MoMA, Selfies and Photography Today A Conversation with Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography at MoMA and Barbara Confino, Editor of the New York Photo Review PART I Barbara Confino
Gentille is the French word for people like Quentin Bajac: polite, kind, unassumingly charming. A slender, elegant man eager to engage in dialogue, the tautness of his mind echoed in his body, he leans forward with the effort to articulate his insights precisely. Someone who has thought long and hard about his subject, he wants to make sure he has got it right. For the past 3 years MoMA's Chief Curator of Photography, Bajac brings to this American citadel of modernism European credentials, a French education, and Gallic acuteness. At a time when the medium is undergoing radical innovations in the ways photographs are made, viewed, stored, and considered, he must decide what is important and worthy of preservation at MoMA and what is not. Recently we sat down in his office to talk at length about these and other issues the medium and the museum are facing.
Barbara Confino: Today the whole medium has been transformed: technically, financially, and esthetically. But photography does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of the larger social context and reflects both its current state of technology and values.
Quentin Bajac: In the past 20 years, we have experienced the shift from analogue to digital and the cursor of how we do a photograph has moved. We are now entering into a kind of post-production age. In the past the key moment was the shooting, and, of course, the printing part of the process. Now you have more and more photographers and artists using found images, who are not taking images anymore, and you have another, larger category that still do the shooting, but retouch and in a way post-produce their work. It used to be mostly a mechanical process, but paradoxically we are going back to the hand. Even though we are moving into a more and more technical age, through the digital process you re-inject a kind of manual intervention.
BC: Something has shifted as well in the overall sensibility of society since the days of Cartier-Bresson, for instance. Narcissism along with a preference for artifice has surfaced with endless images of simulacra of all kinds—— toys, dolls, miniature sets. Why do you think that is?
QB: Yes, more images look like surrogates. This has to do with not only the way the medium is evolving but also with the way the world is evolving. You have this kind of plastic surgery of the world. More and more photographers are perfectly aware that maybe 20 or 30 years ago they could grab a kind of surface of things as Avedon would put it, but that is getting more and more difficult because that surface is getting less and less material. In a way the world itself is getting more artificial. So this has not only to do with the medium with a kind of evolution of the world.
BC: The great era of the document seems over and formerly marginalized areas are now center stage. For years Julia Cameron's staged pictures were disdained, were almost an embarrassment, and Claude Cahun's self-portraits largely forgotten, but now these styles are in fashion. Are there other neglected photographic styles that were out of step with their times you think ought to be recognized?
QB: I have the feeling that photography has had a kind of stammering, cyclical history that keeps repeating itself. If you look at the beginning of photography in the first 20 years, 1840's, 1850's——right from the start you have very different methods of taking and making photos and you could say that everything is invented in these first twenty years. Afterwards, with each new technique, each generation reinvents the medium, giving it a new impetus or new use. Every 40 or 50 years—maybe less now- you have that kind of revival and this is why photo keeps appearing as a new medium. This is part of the specificity and attraction of photography. You have that at the end of the 19th century with the arrival of the Kodak technique and its new democracy of images. You have it also in the 30's, 40's and 50's with the arrival of color photography that brings a new mass of amateurs into photography, and you have it again with the shift from analogue to digital. Right from the start you have photographers that rely a lot on technical apparatus and others that rely less and try to re-inject the hand in the process.
BC: With I phone photography, we have arrived at the age predicted by Moholy-Nagy who said that photography would become the new literacy. Unlike many who are alarmed by this, I see it as an opportunity. How do you feel about the ubiquity of the photograph today?
QB: Thanks to the digital revolution, photography is a very ubiquitous medium. For example, Instagram. Everyone talks about 'selfie'. Is selfie different from the self-portraits in the past? Maybe not and yet there is probably something that is different. The fact that you send, that you put online, that you communicate immediately with that image, that it is a social image in which you stage yourself with a kind of social ease is important. This is a dimension that self-portraiture sometimes had, but not always. Again, it is a matter of having a historical perspective yet perceiving the part that is a variation.
BC: The crossing of boundaries is another characteristic of our era. Is Rauschenberg, for instance, a painter, a printmaker, or a photographer? Which medium can claim him? All, perhaps. This being so, does it make sense to have separate departments of photography, sculpture, etc, or would it be truer to contemporary reality to eliminate such categories altogether?
QB: It is true that many artists today switch from one medium to another. They have an idea and try to translate that idea, using photo, film, painting, installation, etc. On the other hand you have traditional photographers who are very happy sticking to their medium and who produce great work that way. So while there is a tendency, it is not a rule. And then you need that logic by department in order to have an expertise about the history. Also in purely administrative terms, you don't store photos the way you store painting or sculpture. Having said this, I think we are moving towards a much more integrated way of working. It is true that, say 20 years ago, there was that silo culture at MoMA with each department on its own. Times are changing and we talk more and more to each other, have more joint acquisitions, and more and more are thinking about fully integrating the collections. Back in the 80's and 90's photographers working in a creative form were mostly interested in the wall and making prints to be put on the wall vertically. Now, thanks to self-published books and to screens, you realize there are and there were many forms of photography. Of course photographs were published in newspapers and books before, but now they are also on screen and go direct to screen. It is a challenge for the museum because it is much more difficult for us to collect and show non-physical images. We will have to in the future——and we are already thinking about finding new ways to collect images that are only meant to be seen on the screen and have no physical dimension. We are aware that we have to be alert to what is happening in books, magazines, newspapers, and on screen. Photography has always taken many forms and we must collect it in different forms. Just collecting prints would be to reduce it to only one of its creative aspects.
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.