displayed.

PDN: It can be argued that photography is the most dynamic and changing art medium today. Would you agree with that?

QB: I think I would. I think that we are going through a very interesting period for photography. I was mentioning that shift at the turn of the 19th century and the changes, and I think we are experiencing one of these big changes in photography. It keeps reinventing itself, and through these constant changes of technique manages to always appear as a young art and a young medium. And I’m in a way still amazed that a young generation is so interested in taking photos; that old art, that old medium. One of the French deputies in 1839 at the arrival of the daguerreotype was talking about a new art in an old civilization when talking about photography. And this new art is now 200 years old and it still appears new and challenging, which is great.

"A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio" is showing February 8, 2014–October 5, 2014 at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019. 212-708-9400. www.moma.org.

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