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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Part II
Barbara Confino
Photo by Barbara Confino . Source: courtesy of the artist
Barbara Confino, "Quentin Bajac" 2015

This is the second part of a conversation between Quentin Bajac, the The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art and the New York Photo Review Managing Editor Barbara Confino. The first part can be read here.

Barbara Confino: What precisely is the perspective of MoMA on photography?
Quentin Bajac: We are writing A history of photography, not THE history of photography. We do not collect all the forms of photography. Sometimes people say “But you are not collecting this and that”. No, we are not. We exclude many forms of photography. MoMA is trying to establish a collection of the creative, subjective forms of the medium, forms that eventually will be considered art forms. That is why we are excluding certain kinds of scientific imagery. Other institutions specialize in photography with a kind of anthropological or cultural perspective that is not ours. We should be precise and clear about that. We have vernacular photography (and I am not sure that vernacular photography is an art form,) scientific images, NASA images. Of course we sometimes collect scientific imagery, but we collect them marginally. There needs to be a kind of human dimension behind the work. With people like Berenice Abbott and Harold Edgerton we have wonderful work at the frontier between science and creation. Both were aware of the impact of their images. Not only about recording but also about the plasticity of their images.

BC: Do you look for things you think will have cultural significance?
QB: Although it is mostly about art and a kind of creative expression within the medium, it can also be about culture as well. If you look at photo of the last 20 or so years there are very few genres that have been ignored by curators. You have more and more that are included and recognized, if not as an art form, at least as a creative form. Both by the institutions and by the market, especially the auctions. You have auctions about vernacular images, about NASA images, about scientific imagery, etc. so I think the history of creative photography is getting more inclusive of different genres. Having said this, if you have a look at what is being done today in the photographic world I can see one of the greatest part of image making is stock photography and no one is looking at stock photography today with a curatorial or historian's eye. Maybe soon, or in 20 -30 years, curators and historians will be interested in the art form and maybe we too should be interested in that form not just in a sociological way. Perhaps there is something to be found in this genre, so present in our lives, that everyone sees and no one notices.

BC: What are the most important qualities for a curator? Even aside from the obvious skills, what attitudes of mind do you think a curator ought to have?
QB: One of the important qualities of a curator is to be able to remain cool. To keep a distance from a kind of frenzy, the frenzy of the art market for example, and to be able to put new work into historical context and into perspective. This is difficult. To be both cool and yet remain excited and receptive to what's happening. So you need to find a proper balance. Not being overexcited by every new thing that arrives on the market, but not having a blasé attitude, saying, Oh I've seen that, it was done 30 40 50 years ago, etc. You need to keep that delicate balance between being alert receptive and excited. Also, no nostalgia—artists and photographers can afford to be nostalgic, but we curators cannot. We must use all our knowledge to put every work into context.
If you have a look at my four predecessors, each had a different idea of what they should collect. Each generation and each chief curator have their own interests. Beaumont Newhall was an academic and was interested in establishing the frontier between high and low and trying to categorize or define something that would be Art photography with a big A. And this made sense at that time because he was the first to try to establish these rules. Then came Edward Steichen who at that time in his life was a media man, a former director of Condé Nast. So he was interested in media, fashion, and non-artistic practice: press images, photo-reportage, scientific. Szarkowski was a black and white documentary photographer, interested in defining photography as a kind of holistic medium that included vernacular photography and other forms. And lastly, Peter Galassi, who was, in fact coming from the history of art, and had been a 19th century painting scholar, was more interested in trying to identify some singular voices within the medium. So the collection is less homogeneous than one would think.
Photo by Barbara Confino . Source: courtesy of the artist
Barbara Confino, "Bajac at MoMA" 2015

BC: And now there is you! Do you think being European gives you a different outlook?
QB: And now there is me.
I always thought that where you come from is important. My background is not American. I consider myself a European collector and so probably have another perspective. This is important, as I am the first. Before coming to photography I studied literature and painting and was very interested in cinema and particularly in the relationship between photo and other art forms. I think what is interesting in photography is the ability to establish a dialogue between the other art forms. If you tried to find a common denominator between most of the exhibitions and books that I organized it would be about trying to question the medium in its relationship with other media.
Also, I think we must go more international, while remaining aware that we are talking from New York. It is important to keep an American perspective. I really dislike going to institutions and finding the same artists in all of them. It is important when you go to Germany to see better representation of photography from the Dusseldorf school, or in London to see photographers you would not see elsewhere. And when you are in NY to see more work from an American and even East coast perspective.

BC: President Eisenhower once talked about a military-industrial complex. We could talk about an academic-art world complex with the gallerist as the middleman. What do you think has been the impact of academia on the medium? Have we favored cerebral over instinctive photographers, for example? Are we cutting out people like Weegee who worked strictly from the gut? And do we not stand to lose a great deal by doing that?
QB: It is true that we tend more and more to consider the work of young artists who have been trained at schools and that was not the case in the 60's, 70's. It's a recent evolution and maybe a certain instinct and lightness has been lost along the way. We must be aware that there are many ways to make a photograph. I think that to be an artist you need to edit your work and to think about your work—not just take images but also try to see how these images work together and what they tell us about the world and about the medium. You have the traditional way that started from the world and then editing them down to the idea. Then you have also the other way that is more conceptual or idea-based in which the artist tries to identify an idea and then goes into the world and translates that idea. I think the great photographers are the ones that manage, either starting from the top or the bottom, to do both. What is important is that the idea changes when the photographer encounters the world. You are not strictly a kind of conceptual photographer who has an idea and tries to impose his idea onto the world. So it is always this encounter between idea and the world.

BC: From a practical point of view all people do not have the same access. We are dealing with something like an old boy club. The academic world and its connections offer a direct line for the MFA student to the museum and to the galleries, but that direct line does not exist for other photographers. How can you open up the museum and the gallery world to allow in more kinds of photographers?
QB: Once again, I hope the digital age will change that a little. There is a direct access online from the photographers to the curators or to the institution that was not possible 20 years ago. I am spending a lot of time going from one web site to another. It is a way to discover photographers and to bypass that system. It is also a matter of being alert. I read a lot of press, look at images, I look at the captions, and am aware that photography is everywhere in our everyday life. It's not only that you put your mode “on” when you enter a gallery. You have to keep your mode “on” everywhere.

BC: In the past photographers called up and made appointments to show their work to curators. How would a photographer get to show you work today?
QB: We stopped doing portfolio reviews 4 years or so ago and now we are launching them again, but portfolio reviews online. We will do ten portfolios a month. That is not a lot but it will reopen that door. It will be possible to submit a portfolio on-line of ten images with a written text that will be reviewed by the department. Of course you will not have the kind of physical relation with the print object you had before, but you could also say that it is a more democratic way because you can submit a portfolio from Australia or Thailand or Latin America.
You can read the first part of the conversation here
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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