Portrait Photographs of Artists: Interview
Recently, Adam Rozan, Director of Audience Engagement and Nancy Burns, Curatorial Assistant of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, sat down to talk about WAM's current photography exhibition, Portrait Photographs of Artists. Here is what they had to say:
Adam: Do we have other portraits of artists in our collection that aren't on view? What are they? Did you discover anything about these works behind the scenes? Did you find any photos that you didn't know we had?
Nancy: Well the term “artist” was strictly limited to traditional visual artists...though I guess there are a couple architects in there. Still we have an amazing photograph of Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman that would have been fun to show. And I had never seen the Herbert Bayer photograph of Moholy-Nagy. What it lacks in size it totally makes up for in originality for when it was made.
A: How is our photography collection special?
N: WAM was one of the first museums in the country to actively collect photography and have a photography department. We had our first photo exhibition in 1904. Part of the reason we collected photography at all was because Stephen Salisbury, the primary founder of the museum, was an avid fan of photography and a collector himself. He gave us some amazing daguerreotypes and encouraged us to collect more. It is one of the reasons we have one of the best early photography collections in the country.
A: What new photographic techniques or technology are changing photographic portraiture? Is there a new or emerging photographer whose work you'd like to see in our collection?
N: Hmmm. Actually what is popular now is revisiting the past. “Alternative processes”—a phrase I really hate because, I mean, “alternative to what?”—they're very in vogue right now. You see lots of photographers doing cyanotypes or platinum prints, even albumens once in a while. Everything old is new again. As far as what I'd like to see here, I'm a fan of the recent work by Tad Beck out of New York. And even though it isn't “new” I'm completely captivated by the mid-twentieth century photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue right now.
A: How does the fact that these are images of artists change what we see? What dimension does that add to these images?
N: I'm more interested in what it means to see an artist through the eyes of another artist. I mean the photographer is trying to capture something about the artist-subject but we also learn about the style of the photographer in the process. The Bill Brandt of Francis Bacon is a good example of that. And the Arnold Newman photographs have so much horizontality to them...he's perfect to be photographing someone like Piet Mondrian whose own work is so geometrically driven.
A: Do you need to know about art history to appreciate these portraits?
N: Yes and no. I love good composition in photography and many of the photographs are really strong on a formal level. So from that perspective anyone can appreciate the show. But I do think that knowing who Matisse is or who Dalí is probably makes looking at those photographs more interesting.
A: Which photo do you think people might overlook? Why should they slow down and spend time with this one?
N: The Herbert Bayer of Moholy-Nagy. Like I said, it's really small, but very innovative.
A: What was your role in this exhibition?
N: The idea for the exhibition, the checklist, much of the research, and a significant portion of the writing were done by our former Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photography, David Acton. After he left, I picked up where he left off and ultimately hung the show which was an enjoyable challenge.
A: Why challenging?
N: The photographs were chosen by another curator so I wanted to honor his vision but still incorporate an element of my own interpretation of those works. I see the result as a genuine merging of our two approaches. From my side, I think the exhibition was hung in some places with a greater bias toward the overall formal effect the compositions had when placed beside each other, regardless of the nationalities or movements associated with the individual artists. For example there's a Robert Doisneau photograph of Picasso beside a Francis Bacon photograph by Bill Brandt. I don't think they would be an obvious pairing, but I liked the way they spoke to each other visually. But there's also a section of the exhibition mainly devoted to the Abstract Expressionists and presented in a way I think the former curator would have been more inclined to show them. So it's interesting in that respect.
A: How did you get involved in working at the museum?
N: I actually started my career in academia. I taught art history as an adjunct professor for several years at many of the local colleges, namely Holy Cross, Clark, and WPI. There was an opening for a Curatorial Assistant in Prints, Drawings, and Photography at WAM that was actually passed on to me by Chad Sirois, a former Clark student of mine who now works at the Worcester Historical Museum. I thought I was a long shot but I was thrilled to get the job. I love teaching but the opportunity to work directly with original works is a definitely the best way for me to approach my work as an art historian.
A: What's your favorite work at the museum?
N: Well I need to represent for my department so I'm going to choose works on paper and I'm going to have to choose more than one. In prints, I'm really blown away by the set of ten Cassatt aquatints we have and of course I love our incredible Dürer engravings. For a drawing, I'd go with the 1735 pastel we have of Charlotte Philippine de Châtre du Cangé by Charles Antoine Coypel but I'm so in love with this little Oskar Kokoschka charcoal and wash drawing of a Savoyard boy. It's never been on display since I've been at WAM or in recent memory from what I can tell and I really hope I can get it on a wall here someday. In photography, it's a tough choice but I'd say I'm a huge fan of Robert Frank and I love his photograph of the Waitress in Ranch Market, Hollywood that was featured in The Americans. And Dorothea Lange's depression-era photograph of the Migrant Mother is heart-wrenching every time I see it.
A: What's up next for you?
N: I'm gearing up for another photography exhibition of Garry Winogrand's portfolio Women Are Beautiful, opening on August 10th. It's a project I'm really excited about. Winogrand is an interesting character in the history of photography. Generally, people either exult him or condemn him. Photographers love that he revolutionized the genre of documentary photography but art historians criticize what they regard as sexist depictions of women. Critics and scholars have also criticized Winogrand because he didn't really print, edit, or even develop his film by the end of his life.
In the case of Women are Beautiful, the photographs are compositionally fantastic and have an incredible cool-factor. I think Winogrand was the forerunner to the hipster Instagram/Hipstamatic vibe you see all over Facebook. But the criticism this group provokes is its own challenge to negotiate. It's serendipitous that the WAM exhibition coincides with the Winogrand retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMoMA is mainly focused on the unpublished late works by Winogrand. I think the presentation of the Women Are Beautiful portfolio here is a nice compliment to the conversation that has already started as a result of that exhibition.