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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Historian Looks at PhotographsBarbara Confino
Photo by Barbara Confino . Source: courtesy of Barbara Confino
Barbara Confino, "Marilyn Kushner at the New York Historical Sociey" 2015

Marilyn Kushner has the kind of puckish charm rarely associated with libraries. Or with scholars of any ilk for that matter. Yet there she is, in the library of the New York Historical Society, Head of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections where she reigns over 2 million objects, half a million of them photographs.
It is a stately milieu, airy, elegant and decidedly not of this time. Marilyn Kushner, on the other hand, very much is. Her curatorial career has explored the most contemporary domains, (particularly her groundbreaking show, Digital Printmaking Now, mounted for the Brooklyn Museum,) as well as many of the older, established territories one would expect.
A native Chicagoan, she came to New York in the early 90's where she eventually became the head of the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Brooklyn Museum. Then, twelve years later, she accepted her current post at the New York Historical Society, which is where I spoke with her recently.
Barbara Confino: How did it feel coming into an institution that dealt largely with historical work after being more involved with contemporary work at the Brooklyn?
Marilyn Kushner: It has been fun for me. I wasn't really looking to leave Brooklyn but when the opportunity arose to come here, I accepted. It was not just the historical work that attracted me, but the idea of scholarship, of history.
I was an undergraduate double major in history and poly sci. When I discovered art history I almost triple majored. I have always been aware of how art ties in with history, knowing that art is never produced in a vacuum and always has history behind it.
In this respect I am thinking about that work we were looking at earlier, done by Jesse Tarbox Beals in the early part of the 20th century and how perfectly it captures the period.
I am fascinated by her photographs of Greenwich Village in 1913 when the village was bohemian. It became touristy not too long afterward, but then it was bohemian and a lot of young radicals and young thinkers gathered together. Mabel Dodge had a salon down there and many of the great thinkers from that period frequented her salons.
Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals . Source: The New-York Historical Society
Jessie Tarbox Beals, "Dancing at the Purple Pup" 1913

This is the Purple Pup. This was a time when you see these men and women dancing together. And you might say, “So what?” But when you think that their parents are still dancing to Strauss waltzes and are not embracing each other in public yet, all of a sudden you see how truly revolutionary it was that women went out in public and danced with men, having a good time with the men and being very open. This is the time when women let go of corsets and started dressing is looser clothing, the exact time when Isadora Duncan is dancing in very flimsy clothing. I used to think the 1960's were a revolutionary period, but it was all done in the teens.
Even though some artists may not be interested in contemporary events, all of our lives are shaped by the society we live in. So it is fun to be back in an institution where I can pull on our image collections, but also pull on the history of what is going on at the time when these objects were being made.
It is a completely different kind of collecting from the kind I did at the Brooklyn where I collected fine art prints, photos, and drawings. What I collect now is vernacular imagery, street photography, documentary photography, and fine art photography as well. We don't have the stars, but we have some wonderful lesser known or unknown photographers that have been working since the invention of the medium.
Photo by Ray Germann . Source: Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
Ray Germann, "Musician, Bleeker Street"

How does the institution define what is collected at the Society? Some collections have nothing to do with New York City.
The institution was started in 1804 by a group of men who felt the need to start collecting Revolutionary and post Revolutionary documents. Until the Civil War we collected history of the United States in general. Because of that we have prints that document America before the advent of photography.
They started to collect photography in the early 1860's.
It was very prescient of them. We were the only institution in New York collecting anything until after the Civil War—the Met was not founded until 1870— so when anyone at the time had a collection to donate, they gave it to us. That is why we have such diverse work.
After the other institutions were founded, we re-defined our mission as history of the United States before the Civil War, and New York State and, principally, New York City, after it.
Are you empowered to execute your own vision of this department?
Yes. My own vision of what we should collect, though I am not a one person show who doesn't report to anybody. I am in continual conversation with the head of the library and we often talk about what we will bring in. I see a curator's job as very collaborative. If you can't collaborate then just do research.
Photo by Ray Germann . Source: Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
Ray Germann, "Theater District"

How would you define what you do?
Build the collection, take care of the collection, exhibit the collection!
The collection resides in the library and I report to the library, not to the museum. At Brooklyn I didn't bring in these huge collections; here I will bring in 2-300 photographs that belong together, objects that have to be accessed in a different way. I am in constant conversation with archivists, learning this library-speak that I never knew before.
My mission is to build a visual archive of New York between 1950 and my eventual departure. I collect fine art prints but also mundane prints that will show people one hundred years from now what New York looked like. So I am constantly on the prowl to build the collection.
When I arrived here I asked: What are the gaps in the collection? And they said they did not have much past the mid 20th century. So during the past 8 years I have been looking for more contemporary kinds of work. Some have come from amateur photographers, some from well known ones.
For instance, we have been picking up a number of things regarding what went on here in the 60's. That was such a fertile time period and when I arrived we had very little relating to this period. Also, we are developing the 4th floor where we are going to have a women's history center. I am trying to bring in images of women in history, especially the women's movement in the 60's and 70's. So I collect to our needs.
I take care of the collections as well, make sure they are housed correctly, make sure things come in and out of the department smoothly and that we know where everything is. I have a staff that helps me. I deal with archivists all the time, and I am backed up by people who are expert conservators.
And I plan exhibitions.
Photo by Stephan Sommerstein . Source: courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
Stephan Sommerstein, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at the crowd in Montgomery" 1965

I love the Selma exhibit you have on now (Freedom Journey 1965;Photographs of he Selma to Montgomery March), the one the City College student, Stephen Somerstein, photographed.
That student went on to Harvard where he became a very accomplished physicist. Then about five years ago he received a call from CCNY. They asked if he had any of those photographs from the March in 1965.
He said, “I don't think so, but I'll look!” And then he comes up all these amazing photographs. Now he is back doing photography again. So that is the history part of what we do. Some are just documentary photos but others are great photographs as well, like that one of Martin Luther King from the back.
How do you get collections?
I beg and I borrow and I ask. I get phone calls and I return them. I never say no. I always say, Come and show me what you have.
One great example is a guy who said, “I have been taking photos for a long time.” So he came in and it turned out he was a New York City bus driver. Every time the bus would stop he would click his camera and take a picture of what he saw outside. It became so habitual that sometimes he would see the same person along his route. He donated his photographs to us and he still comes to me occasionally with what he is taking. Now that he is retired, he is all over the city.
I can bring in anything that tells me something about the history of New York. My mantra is today's contemporaries are tomorrow's history.
About the Author
BARBARA CONFINO is a writer and visual artist working in video, sound, text, stills, and the web. Her work has been featured in the Brooklyn Museum's ground-breaking show, Digital Printmaking Now, and is housed in such collections as the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Museum Library, the Staatsbibliotek of Berlin and the National Film Board of Canada. Her video, HUM, has been seen in concert in New York's Symphony Space. She is Managing Editor of the New York Photo Review.

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