Interview conducted on October 2013
Daniel Palmer: How long have you been a photography curator?
Susan Bright: I completed my Masters in Art Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 1997, and was not quite sure what I wanted to do. I had been travelling before this and was somewhat rudderless. Soon afterwards, I started to intern at the Chisenhale Gallery in the East End of London. I was really much more interested in video art and installation art at that point, and that was really where I thought I would end up. By a set of very strange coincidences and circumstances, which I still can’t really explain, I ended up volunteering in the photography department at the Victoria & Albert Museum. And that was it. Prior to then, I’d never really looked at art photography seriously before, nor was it taught in my Art History BA. The experience within the photo department set me on my path. What it also made me realise was that I’d always been interested in photography. I’d always collected records, posters and postcards and stuff like that. I was very much into photography in popular culture, but for some reason had not translated that interest into my art history education. From the V&A I went to the National Portrait Gallery, as Assistant Curator, then to the Association of Photographers – which is a slightly odd trade-based organisation for commercial photographers. It was more like a gallery managers post. Here I learnt about the logistics, finance, administration and diplomacy of exhibition making (all essential skills to the wider field of curating). I went freelance as a photography curator and writer in 2002.
DP: What are some of the main changes you’ve seen in the field of photography over this time?
SB: I’ve seen huge shifts and changes. The most obvious one being the development of the Internet in terms of peoples websites, blogs and so on. We are a just a much more visual culture then when I started curating. I lived the analogue to digital switch with photographers. I have also been doing it long enough to witness trends in the strategies employed by photographers; modes of presentation and theoretical arguments. Some topical and relevant and essential: others not so much. The photoboook fetish is relatively new, as is self publishing. One thing that has remained constant is the autobiographical desire with young photographers. I have also been teaching since 2002 and students tend to gravitate towards personal stories. Not all of them of course, and recently there is certainly more collage and installation work, but family, self and community is a rich subject in photography that seems to constantly pull.
In terms of my curating, and understanding the larger field of photographic practice How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007), was important for me, because it was such a vast show with many different types of photography. It was the first exhibition that made me think that photographs can’t all be treated the same way in the gallery. It sounds obvious I know, but it was the first time I had dealt with books, postcards and other ephemera. That really shook up my hierarchies but also gave me confidence. It gave me the confidence to realise that art photography is probably the least interesting type of photography for me (which of course does not mean I am still not obsessive about it) a fact, I hadn’t ever voiced out loud.
In fact, every exhibition that I do highlights different issues about photography and how I consider photography. With Face of Fashion (2007) at the National Portrait Gallery many of the artists/photographers had never printed the work up because it was made for magazines. So suddenly we had to deal with something that actually existed physically and ask: what size and shape should the images be? We didn’t know if something could go big or not, and it was thrilling to test. It was like finishing the process for a lot of photographers, the conceptualisation, the taking it, and then finally the printing it. It was really sealing it for them. It made us all consider what is suitable for the wall and what is right for a magazine, and why.
Home Truths: Motherhood and Photography (2014) at The Photographer’s Gallery and The Foundling Museum was probably the exhibition that made me most consider the medium and the most. It occurred at a time when demands are high on curators to engage with a dynamic and changeable photographic culture. We are experiencing photography at time when it is perhaps at its most vibrant and multifaceted within its relatively short history, when the ubiquity of one certain type of photographic practice influences the nature of art exhibitions in a way that has not occurred before. The place of the selfie as a cultural backdrop to the many self-portraits on show in Home Truths meant that audiences responded differently than they would have done even five years ago. Home Truths attempted to rise to these challenges by acknowledging those changes in terms of autobiographical approaches to photography online and the increase in the mother figure as a cultural commodity. This mutual exchange between the artwork and the larger cultural relations was dealt with implicitly through theoretical engagements with the site, installation and display and that has to be something curators have to consider more and more. This was not the case when I first started curating.
DP: Do you have any thoughts about how museums and galleries are engaging with non-art photography?
SB: I think art museums should collect art photography. And I think there are different kinds of spaces that should collect other types of photography. The National Portrait Gallery is a great example, because it has some really bad photographs – but it doesn’t matter if they are really bad because the subject is what’s important. It helps if they are good photographs, but that’s not the main criteria. I have noticed that major art museums like MoMA and The Met are collecting more vernacular photography. I am not sure how this is going to extend into contemporary vernacular practices or if it is going to stay a ‘print’ based practice. I am not sure how they make acquisition decisions on what is deemed worthy for the collection and what is not. It is fascinating to me where lines are drawn, why and by whom. I am also intrigued by why personal vernacular photography is seen as OK to enter art museum collections but certain types of commercial photography or stock is not. The divisions seem pretty arbitrary to me. I am genuinely fascinated by the collection policies of larger national institutions.
DP: Obviously, if you think about the history of photography within art museums and galleries, a lot of what has been collected from the nineteenth century was not initially produced as art.
SB: Yes, of course, such as studio photography and albums – it’s terribly discursive and there are shifts and changes all the time. And as a result, there are huge gaps and inconsistencies in collections. Where do you start and stop? How much do you retrospectively collect? These are all interesting institutional conundrums, which are dealt with on a case-by-case basis by each institution. Auction houses are also worth considering in this respect. For instance, where do you put a Thomas Struth: in photography or contemporary art? Who makes the decision on what is art and what is photography? Is it a purely financial one? What is the role of the photography department now? These are all bigger questions that need to be asked.
DP: Beyond the museum, photography is more popular and widely used than ever, but its primarily experienced on screen rather than as a print-based object. In your view, should the art gallery engage with this new proliferation of online photography? You were involved in what can now be considered an early innovation of presenting online photographic culture in the gallery, in the form of your participatory screens at How We Are at the Tate in 2007.
SB: Before we get to that, can I raise two points that chime with the financial moment we’ve been living through? After the economic crash of 2008 often the quality of ideas presented in galleries and institutions was tied to a political agenda in the arts and crippling budget cuts, where often photography exhibitions and events were there to be income generating and/or affirming in some way, often considered within the framework of cultural entertainment rather than being about critical engagement. There is still a huge pressure to produce entertaining shows, to bring in numbers and attract money. Galleries need to monetise their events. This affects photography exhibitions in two ways: First, I think there is huge pressure for institutions to show photography because they think it’s cheaper. Putting together a photography exhibition is indeed usually significantly cheaper than putting together a painting or installation based exhibition, where you have to borrow and crate work. So we have witnessed an increase in exhibitions in major institutions. This also echoes the growing interest in the medium of course, but it is not just that. Two, there is the idea that photography exhibitions will get a young groovy crowd in and that suddenly, audience numbers will increase, just by putting photographs on the wall. Fashion photography especially suffers from this belief. It’s seen to have an instant pull, like celebrity work, so it’s often not done very well. That does not really refer to your question but I think it is important background and something all curators – independent or not – have to deal with in their professional lives.
As mentioned I think curators do have to consider photography beyond a print based object and the online culture at large. I hear it talked about all the time in conferences and meetings constantly, often with confusion. But I think there are oblique and subtle ways of doing and this is by understanding how people respond and experience photography now and making exhibitions that offer an alternative experience to online viewing or chime in to bigger cultural debates, aesthetics and prevailing concerns. Personally I don’t want to go to an exhibition and look at a screen. I do that all day. I do want to go to an exhibition and think about how I look at images online and how I look in a gallery and be challenged. I want to go to an exhibition where photography is seen in regard to other art mediums. On the other hand I also want to walk into a photography exhibition and not think about the medium at all, but the subject (as old fashioned as that sounds!)
DP: Interest in fashion photography in the gallery appeared to peak a few years ago. In a way, the International Centre of Photography’s Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video in 2009 seemed to mark a certain culmination, not least because it arrived at the start of the financial crisis.
SB: ICP’s Dress Codes was planned before the crash and it could have been viewed as inappropriate and frivolous by the time it was in the gallery space. In retrospect I think we can see a really big shift in the way that fashion advertising changed in that year. The work on show (I am not sure if it was part of Dress Codes or another show Carol and Vince did) came from spreads in top end magazines before 2008. They were exuberant and almost alien like – they crackled and sparkled. After the crash fashion advertising and editorials became much more pared down with a focus on affordable accessories and simple sets. You can really see the shift so sharply over the course of one year. This was crystallized in that display. Historically that ‘year of fashion’ which ICP did can be seen really as a ‘before and after’ – and in this context was terribly important.
DP: Can we circle back to my question: how do or can curators engage with online photography?
SB: They should, they need to, absolutely. And I think there are lots of nice juxtapositions that could enable a kind of back and forth. But how to do that? It’s hard. Because people spend their days looking at screens, most people don’t want to go to a gallery and look at a screen again. They want to fall into a print (or any type of art work). And there is something very beautiful about photographic prints. There’s a kind of tactile quality to a print, compared to viewing work online. To be denied that is to deny an essential part of photography. The photographic print still plays an enormous part in photography’s appeal. So how you engage with the Instagrams and so on? Well as mentioned I think the best way is to do this is through questions of the way we look, why we look, how we look and what we look at. When you create an exhibition now you are doing so for an audience that is the most photography literate in its history, curators need to respond to that. As a curator I also feel that my job is just not about the exhibition – it extends beyond that through events, discussion, debate? exhibitions need to be understood in a more holistic way. For me this is how I deal with the culture of online photography.
DP: What was the inspiration in How We Are for the audience to submit photographs online?
SB: It didn’t come from the curators (Val Williams and Susan Bright). It was a marketing decision. How We Are was a history of photography in Britain within which vernacular photography played an important part. In the body of the exhibition there was some Flickr images and an iPod piece in terms of contemporary work. We contextualised this on the basis that vernacular photography is now happening online. There were also screens in the cafe in the entrance hall. These looped pictures in the show. We had in mind a ‘Topshop’ experience with reference to the screens showing pictures before you go in. I don’t know if you have been to the London Topshop but as you go down the escalator your picture, and others come up on a big screen, which is divided to show many images. It’s a striking and an expansive experience. It got rather pared down for our entrance but it worked well. You’d have to talk to the marketing department about the interactive element How We Are Now (which is what it was titled) in relation to their motivations, but I think it was basically a case of pulling in an audience and engaging them; being able to monitor that audience a bit better and corporate partnerships. They created a Flickr Group called How We Are Now and you could upload photographs. And because we live in the world of reality TV, the images were then judged! Val and I and some other judges went through thousands of images. I would be interested to know if those images were archived and how.
DP: At that time, the Tate didn’t have a photography department. Did that present any particular challenges?
SB: I think I should remain diplomatically silent.
DP: Do we still need photography departments and medium-specific photography galleries?
SB: Yes. I think they should exist, and increasingly more so, actually, as photography changes. Photography is a specific medium. Yes, it slips into other things as well, but it has a certain quirkiness and history and contextually about it which is very different from fine art, because it crosses all the genres. So I do think you need experts in the medium, absolutely. And I do think it needs to exist in separate galleries as well. Within them, you don’t need to just show art photography, you can show the whole range of photography in graphic design and so on. It is in these spaces the larger photographic culture can be explored – online or not. So we need photography departments and photography-specific galleries. I know that might be retrograde view of looking at it, but I think it’s important.
DP: Do you have a view about online exhibitions, where it seems everyone is a ‘curator’ now?
SB: I don’t think people who put exhibitions online are curators, I think they’re editors, and they should be honest enough to say that. I have seen airline food ‘curated’. It is overused and misused constantly. I have yet to experience an exhibition online that feels more expansive than a selection of photographs and information. I would like to though.
DP: So you can only be a curator if you’re dealing with physical space?
SB: No, I think it doesn’t have to limited to one space or another. The Internet does have the potential for curatorial activity, but it’s not just gathering together images, it needs to be something much more thought through than that. I’ve never seen anything that I would consider a really good curatorial project online. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but I’ve never seen it. There have been some very innovative discussion forums which operate across physical and virtual space and I think this is the best way it can best be used. Online curatorial endeavours could certainly operate as a catalyst for things that could grow into real space. I think online curating would need to be participatory – it should grow and morph and change as people contribute to it. How exactly that would manifest I’m not sure. It’s a space that needs to be more fully embraced by curators and has exciting possibilities and potential.
Susan Bright is a curator and writer. Her curatorial practice operates across the registers of exhibition making, writing, public speaking, and teaching. Particular research interests include contemporary portraiture, specializing in the representation of Mothers across fine art and the media and self-portraiture. She was formally Assistant Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Curator at the Association of Photographers and Acting Director for the MA Photography at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. Bright’s exhibitions include: Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood (The Photographers’ Gallery and Foundling Museum, London), Something Out Of Nothing (Fotogalleriet, Oslo), How We Are: Photographing Britain (co-curated with Val Williams, Tate Britain) and Face of Fashion at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Bright is the author of Art Photography Now (2005) and Auto Focus–The Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography (2010) both published by Thames and Hudson. She was a Visiting Artist/Scholar in the MFA in Photography Program at the Art Institute Boston at Lesley University (Spring 2014). See susanbright.net