By Kay Kenny
During Szarkowski’s tenure at MoMA some of the now most prominent curators of our time were interns under his mentorship. Upon retiring in 1991, Szarkowski recalled his camera and began to photograph again—this time the familiar landscape of upstate New York. This work and his earlier photographs culminated in a retrospective exhibit organized by Sandra Phillips at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005. The exhibit has traveled to major museums throughout the U.S., including MoMA, and recently ended its tour at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in September 2006. Now in his 80s, he continues photographing and through his lectures and teaching, challenging the way we look at photographs.
When you succeeded Edward Steichen as the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art it was 1962, you were a young man of 36 who had already received two Guggenheim fellowships, published two books, The Idea of Louis Sullivan, 1956 and The Face of Minnesota, 1958, and had several one-person exhibits of your work. Yet there is no record of you as an exhibition curator. How were you able to acquire the position at MoMA?
The people in charge at the Museum had all done exhibitions, so they knew that there is no special mystery to it, if one knew what to include and what to leave out. Then one must try to make meaning clear on the wall, which is an artistic and intellectual problem. It was perhaps felt that I had demonstrated some artistic and intellectual competence. The museum business was more adventurous and footloose in those days. It is true that a lot of the leading museums in this country were already directed by people who had studied with Paul Sachs at Harvard, but there was also room for people who had gotten their educations in irregular ways. The director of the Museum of Modern Art when I went there was Rene d’Harnoncourt, who I think had a degree in bitumen engineering, but whose artistic education had begun before he learned to crawl. Many people who had played extremely important roles in the museum’s program had not been officially approved for museum work, e.g., Jim Soby, James Johnson Sweeney and Steichen—to restrict myself only to those whose names begin with S. Among colleagues of my own time at the museum, Monroe Wheeler, Arthur Drexler and Dick Oldenburg, among others, were educated in ways that might now seem slightly exotic for one hoping to enter museum work. But that was all long ago. Certainly I would never be asked to do that job today, when there are PhDs in the history of photography on every street corner.
You described to Mark Haworth Booth (History of Photography, Vol. 15, 1991) your job interview with Steichen and Alfred Barr as several moments of silence followed by Steichen saying, “‘Well, Alfred, It’s a gamble’ and Alfred smiled and we all shook hands.” In your three decades at the MoMA you’ve spawned a great number of photographic curators who now run museum departments of their own, and you’ve launched many a photographer’s career, notably the fabulous four: Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander and Eggleston. Do you think your approach to photography, both in hiring potential curators and discovering photographers, owes something to Steichen’s faith in you?
Faith is perhaps not quite the right word. Steichen had many virtues, one of which was that he was a realist, even though he could do a pretty good romantic. He thought, I think, that I was a good bet for the job, or at least the best of the visible lot of candidates. If I had proved him wrong, I trust he would have done the manly thing and tried to persuade the museum to get rid of me and try again.
You were an ardent and obviously accomplished photographer before you went to the University of Wisconsin where you majored in art history. You once referenced working for a local photo studio during that time. Besides discovering the great masters of painting, was that when you discovered the photographs of Ansel Adams and Walker Evans? They seem to have had a profound influence on your own approach to image making.
When I went to Madison at 17, I showed a portfolio to the portrait photographer Frederica Cutcheon, and she hired me on the spot at the truly princely sum, for part-time student help, of 75 cents an hour. I think she hired me because I knew something about the photographic gray scale and had a sense of how to fill the sheet. Certainly she did not hire me for my sophistication, which would have been of no use to her and very possibly a handicap to me. Most of what I liked came from U.S. Camera Annual which was quite a good book and Coronet magazine, which favored photographers from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, ranging from Brassaï and Kertész to conventional pictorialists—people fond of back-lit swans, sailboats in the fog, etc. It was some months later—perhaps the next year—before an art history professor named John Fabian Kienitz told me to stop interrupting and go to the co-op and buy a book, the name of which he wrote on a file card. I dutifully bought the book, which turned out to be American Photographs, by Walker Evans. It mystified me completely, except for the lady in the striped blouse standing in the door of the barbershop, which I could see had some design quality. However since I had paid four dollars for it, I felt obligated to keep looking at it to get my money’s worth, and gradually it improved. Sixty-odd years later it is still improving.
You were known as a “formalist” in your theories about photography. Some have defined this as the relationship of elements within a frame: the shape of the shadows, the depth of tonality, the lines of the planes. These elements define the form, and it is form that defines the content. Is this a description of how you evaluate meaning in photography?
I think many people have a very shaky sense of what artists mean when they talk about form. It has nothing to do with cubes or planes in space or organic looking shapes like those in late Kandinsky; in fact it has little obvious connection with design, as that word is usually used. Rather, it has to do with the relationship between content and container. Think of photography as a kind of container, not like a pail, for example; one cannot carry water in it, but it will hold other kinds of content, and those that it accepts most efficiently and most gracefully are gratefully pursued by photographers who would rather work with their medium than against it. On occasion a photographer of talent—consider F. Holland Day—will decide, for example, to photograph the Crucifixion, which seems to me a project doomed to failure because to stage it persuasively, one would have to break too many serious laws. Frank Lloyd Wright said a very good thing about form: he said that Louis Sullivan came close when he said that form follows function [content], but that in fact they were the same thing. Certainly one cannot change one without changing the other. Or one might say that content is the disembodied idea, the soul, and that form is the physical body, but we know nothing of the idea except what is expressed in the body. Mallarme also said a good thing on this, to Degas, after Degas said that he had some very good ideas for poems, but the poems were never very good. Mallarme said, “But Edgar, that is because one does not make poems out of ideas; one makes them out of words.” I once had a student in the history of photography who asked me, I think more in sorrow than in anger, if it was really true that I was a formalist? I said, “Isn’t everybody?” but I don’t think she was satisfied. But I believe that all good artists are formalists, if the word means anything at all. Only bad illustrators could think that an idea exists prior to its formulation.
You bought your apple farm in 1969 in upstate New York. Now you seem to spend all your time photographing the apples and the land around you. You’ve often been heard to use the apple tree as a metaphor for photography as art when giving talks at museums and universities. It is hard to look at your photographs of your farm without recognizing the reverence you feel for it. Do you believe that you’ve honed your capacity to embody this sentiment into your photography through the study of formalist structure, or do you think this is the intrinsic “equivalent” that Minor White once referenced in an issue of Aperture in an article on looking at photography that described the four kinds of photography: documentary, pictorial, informational and the equivalent?
Our place was never an apple farm. When it was a farm it was a typical 19th-century subsistence farm, run with one team of horses and an amount of hard work that I prefer not even to contemplate. I manage to keep the meadows open and try with indifferent success to keep up with ten apple trees that I have put in, and I do a little grafting on them from old local trees, mostly seedlings, but I am certainly not arrogant enough to think of myself as a farmer. It is true that I love this place, and it is a good subject for me to photograph because I now know it fairly well, and thus know when I have failed to make a photograph that is good enough for the subject, which is of course most of the time. I don’t like to argue with Stieglitz, but the term equivalent has always made me a little uncomfortable. It seems to suggest that the same thing can be said in two different ways, which I doubt; it also suggests that the possible meaning of a photograph is potentially larger or nobler if it can be translated into philosophical or psychological language. As for Minor’s attempt to explain photography by dividing its practitioners into four classes—from peons to priests, more or less—I’m afraid this is merely silly and represents White at his least interesting and least useful.
You recently wrote a book on Ansel Adams to accompany the exhibit “Ansel Adams at 100.” In an interview regarding Adams, you stated that “ . . . it has been impossible for a photographer to deal with the issue of landscape—an issue that has always been important for me—without somehow confronting Adams.” Before you accepted the position at MoMA, you had just embarked on a project examining the wilderness area in Northern Minnesota and Canada, funded by your second Guggenheim. Clearly, the landscape and its use have always been profoundly important to you. Do you see Adams’ influence and a continuity of your approach to land use in your new work on the farm?
I believe that Adams’ passionate dedication to the western landscape—the only subject, I think, about which he deeply cared—was his expression of an intense spiritual need to somehow become part of—to join himself to—a world that was to him sublime. He pursued this grand ambition with workmanlike humility, applying his system to his experience and in his best years making pictures of fierce and original intensity. Neither the grand ambition nor the humility comes easily to us today; we favor—certainly I favor—a less vulnerable posture toward the world. But the high virtue of Adams’ finest work is nevertheless available for our instruction and inspiration.
You stopped making photographs, at least for the public eye, during your tenure at MoMA. Yet you seem to have taken up your camera again and with apparent ease slipped into the stream of your earlier images. Now you have a gallery, Pace/MacGill, and a retrospective of your earlier and current work traveling to several major museums, including MoMA. In the catalogue for the exhibit, you published some of your letters to friends and family. In one there is a quote: “When I was 20, I gave myself 10 years to continue my education; now I want just 10 more and promise myself that from the age of 40, I will not learn a single new thing of my own free will, but will begin to cast it forth again, in a slightly changed form. I come from a long-lived stock and expect at least 40 years after (the age of) 40 to practice that which my education will have presumably taught me.” (March 1955). Do you think that your recent work is the fruit of this foresight?
Photography is the easiest thing in the world, if one is willing to accept pictures that are flaccid, limp, bland, banal, indiscriminately informative and pointless, but if one insists on a photograph that is both complex and vigorous, it is almost impossible. One can, like an unreformed gambler, keep going out, keep trying, hoping that one might one more time be visited by luck or grace and make one more photograph that is exactly right. I did not photograph much or very well during the 29 years that I was at the Museum because I had a job that required my best attention; and if one is to photograph seriously, that also takes one’s best, concentrated attention. It cannot be picked up on Friday night and put away on Sunday—except perhaps by the greatest geniuses or talented beginners. The quote from the letter is obviously an evasion, if not an outright lie; it is like the promise of the drinker who says that for one more drink tonight he will swear off in the morning. But my intention was clear. I meant that I wanted to be a useful and responsible citizen, but please, not quite yet.
There is a sense of walking back in time when viewing your retrospective. That may be partly because so many of the images are from an earlier time before you became Chief Photography Curator at MoMA. However the prints are small, by today’s standards and black-and-white. Even the newest work has a look of vintage prints to a contemporary eye. As you photographed these images and prepared for your retrospective, what thoughts did you have on the overall concept of the show? Was this a formal decision to connect the earlier work so strongly with the later work?
In principle a retrospective exhibition or book is a very simple thing. It is a report on an investigation of what a given artist has made so far that might still deserve consideration. Sandra Phillips and I chose the show together, and our judgments were very, very close. I think there might have been a little horse-trading in the case of three or four pictures, but basically we had the same view as to what should be included. If some larger meaning seems to emerge from that choice, that is a byproduct of the process. I mean that in the case of a retrospective view, one must not decide on the plot first and then illustrate it; one must allow the work itself to determine whether the artist is a fox or a hedgehog. I work in black-and-white because to me it seems less fearfully constricting than color, which seems instantly to rule out—for photographic purposes—so much of what I like to look at. Size is a very interesting problem and deserves a thick book. Big is not bad; consider the pyramids and the elephants. Furthermore, I will say without equivocation that the first pictures that Talbot made with cameras were too small. They were a little smaller than 35 mm contacts, and his wife called his cameras mousetraps. It is hard to do serious work while one’s wife is making jokes about how one goes about it.
On the other hand, I think it would not be unfair to ask the Germans exactly what they think they are achieving by making photographs that seem to compete—at least in size—with Raphael during his Roman years. To my mind something is lost in these gigantic prints. What is lost has to do in part with the fact that photographic materials—especially color materials—are not intrinsically beautiful—not like marble, or tapestry, or bronze, or paint on canvas. They look instead like something manufactured out of petroleum and soybeans in factories that cause serious pollution problems. The traditional solution to this problem has been to make the print—the object itself—invisible. Classic photographic technique is designed to encourage the viewer to look not at the print but through it, and to believe that they are seeing a space with grass or flesh or bricks in it. But this deceit becomes increasingly difficult, as the print gets bigger. A little piece of black, half the size of a fingernail, can be read as a dark place, but if it is made the size of a dinner plate it becomes merely a big piece of black, signifying nothing, and one finds oneself looking at the surface—at the not very seductive physical object. It is also obvious that the size of the print implies the size of the audience. A photograph by Harry Callahan implies an audience of one—one person at a time—who, under the best circumstances, is sitting down and holding the picture in his hands. One can also exhibit Callahan on a museum wall, but it is difficult to get it seen by an audience in the mega-thousands.
An interesting test case might be the pictures made in 2004 by Thomas Struth of the visitors viewing Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia Gallery. It seems to me that these pictures are of interest from a documentary point of view. To be able to study closely, without rudeness, the postures and costumes of a contemporary museum audience is certainly fascinating. However it is not clear that this information need be conveyed in prints that are 10 feet long. The size surely implies that some larger meaning is involved here, some public issue that requires the declamatory rhetoric of mural scale. Many years ago Ray Metzker and the Bechers found an interesting approach to this problem, by making pictures that changed their content as one approached them more closely. In any case the issue of rhetorical wall pictures does not seem important to my own work, at least not at the moment. My work today certainly does not seem to me retrospective. I am not interested in repeating problems that I have solved in the past. I try to make photographs that describe, and I hope at their best embody, what I find most interesting in my life now. I am not much interested in what the market thinks, or what most critics think, but I certainly do not begrudge them their theories and preferences. I think I work now to demonstrate to myself that my own sense of the world is true.
You once said that as an artist, you have an early period and a late period but no middle period? Is that next?
As you doubtless know, Duchamp said that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end—not necessarily in that order. Perhaps I might work for a while longer on my late period, before rushing off to the middle one.
“John Szarkowski: Photographs” is accompanied by a fully illustrated book of the same title, published by Bulfinch Press. The 156-page hardcover volume features an introductory essay by Sandra S. Phillips, SFMoMA’s senior curator of photography, a chronology, amusing and revealing excerpts from Szarkowski’s personal correspondence and 84 tritone photographs.
Kay Kenny is a photographer, writer and a teachesr of photography. www.kaykenny.com
The Corcoran Gallery of Art occupies an unusual place in the federally funded landscape of Washington DC museums and galleries. Surviving as it does: a long-established private institution bobbing up and down through waves of controversy, applause and economic crisis, it is a school and a museum and probably closer to the heart of the Washington-area art scene than it’s heavily endowed neighbors. Now under new leadership, it is poised for change. Paul Roth, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Curator of Photography and Media Arts, is ready for the challenge: his areas of expertise are postwar American photography and the history of film. Politics and art fascinate him. Looking at images: anxiety and discomfort provoke him. The Corcoran, with its privately funded flexibility in this government town seems like the ideal place for this curator.
Your background is a degree in Art History at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Was curating art always a goal?
I first wanted to be a photographer. I was lucky enough to grow up in Tucson, where one of the best high school programs for photography is located at Tucson High School, and I trained there and thought I would become a photojournalist. When I was 18 I looked for work at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, a place I had visited since I was 14, and I was hired to catalog the Edward Weston Project Print Collection. This was an amazing leap on their part, to hire a teenager to do something like that, and it changed my life. I decided to become a curator while working there during the next five years. I’m not sure what lead directly to that decision; I was there because I loved the medium and liked being around pictures. It consumed me. I was able to do many things and had access to their great collections of photography and archival materials, and in time it just seemed obvious that my career would be in curating.
You’ve been with the Corcoran Gallery of Art for over 11 years. Were you a photography intern at another museum prior to that? When did your fascination with postwar American photography grow into a passion?
I’ve worked at three museums. From the Center for Creative Photography I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where I worked for Sarah Greenough as the archivist for the Robert Frank Collection and served as the assistant for the retrospective Robert Frank: Moving Out. After Moving Out was completed I was hired at the Corcoran by one of that exhibition’s curators, Philip Brookman. Between the National Gallery and the Corcoran I worked briefly at the Library of Congress and the Washington Project for the Arts on specific projects. I’ve had incredible luck in that I’ve always worked for great people and had fascinating jobs with great collections. “Learning from the experience” has become the meaning of my life.
The amazing access I had to the work of Robert Frank is what drove me to specialize in post-war American photography. It’s unfashionable to use the word “genius” these days (and he probably doesn’t like hearing this) but Robert really is one. For 4 ½ years I was able to work every day with his work prints, proof sheets and negatives, and to think exclusively about his photography and his books. I began to think of American photo history as it led to him and grew out of his influence. Ultimately my understanding of art, politics and life was affected by his visual legacy.
In addition to your work as a curator, you also teach the history of film and you have organized a number of film series for the National Gallery including “The Films of Gordon Parks,” a photographer who donated 227 of his works to the Corcoran, following an exhibition of his work. Now that we have entered the digital age and high quality DVDs are readily available, do you see more still photographers creating narrative film-like presentations and more collectors turning to film and video as collectible?
A couple years ago I saw a multimedia narrative presentation of still and moving images by an artist while judging work for a grant-making organization. It was an amazing packaging of disparate documentary works on a single subject. Unfortunately I have seen nothing like it since. Some individuals are collecting media arts in digital form, though very few have offered such works as gifts to the Corcoran. I’m not sure whether the number has increased dramatically in recent years, though certainly more artists are making work for presentation on DVD, whether in installations or as projected pieces. The collectors I know of who acquire lots of projected media works are the bravest ones, the ones collecting on the cutting edge, the ones least concerned with displaying the object quality of their acquisitions.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is rooted in Washington DC’s history. As a privately funded museum in 1869, it was founded “for the purpose of encouraging American Genius.” William Wilson Corcoran, the philanthropist whose collection of American Art was the basis of the museum, is reputed to have bought work only from artists with well-established reputations. Today the Corcoran stands in the shadow of much larger government-funded Washington museums. Competition is fierce and photographs from well-established artists have reached the same stratospheric heights as painting and sculpture. Does the Corcoran still adhere to its founder’s dictum of collecting only blue-chip art?
“Blue-chip art” can be interpreted a number of ways: while it seems to generically refer to work of a high quality, it also implies a high prospective investment value, or work by “name” artists, in the sense of “blue chip stocks.” And in that sense we do not acquire only blue chip work, because to do so would violate the very nature of photography, which in my view is a democratic medium. We acquire documentary and vernacular work as well as fine art photography, and we acquire work by younger and lesser-known artists as well as established figures. Both in photography and in contemporary art, collecting means taking risks, and much of the best work in our collection has come because we have tried to remain open-minded and take chances. Having said that, we are currently re-focusing our energies to plug certain gaps in our holdings, and that will mean targeting specific artists and particular works.
We do have many great collections of photography in Washington, some of them vast and encyclopedic in scope, such as those at the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the various museums of the Smithsonian. Because they are here, we do not need to duplicate what they do. And we couldn’t, even if we wanted to. So we try to build our collection and make it better than before.
Considering that photography was in its infancy when William Wilson Corcoran bequeathed his collection to the museum, how did the photographic collection begin at the Corcoran? Was there a major donor who began it with a similar passionate interest in American Photography? According to David Levy, director of Corcoran Gallery for many years prior to resigning in 2005, photography collecting was pioneered by the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman House and the Corcoran. Who were those pioneers at the Corcoran?
While the Corcoran is an important part of the story of the institutional recognition of photography as art, we are not pioneers in the sense that MoMA or the Eastman House are. But we did begin accepting photography into the collection in the 19th century, and we began exhibiting photography during the Pictorialist era. William Wilson Corcoran himself is likely the person who brought the first photographs into the collection. But the real “pioneers” of photography at the Corcoran were the people who made the medium an active part of the museum’s program in the late 1960s and into the 1970s and 1980s: Walter Hopps, Jane Livingston and Frances Fralin. They all did groundbreaking work during their respective tenures at the museum.
The Corcoran also is well known for its School of Art and Design (now College of Art + Design) founded in 1890. Is it a common practice for alumni to contribute to the Corcoran’s photography collection?
The collection does include the work of Corcoran alumni and faculty members. From the 1970s on, the museum has been an important force in the local practice of photography, and it was a natural step to reflect that in our collection. We still do so, though we are particularly cognizant of the potential for conflicts of interest. But to give a recent example, last year we acquired works by Joyce Tenneson that were made during the early 1980s when she worked in Washington.
The Corcoran appears to be undergoing a major shift in direction since 2006 when Paul Greenhalgh was appointed as director and president of the Corcoran. The long touted new addition by architect Frank Gehry has been sidelined, exhibition schedules have been dramatically altered, and there is talk of a return to generating exhibitions from the Corcoran curatorial staff rather than relying on exhibitions organized by other institutions. However, the current exhibitions Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005, both through January 2008, were both organized by other museums. What plans does your department have for fulfilling this new directive?
The Corcoran has and will continue to host interesting traveling exhibitions, just as we organize our own exhibitions and send them out on the road. Both Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005 are examples of shows organized elsewhere that we thought our audiences would want to see. But we’ve been making our own major exhibitions all along and will continue to do so. Under Paul Greenhalgh’s leadership we are changing the way we make major exhibitions, but I don’t think we are planning to ignore other museum’s exhibitions. We are still always looking to see what is out there that fits well with our program, and we are well aware that we can’t organize every type of show our audience wants to see.
We are planning several major exhibitions that involve photography. Right now I am organizing Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power, a survey of Avedon’s portraiture that deals with politics and power. The work included spans his career and the show will be timed to the American presidential election season, opening just after the conventions in Fall 2008 and running through the end of the inaugural in January 2009. Philip Brookman, who is now our Director of Curatorial Affairs, is organizing an Eadweard Muybridge retrospective for 2010. And a team of our curators is working on a sweeping survey of Postmodernism for 2011, which will include many photography and new media works.
Where will you turn to for these new curatorial initiatives? What feeds your curatorial imagination?
I’m really interested in the intersection between photography and politics, and in the ways that photographers use the medium to reflect the social world. I’m not sure if I developed this interest from being in Washington, or if I came here because this was the perfect place to view the medium through this filter. Working on the Robert Frank archive at the National Gallery, in a building near the U.S. Capitol, was certainly an influence. Seeing how artists think when installing their work in the Corcoran, which is a few hundred feet from the White House, has been an ongoing revelation. Context is so important: we always think about how images reflect the country — and its people, its promise and problems — when considering our exhibitions.
You are a photographer as well as a curator. Your work was included in the Crosscurrents series at the University of Maryland in the 2004 “Room Full of Mirrors.” The 14 artists in the exhibit were described as ‘using the collage aesthetic; incorporating various methods using chance and accident to allow creativity to work through them not from them.’ You have also been involved in a grass roots organization of Washington area artists WPA\C that until recently was part of the Corcoran Museum. You have juried exhibits for many organizations. Clearly, you have a pulse on the kind of work being generated by contemporary and as yet unheralded photographers. What trends do you see there?
Well, interestingly, I don’t feel all that “in touch” right now! I’ve been buried under the work I’m doing on the big shows we have scheduled. But when I do have time to look at new work, I’m really interested in how photographers are evolving their representation of capitalism and its discontents. Gursky’s rational re-orderings of the middle class world of consumption and power are giving way to more explicitly political visions like Chris Jordan. I’m also seeing more work I like that seems suffused with a blanket of anxiety, like that of Amy Stein, Noelle Ta, and Kate MacDonnell, all of whom have roots here in D.C. And I am interested in the ongoing return to earlier photographic processes in the face of the medium’s eclipse at the dawn of digital.
You were also part of a panel discussion, “The Artist’s Responsibility in a Political Environment” that reflected on the role of the artist as a political pundit and activist. Documentary photography has a long established place in political activism but what about the new photography where lines are blurred between the real and the created?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I have to say that I think most fictional, performative and theatrical work is really boring. It is, I think, the most overrated avenue of photography I can think of. Most of the work I see shows just how hard it is to make a single image out of set design and stage direction — usually the work people praise is incredibly awkward, emotionally empty and totally unrevealing. I am kind of fascinated by own negative response, though, and I want to investigate this work more so I can see why I reject so much of the work I see. I recently got Lori Pauli’s exhibition catalog from her show at the National Gallery of Canada, Acting The Part (Merrell, 2006) so I can learn more about it. Maybe it will temper my attitude.
The Corcoran’s Director Paul Greenhalgh was quoted in a Washington Times interview as saying: “This institution should be a think tank. We’re not in the business of pleasing people; we should also challenge and educate.” With that in mind: what would be your ideal exhibition?
My ideal exhibition is a survey of the medium through the notion of the uncanny, first defined by Freud as the state where something is both familiar and foreign at the same time, resulting in profound discomfort and anxiety. This show would look at photography’s history as a vehicle for exploring what lies beneath the visible: the uncomfortable truth below the pleasing, understood and well-ordered surface. My favorite photographs are the ones that destabilize our consciousness rather than confirm what we think we know.
Any plans for that in the future?
Well, fortunately yes! That show is tentatively scheduled at the Corcoran for 2011–12. If all goes well it will be the next big show I work on after Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is located at New York Avenue and 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Please see the Gallery’s website for hours and admission fees.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Photography Curator Sandra Phillips
By Kay Kenny
Sandra Phillips is Senior Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an institution that has dynamically supported and collected photography since its opening in 1935. Phillips received a B.A. in art and art history from Bard College in 1967 and an M.A. from Bryn Mawr College in 1969. She earned a Ph.D. in art history in 1985 from City University of New York, where she specialized in the history of photography and American and European art from 1849 to 1940. Phillips has written and lectured widely on photography and is the author or co-author of several books and catalogues. Her recent exhibitions include: “John Szarkowski: Photographs”; “Diane Arbus Revelation”; “Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence”; and “Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation.” Despite the globalization of media and the arts, regional differences are a curious reminder that a sense of place still informs our imagery. Sandra Phillips has an unusual vantage point having grown up with the New York’s MoMA and overseeing the photography collection at SFMOMA.
All of your university degrees, including your Ph.D. from the City of New York, are in art and art history where you specialized in the history of photography along with American and European art from 1849 to 1940. Did you have a primary mentor for the study of photography’s history at that time?
No, but I grew up in New York and loved museums, and I consider myself a student of the work shown at the MoMA. In fact, I remember seeing the show, “New Documents.” I remember seeing the Arbus pictures because I went with a friend, and she thought it would be fun to go. I remember seeing a man spit at some of the pictures in the show.
When did you gravitate towards photography as a field of study?
I come from a family of art people -my dad was an architect, my mom a landscape architect, and I thought I would be a painter, so when I went to school, that’s what I studied. But I became more interested in looking at art, and it seemed really interesting that no one was then taking the history of modern American art really seriously -this was in the 60s. And then when I got more involved in modern American art, it seemed that one of the major contributions was in photography, which was even less studied, and that intrigued me even more.
Under the direction of curator John Humphrey, SFMOMA was one of the first museums to recognize photography as an art form, over 70 years ago. Can you tell us what initiated that recognition and began the process of creating the SFMOMA’s photography collection in 1935, the same year that it opened? Was there a special collection donated to the museum at that time?
The San Francisco Museum of Art, as it was then called, was founded by a group of wealthy local individuals. You realize that San Francisco became a city very suddenly when gold was discovered, so everyone in the world was interested in San Francisco, and the 49ers were here and many of them used the services of the daguerreotypists to send records of their recent fortunes back home. There has been a very strong interest in photography here since the 19th century–remember Carleton Watkins, Muybridge, and others used this as their base. There has never been a tradition of important art created here -that is relatively new, but when the museum was founded in the 30s there was an impressive range of important photographers he could own or lease. This might include tents, caves, pictures made within buildings, etc. He is still an active collector, and I tease him that we’re planning the Return of the Paul and Prentice Sack Collection.
SFMOMA recently received another significant donation from the Emil & Silverstein Collection. What distinguishes this collection from the Sack collection?
This is a very different collection. I would describe the pictures as psychologically informed. It is historical, but the emphasis is on work of surrealist inflection produced in the 1930s and the present. The pictures are also in their own way very personally meaningful to their owners, in a very different way from
the work in the Sack collection.
SFMOMA prides itself as having from the first, viewed photography as a modernist art form. Its collection of over 15,000 prints is known for it’s early American and European modernist photographers as well as Western American Landscape photography. How does modernist photography differ from contemporary photography? Would you define photography in the same terms today as in the days of your predecessor, Van Deren Coke, who established the department of photography in 1980?
I would define modernist photography as photographs which aspire to modern art, and which were made by Americans and Europeans in the 1920s and 30s, essentially. Since I came to the museum, in 1987, I have enlarged the scope to include 19th century and have emphasized our tradition of landscape representation. Coke thought about photography in terms of modernist art -I believe the concerns of contemporary photographers are related but different.
In 1980 the exhibit “California Photography 1945-1980” examined the aesthetic and history of photographic image-making unique to California. Do you think there remains a special sensibility that divides West Coast from East Coast photography?
First, I had nothing to do with the California show, but yes, I would generally say that in the west there is an abiding interest in land use and land issues, which is not generally shared by photographers or audiences for photography in the east.
In California today, what influences define West Coast photography?
There is more of an understanding of Asia here.
Before coming to SFMOMA in 1987, you were the curator at Vassar Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York. Did your experience at Vassar provide you with a heightened sensitivity to women photographers?
Not really, I was there for about a year. But in general, photography has provided women with opportunities not so obvious or available in other fields.
You have organized exhibits and written numerous essays on women photographers, most notable Dorothea Lange in 1994 and Helen Levitt in 1991. Your essay “Women Artists in California & Their Engagement in photography” appeared in the book Art/Women/California 1950-2000. What special concerns faced women photographers in the past, and do you believe that many of those photographers may still be undervalued?
If you mean monetarily undervalued, I suppose you could say that, but this is an aspect of the field that really doesn’t interest me too much. The “concerns” that women faced in the past are ones they -we -face today. If we are mothers who need to work, how do we do this? That is probably the most obvious difference.
There is an interesting story about one of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photos, a migrant farm worker named Florence Thompson. As Lange’s photo gained wider recognition and value, Florence and her children came forward, angry that neither monetary compensation nor a copy of the photo were ever given to them. You recently organized the Diane Arbus exhibit, another controversial photographer often accused of exploiting her subjects. How do you address this issue when the subject comes up?
Well Lange worked for the government, she had a job, and her photographs were made to serve a purpose, one that she very much believed in; then the times changed. I do not think she would have said she was exploiting her subjects. And frankly I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that Arbus “exploited” her subjects either, they look very interested in her, as much as she in them. When she was making these images, they were very new, very raw material. I don’t think you would see anyone today spitting on her photograph of a young man in curlers, as I saw in the MoMA exhibit “New Documents.” I think we’ve become more tolerant, as a culture.
Documentary photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, never anticipated their work on a museum or gallery wall. Their photographs told a story meant for the printed page of national magazines. It seems that today’s documentary photographers anticipate a museum or gallery exhibit along with a well-designed coffee table book. Do you think that the nature of documentary photography has changed to appeal to a more limited audience?
Photography has changed technologically, and the ambition of certain photographers has changed, I think that is the way I would put it. Someone wise once said that the process gets easier but the number of important photographs remains the same. There is a lot of indifferent work being made, but some very interesting work as well.
Many of the snapshots of today, along with the news photos of our time, are in digital form. It is very likely that no “paper trail” will exist in the future for these kinds of images. The history of fine art photography is filled with images that were never intended to be considered fine art. Is this concept lost forever to future collectors and curators?
If so, maybe that is not such a bad option -look at all the bad stuff out there, and consider all the time needed to sort out the good from the dull.
You’ve spent a good deal of research time at the Vatican Photography Collection and recently received a Getty fellowship to return to Rome and continue your research. What special fascination does
this collection hold for you?
It’s mainly unknown work by unknown photographers from all over the world.
With John Szarkowski, you organized a major retrospective on Ansel Adams, in 2001, then curated a major retrospective of Szarkowski’s photographs that recently traveled to the NY MoMA. What’s next for SFMOMA? Any future plans for another major retrospective such as one on Van Deren Coke?
My next big project will be on voyeurism and surveillance. I’m working on a big exhibit about things that are forbidden to be photographed: like violence and death and sexual images. It is also about how we are watched and our ambivalence about photography. It is about a culture that is ferociously looking at images that are taboo.
SFMOMA is located at 151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets) San Francisco, California. For general information call (415) 357-4000 or visit www.sfmoma.org.
Kay Kenny is a photographer, writer, and teaches photography at ICP, NYU and SHU, web: www.kaykenny.com, e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.
ICP Curator Brian Wallis
The International Center of Photography’s modernist street-level museum is a glowing new addition to the corner of 43rd Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York City. Across the street a glass pavilion marks the entrance to the School of the International Center of Photography. Just one block east of Times Square, this ICP campus is a nearby neighbor to the New York Times and the New York Public Library, apt colleagues for an organization that began its life with a program based on reportage photography. The “new ICP” museum opened in 2000 after outgrowing the neo-Georgian mansion that it had occupied since 1974 at the northern end of Museum Row on Fifth Avenue. Brian Wallis joined the museum as Director of Ex- hibitions and Chief Curator in 2000, the year that marked this shift, an expansion not only in location but also in vision, as the museum expanded its exhibition program and joined with the George Eastman House to collabo- rate on exhibitions and publications. Wallis was formerly a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (1982-88) and Senior Editor at Art in America (1989-1996). Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, a book he edited in 1984, is still a part of university syllabi. On the surface, his background sug- gests a remarkably different view of photog- raphy than that propounded by ICP founder Cornell Capa and the original organization Capa developed out of the International Fund for Concerned Photography. In the corner conference room, with a clear view of the Em- pire State Building and the ICP school across the street, we discussed these issues.
You’ve been a critic, an educator, and a writer on art and cultural studies, as well as a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. You have a degree in art history and you are working on your doctorate in American Studies. Meanwhile, as the Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator at the International Center of Photography, you oversee a museum whose collection is largely based on photojournalism. Do you see a melding of documentary photography with the kind of critical discourse that has so often been the focus of your writing and curatorial projects ?
No. My interests in theories of postmodernism and specifically in contemporary critical art theory since the early 1980s have depended a lot on questioning certain presuppositions regarding the nature and social uses of representation, particularly as those form political attitudes or fictions. And central to that questioning or counter- narrative was the whole field of photography, including the photographic vision that emerged as a dominant component of modernist culture. So, even though the object of my focus was contemporary art, most of the artists that I was engaged in dialogue with were actually conducting sophisticated interrogations of photography, even the history of photography. For example, artists like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, even Hans Haacke, offered very interesting new perspectives on how to think about photography and the way that it represents, or misrepresents, the world.
Before you began working at the New Museum, you were at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. When was it that you began to develop your approach to photography as a medium for cultural studies?
I was just out of graduate school when I worked at the Guggenheim and at the Modern. I was interested in understanding modernist and contemporary art, but I think that my interest in photography probably grew during the period that I worked at the New Museum. My first project there was working on a book called Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, which was an anthology of contemporary art theory, including the work of many critical writers who were my contemporaries. Much of their work investigated theories of photography and provided a perspective from which to examine the way photography functions – and has functioned historically – as an agent in social formations. For example, the writings of Allen Sekula, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and other writers closely associated with October magazine – including Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Benjamin Buchloh, and, of course, Rosalind Krauss – were very important to me at that time.
In the 1980s the New Museum was very much a center for the downtown art scene and many of the exhibitions there reflected a kind of edgy, concept-driven, socially reflective art that has now moved uptown into the larger art institutions. How do you see ICP’s reverence for documentary photography incorporating these ideas? Or do you see documentary photography itself changing in its projection of the society it mirrors?
Well, that’s a multi-leveled question, based on thea ssumption that ICP is still focused primarily on documentary photography and on a static or conventional view of documentary photography at that! Not only is documentary photography changing, and changing radically as it’s practiced today, but our conceptions of documentary photography and the historical basis for it are also changing at ICP certainly, but elsewhere as well. Just to take one example, you might consider “The Body at Risk: Photography of Disorder, Illness, and Healing,” an exhibition recently organized by Carol Squiers at ICP. This was a revisionist survey of documentary photography, both historical and contemporary, that brilliantly showed the ways artists and photographers are transforming the uses of documentary photography as a form of social activism. Now, this is in some ways the logical legacy of Cornell Capa’s concept of “Concerned Photography,” by which he meant a partisan approach that sought to use documentary photography for social change. “The Body at Risk” even used some of Capa’s key concerned photographers, such as Lewis Hine and W. Eugene Smith. But Carol brought the questions Capa raised up-to-date by showing how documentary photographers continue to investigate social issues that are often otherwise invisible, even when the technical formats of photography and its means of distribution have changed fundamentally. It’s not so much a focus on a particular style or format, but an attention to photography as the appropriate means to critically address social and political issues that distinguishes this type of documentary photography. On a theoretical level, I think the underpinnings of the presumptions about documentary photography and its supposedly objective relation to the exterior world have been pretty much eroded or challenged. That has allowed for a more ambivalent or ambiguous form of documentary photography that often involves a highly subjective, first- person engagement or the supplement of non- photographic information, such as written text or oral histories, to amplify and maybe even challenge the singular vision of the photograph itself.
How would you characterize the ICP approach to collecting photography today as opposed to it’s formative years when Cornell Capa’s ICP predecessor, the International Fund for Concerned Photography, formed the base for the collection and the beginnings of the museum in 1974?
Well, my understanding of Cornell Capa’s original approach to the International Center of Photography was as a kind of study center, a locus from which exhibitions and educational programs would emanate. Our current director, Buzz Hartshorn, has greatly expanded, creatively updated, and throughly professionalized that initial vision. But, of course, the status of photography was very different in 1974, when Capa founded ICP, and it was incumbent upon him to adopt a kind of missionary or promotional attitude toward photography. His goal was to try to get viewers to see photography as important in its own right and not just as a record of historical or social events. In a way, this mission was similar to the advocacy position of other upstart museums, like the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s, when it sought to get a skeptical public to understand and appreciate modern art. Capa’s unique focus was on photography, and not so much the aesthetics of photography but its social role. He began forming a collection of photography at ICP not as much to document the history of the medium as laid down by Beaumont Newhall and others, but more to honor the work of photojournalists he admired – including Henri Cartier-Bresson and his own brother, Robert Capa – and to support his ideas of the uses of photography in society. I think in the beginning the collection was comprised of materials that were useful to making those points in exhibitions, in books, and in teaching, which were the forms of outreach that ICP practiced. The collection that Cornell formulated with the active assistance of curator Miles Barth grew to become the most comprehensive collection anywhere of twentieth century photojournalism. We have substantial archives of the work of Robert Capa, Cornell Capa, David Seymour, Roman Vishniac, and Weegee. But it includes many, many other great things as well – in all, over 120,000 photographs, from 1839 to the present. Today we’re interested in adding to our great strengths in photojournalism and documentary photography, but also exploring some other areas of photography and photographic history. For instance, we have developed a substantial collection of contemporary photography, including great work from our recent shows focusing on China and Africa. Christopher Phillips also initiated a key collection of photographically illustrated magazines from the nineteen- twenties and thirties, the predecessors of Life magazine. These publications are valuable because they show the context in which so many of the early documentary photographers and photojournalists intended their work to be seen. They weren’t taking photographs to be exhibited in galleries or museums, they were intending them for publication. Now those magazines are increasingly rare and an invaluable part of photographic history. We’ve also extended the institutional interest in documentary photography to a wider range of photographic approaches, including vernacular photography, commercial photography, and personal photography – approaches that Cornell Capa always showed an interest in but never actively collected.
A recent exhibit at ICP titled “African American Vernacular Photography: Selections from the Cowin Collection” documented the history of African Americans from the 1850s to 1940s mostly through family snapshots and portraits taken by local studio photographers. Do you see documentary photography as more of a cultural artifact than a the product of a single individual’s reﬂective eye?
The last part of your statement is provocative. But, yes, I think all photographs are cultural artifacts, a form of material culture. That’s certainly an important and useful way to look at photography. And I think that artifactual aspect explains some of the reason why people are so interested in the concept of “vintage” photographs today. There is something very tangible and exciting about handling the original historical artifact
– whether it’s a photograph or any other sort of document – rather than a later copy of the same thing. That direct connection to the historical moment goes well beyond what image the itself conveys. For example, we just received an extraordinary donation of photographs from Time-Life, which includes many of W. Eugene Smith’s original photographs for his classic photographic essay, “The Spanish Village,” published in Life magazine in 1951. When you look at those pictures and turn them over, there are all the stamps from the original publication, and handwritten captions and so forth. The inestimable value of an artifact like that is that it not only provides a window on the wider social context governing the picture’s usage but also that it takes you back to the immediacy of the specific moment of its creation and circulation. In a broader sense, I think people are now increasingly interested in the vast submerged iceberg of photographs that were not created for exhibition or for strictly aesthetic purposes, but which may have been taken for personal or legal or professional reasons – snapshots and commercial photographs, documentary records of businesses or occupations or events. And this whole genre of photography that people are now referring to as vernacular photography, is, I think, the great folk art of the twentieth century. It’s the people’s expression of the texture and experience of everyday life in the modern era, as opposed to the more rarified and sophisticated or even dandified versions that you see in high art photography. To me, it’s an immensely exciting and rich field that at this point is wide open for exploration. As for the particular exhibition you referred to, it just so happened that in 1990, a far-sighted trustee of the International Center of Photography, Daniel Cowin, donated this astonishing trove of images of African American life that he had acquired, some 3,000 images. To my mind, it is one of the great treasures of the ICP collection. In this exhibition it was tremendously exciting to consider the images as part of a largely unwritten cultural history. But it was also an extremely rich aesthetic experience to look at these photographs that were not taken with aesthetics as the primary motivation. Each picture revealed in various ways new perspectives on how the camera shapes and focuses visions, records certain kinds of activities and not other kinds, and establishes relationships between photographers and sitters through the conventions of genre and pose. All these questions are very different when you’re talking about the highly self- conscious high art photography versus the more particular and functional but equally exciting vernacular photography that was included in this show. Of course, there is also a profundly political social history that underlies and circumscribes every thought and gesture in these pictures, which are, on one level, a stark and highly nuanced visual record of minority culture’s attempts to deal with a racist – or at least oppressive – society around them.
In another interview you referred to the shock of the familiar. Do you think that’s still true? Were you were referring to snapshots?
Well, I don’t think I would have been clever enough to say “the shock of the familiar.” But that’s a good phrase. Anyway, I am increasingly excited about people looking closely at photographs – well, pictures of all kinds, but especially what might be called “common” photographs. One of the goals of the “African American Vernacular Photography” exhibition was that we hoped it would be about close viewing of a small selection of essentially anonymous photographs disengaged from their original historical and social contexts. To prepare for the exhibition we brought to bear on these seemingly ephemeral or insignificant images all the historical research methodologies that one could possibly apply to any object of historical significance. We tried to find out everything we could about the photographers, the sitters, the dating, the historical circumstances, and consider their implications. This was not idle research. We wanted to try to get the viewer to slow down and to look more closely at the pictures, to examine them, to understand them, to think about their original purposes and their current ones. That kind of close,
Robert Capa, Omaha Beach, Normandy coast, France, June 6, 1944, © Cornell Capa critical, trans-disciplinary examination is always tremendously rewarding, and really is what art history or the history of photography is all about: encouraging a way of reading images that helps people understand better their own lives and culture.
Your anthology Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation is a seminal work on contemporary art criticism. Following the digital revolution, do you think many of the viewpoints in the book, written in 1984, would be radically altered if written today?
I see that book as an early attempt to articulate a set of cultural and critical problematics that defined the concept of postmodernism, which I think remains a valid historical demarcation. The historical break that occurred in the early 1960s was overtly manifested in various kinds of social change, but perhaps more lastingly in certain profound conceptual shifts instigated in the fields of critical theory and avant garde art practice. My personal feeling is that what you’re calling the digital revolution is part of the response to this radically transformed view of culture and how it functions. For example, many postmodern theorists challenged monolithic definitions of history for both structural and political reasons, and offered instead more relativistic or overlapping or molecular genealogies of historical processes. At the same time, they sought to reaffirm suppressed or overlooked histories or points of view. Among other things, this involved a vast reconsideration of how knowledge is organized and deployed, what Foucault called an “archaeology of knowledge.” Our current theories of digital or electronic languages largely came out of that refabricated view of how information is stored, understood, communicated.
The ICP has always supported the publication of photography books, such as the book you edited with Grant Romer, Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes, from the exhibition that grew out of the alliance and collaboration with the George Eastman House. ICP also recently forged a new partnership with Steidl Publishers in Germany. Can you comment on the growth of photographic books and their importance in museum collections?
The ICP collection includes many examples of photographically illustrated books, and we have a library across the street with 15,000 photographic books and its own rare book collection. We have also done several exhibitions on photographic books and publications, including last summer’s The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present, which we did with Steidl. So the information on the history of photography and the study and dissemination of photography through books is very important to our program and to our partnership with the George Eastman House. I suspect that the library of the George Eastman House has the greatest collection of photo books and photographic literature in the world. We showed an exhibition of photographically illustrated books from their collection, organized by their superb librarian, Rachel Stuhlman.
Do you think the recent trend towards
DVDs and web pages of photographic images will eclipse the printed image?
Well, I’m thrilled by the phenomenal advances in information storage and retrieval. That is what made our Southworth and Hawes catalogue raisonne possible. But there’s still something uniquely satisfying about books as hand-held objects. And one thing that Steidl has undertaken is the republication of a number of classic photographic books, and it’s a pleasure to go back and look at those again.
Your most recent exhibition, “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” is curated by Okwui Enwezor. As the curator of Documenta 11, he introduced a radical shift from previous Documentas, emphasizing a more global view in both his choice of artists as well as in his politics. You reviewed his work in an article in Artforum in 2002. Do you see his approach of incorporating global politics, collaborative art collectives and partnerships and symposia as a trend away from the art institution as we know it? If so, is there a place for aesthetics in this trend?
Documenta 11, which Okwui organized in 2002, was, to my mind, a path-breaking exhibition. And, beyond the exhibition itself, it also involved various platforms or symposia that took place on different continents, generating discussions not only about art practices but also about local political and cultural issues. I thought that was an extraordinarily valuable approach to – or deviation from – the conventional exhibition that is located at a single specific site. I am very interested in ways of expanding the capacity of the museum to reach out to various audiences, and I thought this showed one important way to do so. The whole project was doubly important because it fore grounded critical issues pertaining to global politics or globalism, raising cultural hybridity and cultural migration as key concerns in contemporary artistic practice. These were topics we also tried to address in our 2003 ICP Triennial, called “Strangers,” which was, in part about global questions of personal and cultural identity as reflected in the work of many contemporary artists. I don’t think that there’s a discrepancy between those approaches and aesthetics so much as an amplification of the role of art, in which aesthetics is not jettisoned but it’s just one of an increasingly large tool kit that artists and curators have to call upon. Okwui is a very inventive curator who is always looking for new artists, new ways of art making, and new ways of thinking about exhibiting and circulating that work – and who doesn’t shy away from the political meanings or consequences. I was thrilled when he agreed to join our staff as adjunct curator, and to organize this exhibition – the first of several exhibitions that he is planning for us.
The International Center of Photography is located at 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street in New York, NY. For general information call (212) 857-0000 or you can visit www.icp.org.
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