At the end of this month, The Museum of Modern Art will release the first of a three volume publication on the museum’s extensive collection of photographic art. Covering work made after 1960, the book includes eight thematic chapters, with introductory essays by a range of curators and scholars, and over 250 artists, including Diane Arbus, John Baldessari, Jan Dibbets, Rineke Dijkstra, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Louise Lawler, Zoe Leonard, Helen Levitt, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jeff Wall, Carrie Mae Weems, Hannah Wilke and Garry Winogrand, among many others. Drew Sawyer chatted with Quentin Bajac, The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, about the impetus of the publication and the future of contemporary photography at MoMA.
Drew Sawyer—First of all, the book looks beautiful and has an amazing list of artists and contributors. So, congratulations. But I’m curious to know why you decided to publish a collection book now and if the well-worn criticism of MoMA as “the judgment of photography” played a role in your decision, because the volume actually presents many photographies.
Quentin Bajac—Before even coming to MoMA I had realized that there were very few books around the collection—and those that existed (for example, Looking at Photographs, The Photographer’s Eye, Peter Galassi’s book on American photography) were already quite old, and because of that gave a false idea of the collection—which has changed a lot in the past 20 years or so. It was time to do something else, something different that would enable us to show the collection in its diversity. I would add to that that I had already done collection books at the Musee d’Orsay and at the Pompidou, and that I always think that institutions should do more publications around and from their collections. MoMA has always had a publication strategy that was about publishing not only exhibition catalogs but also books and we should continue and I hope amplify that policy. For me it is really another, equally valuable way to make the collection more visible, alongside the exhibitions and collection displays.
Before even coming to MoMA I had realized that there were very few books around the collection—and those that existed were already quite old, and because of that gave a false idea of the collection—which has changed a lot in the past 20 years or so.
Drew—This book is part of a three volume series that will cover the entire history of photography. Why did you choose to start with Volume 3, post-1960?
Quentin—Three different reasons. First, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of our New Photography series that takes place this fall. As a significant number of the images that are in the book were presented in one of the New Photo exhibitions we thought that was a nice way to pay a tribute to this series that has been, in the past 30 years, the backbone of the Department’s contemporary program. Second, as Glenn D. Lowry puts it in his foreword, we thought it was important to highlight MoMA’s commitment to contemporary artists and photographers—something that I also underline in my introduction-right from the start the emphasis was put by Beaumont Newhall on living photographers and it has remained so since then, even if as time goes by the period that the Museum has to cover has expanded. And then, a third argument, less significant but interesting to note was that, after a conversation with our Publication department, they also thought that the contemporary volume would probably get more attention than an historical one.
Drew—Full disclosure: I’ll be contributing to Volume 2. I’m curious to know your thoughts about the importance of including outside voices in all of the volumes.
Quentin—The idea was to have a diversity: diversity of approaches (from conceptual to straight photography, from experimental to news images etc), diversity of types of photos (prints of course but also a few books, some photo-based works, slide shows, posters), and diversity of nationalities. Diversity of departments represented also; if most of the images come from the photo collection a few of them come from P&S (Painting and Sculpture), Media and Performance, the Library, Prints and Drawings—in that respect it is really Photography at MoMa and not only about the collection of the Photo Department. In that perspective it was important also to have a diversity of voices, from within the Museum (the 4 photo curators), and outside.
The idea was to have a diversity: diversity of approaches (from conceptual to straight photography, from experimental to news images etc), diversity of types of photos (prints of course but also a few books, some photo-based works, slide shows, posters), diversity of nationalities.
Drew—Speaking of diversity of approaches and types of photos, around 1960, where Volume 3 begins, there is a shift in both the uses of photography by artists and the reception of photography as art. Before this, histories often included, out of necessity, photographs made in commercial and institutional settings outside of art—from government sponsored surveys to portrait studios to newspapers and magazines. Do you see a place for these types of photographic practices at MoMA today?
Quentin—It is an interesting question: there is and there has always be a place for these practices at MoMA. As you know, right from the start, Beaumont Newhall included vernacular photography in his 1937 photography show (Moholy-Nagy, an advocate of vernacular photography was part of the scientific committee). And in 1944 there was a show around amateur photography and American snapshots at MoMA. So vernacular photography in its extended definition (amateur photography and what I would call various forms of applied photography) has always belonged to MoMA’s collection. Furthermore we all know that many photographic images in the twentieth century migrated from their original vernacular sphere to the artistic one. Having said this, we also must bear in mind that we have never collected vernacular photography in the same way—meaning as steadily with the same energy and the same depth as we did with what I would call explicit artistic practices. And I think that today pretending that we are writing the history of photography in all its diversity would be wrong. We write a history of photography as an artistic form, which is of course different. But that history does take into account from time to time some non-artistic practices and aspects of photography (photography as a cultural medium, with photo-reportage and advertisement for example) or an anthropological fact (with snapshot photography) in connection or dialogue with artistic forms. There are for example some press images in the Volume 3 included in a chapter around Photography and/as Mass Media. Volume 2 will include more of them—as well as a chapter putting together studio portraits and family snapshots, confronting the gaze of the professionals and that of the amateurs.
Drew—When organizing an exhibition or book, there are often outside limitations imposed on curators. Considering the depth of the museum’s collection, were there any works (maybe additional works by an artist) or another possible section that you would have liked to include?
Quentin—Of course, and this exercise is a wonderfully frustrating one. Wonderful because it is fascinating to be able to write such a complex and rich narrative from the collection, frustrating because there are always some names that are missing, some that you would like to represent with more images, and some that you bought to late to be able to include in the book. And probably also some that we left aside and that deserved to be in the book, and that the next generations will reconsider. We could have also tried to include other parts of the Museum’s collection. For example the Film Department has a huge collection of photos (stills, press, studio shots), that is yet to be explored. I am sure that we could have add another chapter about Photography and film and the relationships between still and moving images for example. Same goes with the Museum’s archives.
Drew—You’ve now been the chief curator of photography at MoMA for almost 3 years. Where do you see the contemporary collection going? Or to put it another way, what are some other stories you’d like to tell with the collection, but maybe couldn’t at this point?
Quentin—The book is also a great exercise because it is an opportunity to reconsider the strengths but also the gaps of the collection and to evaluate was you already achieved and the road ahead. A great work has been done in the past fifteen/twenty years, long before my arrival, by Peter Galassi and the curators, to open the collection to a diversity of practices. We must continue doing that, being even more international than we are : I wish we had more Asian, African and Latin-American photographers in volume 3 for example.