Natasha Egan, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago

Interview conducted in October 2013

Daniel Palmer: How long have you been a photography curator?

Natasha Egan: The first photography exhibition I organised, Alienation and Assimilation: Contemporary Images and Installations from the Republic of Korea, was in 1998 here at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP). My curating career has been closely tied to this museum.

DP: Can you tell me you how you arrived at MoCP?

NE: I studied at the University of Washington, where I met Rod Slemmons (former Director of MoCP), and I interned for him while he was the photography curator at the Seattle Art Museum. That’s how I got into this. I started studying photography at the University of Washington because I wanted to teach photography to college students and my undergraduate degree was in Asian history and religion. So I came to photography from the practice side; I have an MFA in photography and a master’s in museum studies completed at Columbia College Chicago. My career started by doing the internship for Rod in 1995. He was working on a European photography exhibition with artists like the Bernd and Hilla Becher and Christian Boltanski titled New Subjectivity: Contemporary Photography in Europe. Most of the artists included were from Western Europe, and that summer I had the opportunity to go to Eastern Europe. I proposed to Rod that I could research Eastern European photographers for his exhibition and he agreed, so I spent the summer knocking around Eastern Europe for Rod. I would show up in a city like Warsaw or Kraków, and try to connect with curators and artists. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was fun! I met a lot of people, and would say to a curator, ‘I’m doing an internship for the Seattle Art Museum’, and people went out of their way to introduce me to so many artists. I went to Warsaw and Kraków in Poland, Bucharest, Romania, Varna along the Black Sea and Sofia in Bulgaria, Bratislava in Slovakia, and of course Prague and Budapest with their rich photographic histories. It was a very interesting time. Then I went back to Seattle, and handed Rod a list of all the people I met and the material they gave me. I hadn’t really formed an opinion about it all, because I didn’t know enough about what was out there, I was so new to the whole thing.

DP: But you kept up an interest in Eastern European photography?

NE: Yes, and I ended up living in Germany for over a year in 1998-99, which of course was different than the six weeks of travelling around Eastern Europe.

DP: Back to your career, what happened after your studies?

NE: I moved to Chicago largely because Rod knew the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago at the time, Denise Miller. Rod said to Denise, ‘you have to hire her as your assistant!’. So I became the director’s assistant while studying at Columbia. I was like her right hand and it was great. We would go to New York together to meet with artists; we even went to Paris and London. I remember going out to New Mexico, which is where I’m from, to do a project with Joel-Peter Witkin, which was intriguing! It was an experience that I was slightly familiar with, being from New Mexico myself-it’s a bit of a bizarre place. I worked with Denise Miller for about three years as her assistant, and that’s when I organised the Korea show, my first exhibition. Denise and I went to South Korea in the summer of 1997 to meet with curators and artists. Then I moved to Germany, and when my husband and I came back to the United States we were looking all over the place until we both found positions: Denise Miller hired me as the Associate Director of the museum. That was in 2000. I was in that position for almost eleven years, and then two years ago I became Executive Director. So, the majority of the exhibitions that I’ve organised have been here at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, not counting when I’m asked to jury an exhibition here or there, and the only other large exhibition that I’ve done was for FotoFest Biennial in Houston in 2010. They invited four curators from around the country to curate a pavilion about US photography, which was really interesting for me because my exhibitions had been largely international and European. By contrast, this was a show full of US artists. That was a really fun show to work on, not least because it was a much larger space than I’m used to.

DP: During your time as a curator, what are some of the changes you identify in terms of photographic practice, and also in terms of the way you approach curating?

NE: I’ll start with how I’ve seen curating change, at least on a personal note. My first exhibition was contemporary Korean photography and video, and I sort of swore to myself that I would never do a show about such a broad subject again. I think the survey of what’s happening in a certain place is totally problematic. I was young, it was my first show, and I picked Korea because of America’s long involvement there. At the time we still had 36,000 troops sitting on that border, and there was definitely an interest for an American to expose people to Conceptual art from Korea, something that a lot of people didn’t know about. That is a show that I would never try to do again, but you see it all the time: a survey of a whole country. I’ve never done one of those since. What I have tried to do is to pick a theme that can address broad issues, but with a more international perspective. I guess you see that a lot with biennials, with these broader, global themes. I try to pick themes that are focused but open-ended. For example, I curated an exhibition about consumerism, and of course you could go a thousand different ways, so I picked eleven artists that I thought tapped into it from a variety of perspectives. I usually try to pick emerging work, and avoid works that have already been shown a lot. One of the museum’s roles is to cultivate emerging artists. It doesn’t mean we don’t show established artists-obviously, we mix it up. We try not to duplicate what the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art are doing. We are aware of what each other are working on: we lend works to each other, we have very good relationships among the institutions, so we find our place here in Chicago.

In terms of photographic practice, I think there are changes that we probably all have seen. For instance, identity-based work dominated in the 1980s, and then in the 1990s we saw so-called objective work take over. We had the whole German-Gursky-blow-it-up-large-objective photographs, but then we also had the Nick Waplington-style, looking at completely personal subject matter, as well. I wrote a piece around 2004 about the supersize of objective photography in relation to the William Eggleston trait of catching things on the fly, a little bit more personal and grungy. The totally calculated versus the more spontaneous. You could say that the late 1990s, early 2000s were definitely dominated by the Germans’ objective point-of-view, but there’s always been artists working with personal themes. Today just seems like a hodgepodge of everything.

DP: How does the popularity of photography in the contemporary world affect how you work as a photography-specific museum?

NE: First, as a small museum it means that some of the work is out-priced very quickly for us, in terms of collecting. For me, photography has always been intertwined with art. There was always that conversation about photography fighting its way into the art world, for me it’s always been in there. We had an issue when I first started working at the MoCP where because we were a medium-specific museum, certain artists that worked in photography would not want to show their work in our gallery because they didn’t want to be associated with photography as the ‘craft’ of photography, they wanted to be only associated with photography as Conceptual art. This has not been an issue for us for many years. Maybe that speaks to our reputation as a museum, but that concern was something that we had to contend with early on. I’m always very conscious of using the word ‘photographers’ versus ‘artists’, I almost always use the word ‘artists’ for what we do. But certain artists, and certain photographers, define themselves, and that’s up to them. Some people think of photography as being more mechanical-looking through the lens and capturing something rather than making something. But I think it’s all making. I had a really funny experience about ten years ago: I was invited by the British Council, with a group of twelve curators from North America, I think half from the United States and half from Canada, and we went over to Northern Ireland and met curators and artists. It was a week-long trip, and the other curators with me were all from contemporary art spaces in North America, none of them were medium-specific curators. When they met me they could picture what it would be like to work in a medium-specific museum. They thought it would be too limiting for a curator, because contemporary art is everything. And so I made a bet with them; I said, ‘I bet I can work with almost every artist we’re going to meet this week in some capacity, because the image is rooted in contemporary art.’ So it became this joke among the twelve of us, ‘Is there someone I can’t work with?’ Sure enough, day by day by day it went on. Most artists we met were working in video; there were painters but some worked from photographs while others I remember having newspaper images incorporated into their painting. One person did this whole installation of a bedroom, and you opened up this box and it was full of someone’s personal snapshots-it was a treasure box of photographs. Before you know it, the image just consumes us, it’s almost impossible to separate it from a lot of contemporary art.

DP: One could respond, however: why do you need to exist then, as a medium-specific gallery?

NE: We have talked about that among ourselves, for sure. Our name for example. We are the Museum of Contemporary Photography, is that too limiting? Because we are about the image, we show video, we show sculpture that touches on the image. It’s the image-the idea of the mediated image. We know the world through images.

DP: But you wouldn’t show, say, a painting unless it had some relationship to what you are calling ‘the mediated image’?

NE: There is some work we would likely not show unless there was some connection to the image or you could see it was integral to the entire show. For example, we did a sculpture show once, and one of the sculptures was by a woman named Heather Mekkelson. Her piece was just total debris, as if a hurricane had come through the museum. It was based on the idea that most people’s experience of Hurricane Katrina was completely mediated. Even though what you’re physically looking at is not photographic in any way, it goes back to the question of how art is made, what it’s based in, where it’s rooted. So I think our point here is to show this change in the role of the image, to show that change in the role of photography, historically. We’re a museum, and we are a museum that collects objects, so that’s even different than if we were a museum that was trying to source the digital imagery of the world. That’s maybe for a different museum, right now, because we talk about all of those subjects, and we show artists that work with that-appropriated Internet work-so we are constantly talking about these subjects, but we’re not a museum that is collecting vernacular imagery. Our collection does include some vernacular work but it’s source material for another photographic artwork.

DP: What about other forms of vernacular, like commercial or fashion photography?

NE: When the museum first started, our mission was to really collect photography in a much broader way. It was about photography’s role in art, documentation, science, and market. Those were the four roles of photography. We have definitely slanted more toward art, and when we do a science exhibition we’re less likely to show just X-rays, rather we’d exhibit an artist who is working with science materials or ideas.

DP: That’s a very typical trajectory. It’s the same in Australia, where the founding motivations for photography departments and institutions are often far broader than what ultimately eventuates. As time goes by the focus quickly turns to art.

NE: Yes, we definitely focus on art. We used to do some more commercial exhibitions, but we haven’t done one for a while.

DP: Do you think the reason you end up working primarily with artists is because of your personal interests as a curator, or because it generates the most interesting exhibitions? Or is it for other reasons, such as the collection, or the relationship to teaching?

NE: I think it’s related to the teaching. Sometimes of course you wish to have a greater collection to be able to teach from. At Columbia College we have a commercial/fashion track in the photography department along with photojournalism and fine art. So in the permanent collection we do have some works in fashion and photojournalism, but we haven’t kept it up the way one could for it to really be part of the collection for teaching purposes. It’s something that we could think about. We do have a fashion studies program at Columbia, and they have an archive of fashion wear, and we have a library with an extensive archive of fashion books. It raises the question of where it makes sense to preserve trends in fashion photography. If the magazine is really the output, then we have all of that within our library, and in our collections and archives. If a fashion photograph becomes part of an exhibition, and a photographer has made choices to frame it and exhibit it in a certain way, then that’s when it becomes an object that needs to be cared for by a museum. So, we don’t have a lot of photography that’s rooted in the magazine art, though Columbia College does. Again, we would probably go with the artist working with fashion, though it’s a fine line, of course.

DP: Do you have donors who are artists or photographers who give their work to you as well, for your collection?

NE: Yes we do have collectors that donate works, and artists, but for an artist to donate work we have to have worked with them first. Otherwise we would have a lot of people wanting to donate. But with some artists we might purchase some of their work and they might donate some more of it, so when we have an invested interest in somebody then we do.

DP: I realise you have different audiences and constituencies, but how would you describe your primary audience? Who are you speaking to?

NE: We are focused on education, because we are part of Columbia College’s campus. So students are a priority. Of course there are artists that we show who are purely art for art’s sake, but I would say in general, the way we think about the exhibitions that we present here is to tap a multidisciplinary approach. So that you can be a student from the writing or humanities departments, cultural studies, film, art, photo, and tap into the exhibitions from multiple layers and have a conversation regarding cultural issues, economic, or political. We find that works by contemporary artists often tap into a wide range of contemporary subjects and topics, and so we form educational discussion questions for every exhibition that invite people to discuss the exhibitions from a variety of angles. This is why we write the curatorial text, because we’re here to teach. This bothers some people, who say “why can’t you let the photographs speak for themselves?” But we have an obligation to engage the viewers on an educational level and to go a little deeper in what we’re presenting to the public.

That said, we have organised exhibitions that push the other way. We had a great one by Jan Tichy, where he organised a show out of our collection and made some new video works based on pieces in our collection, and in that case it was very much about curating and subjectivity, about what we bring to it and how collections are formed, and how this particular collection has literally been formed by the directors and curators who are here. So he pulled some very random works. It was a big show with a variety of themes going on, with one of the rooms just about the collection, some of it being data-driven. What was the first piece collected? What was the last piece brought into the collection? What’s the oldest piece in the collection? What’s the newest piece? What’s the smallest piece? What’s the largest piece? What’s the darkest and the lightest? And those were then paired together, and my favourite was the pairing of the smallest and the largest, because the smallest piece in the collection is a Walker Evans, smaller than a 35mm negative contact print, of a street grate in New York. And the biggest piece is by a Chinese artist, Shi Guorui; it’s eight feet long and it’s a camera obscura picture of Shanghai. It was so great because you had this large view of Shanghai, and then this tiny little detail of a city. It was beautiful, and it just so happened to be the biggest and the smallest piece in the collection. The darkest and the lightest were also really beautiful, and he made a seven-minute video that takes you through the entire collection, from the darkest piece to the lightest. The video goes through the entire 12,000 objects in the collection at that time. It started dark because as it got lighter and lighter it illuminated the darkest and lightest photographs in the collection hanging on the wall opposite the video. The darkest photograph is Roy DeCarava’s 1978 Man in Window and Harry Callahan’s photograph of his wife Eleanor’s behind, made in the 1970s. The room started really dark and then it would get very bright at the end, and there would be this flash of whiteness and the two photographs could be seen very clearly before they fell back into darkness.

That was a great show that also taught us a lot about ourselves, and about collecting. He also put some random pairs together. Some of them were formal, some of them were more idiosyncratic. He’s from the Czech Republic, but he lives now in Chicago, so he would pair, for example, an abstract photograph from the Czech Republic with a photograph of a scene from Chicago that formally related to the abstraction. His pairs were formed from many different subjective angles. For that exhibition we tried to give hardly any text on the wall, except, of course, you could find in a booklet all the titles and authors of each picture presented. But the idea was to approach the show in a completely open-minded way, without reading about anything first. It was a stunning show.

DP: How would you describe what you do, your role, as a curator?

NE: I guess my role is to expose different artists, feature them. I personally like to be invisible.

DP: Even though you’ve spoken about the various themes that provide frameworks for the exhibitions?

NE: Unless you only want to do solo shows, themes are useful. What happens when you bring in groups of people is that it gives you the opportunity to show a wider voice out there, on a broad topic. You don’t want every show to be like a giant biennial; you want it to be small enough where you can digest the ideas. But my job is to be able to find works that I think play off of each other, but also individually hold up absolutely strong. Their work isn’t strengthened by the other works because it’s strong as it is, but the conversation is bolstered by juxtaposing an artist’s work with somebody else’s. I don’t try to change an artist’s point of view, I don’t think of a theme and then say, “Oh, this would work in my theme on a totally abstract level” and try to put it in a new context. I try to keep the artist’s intent, so that people can say, “This artist is thinking this, or this is what they want.” Not that I’m thinking this and I’m going to force this artist to fit in my show. Which can easily happen. I think my role is fun. I am out there looking at a lot of work, and I am an editor, and there’s a limited amount of time and space. There’s so much great work, I look at work constantly and now very much form an opinion. I hope it’s fairly invisible, though most people say that they can tell when it’s my show; it usually has some kind of political connotation, or some sort of global subject matter, it’s something I’m interested in. But really, I feel like my favourite thing to do is to promote artists and expose people to thought-provoking ideas from a great variety of perspectives.

DP: You said you aim to promote and expose artists, but is there something particular about being a curator of photography that may be different from being a curator of contemporary art, more broadly?

NE: Yes, I think that photography is by far the most accessible medium. Even when you get abstract with it, it’s still somewhat grounded in the real, in a way. Sometimes for me the most fictional piece, just like reading fiction, can describe a story better because it can tap into layers that are unavailable if you try to just “document” (it’s obviously impossible to just document anyway, because you can’t “show” reality-it’s always going to be an interpretation). But I think there is this foundation in photography, which is a great starting base for teaching. For me photography is a rich subject to communicate ideas with, because it’s so wide-ranging. It’s about the world we live in, but I think it’s a world we’ve always lived in, even before cameras-we’ve lived it with images in our mind. I think we’re an image culture, we’re based in imagery, so I think even when you get abstract and dreamlike, images speak, so for me it’s the accessibility.

DP: One of the reasons I ask is because one could argue that photography has never been as popular in museums as it is now. New galleries and centres for photography are popping up, or expanding, and beyond the museum, there’s undoubtedly more photographs taken today than ever before. I’m interested in how that might impact upon the photograph in the gallery. If everyone’s doing it more than ever, on the one hand you could say that the role of the museum or gallery becomes even more important, particularly insofar as the museum might be involved in the physical object. Because outside the museum, the photograph is typically experienced on a screen. Can you reflect on how this screen-life of the photograph plays into the physical space of the gallery?

NE: This is one of the reasons we haven’t decided to be the museum of “image.” I think we can leave that to Google now! You don’t have a better source for massive amounts of imagery than the Internet. So in some ways we don’t need to collect the image at that level. We can definitely talk about it and write about it and work with artists interested in it, but I think we can continue to show and collect object-based work in the museum. We do have the ability, with permission of the artist or the estate, to start to use some of our collection images in different ways. For example, starting from Jan Tichy’s exhibition, we have asked an array of different people-curators, educators, photographers-to curate exhibitions out of our collection, but purely the digital representation of the object. We now have digital exhibitions presented on two screens illuminating the street from the corner of our building, you can see it when you go outside: we have digital exhibitions that bring the collection beyond the walls of the museum. And all of those curated shows then exist on our website. We’ve organised probably twenty exhibitions in that way.

DP: How long has the screen been there?

NE: Only about a year and a half. We can also use to use the screens to expand an exhibition from inside, so this is new for us to have those screens constantly changing with a digital exhibition. When we had the Victoria Sambunaris exhibition of landscape photographs inside the museum, we asked her to curate a digital collection show for our website, so she went through the collection and ended up organizing two digital shows: one was landscapes from the collection that she was responding to, and one was a variety of portraiture from the collection. She also wrote a short text about what it was like to go through the whole collection online; it’s a different experience than going through the collection physically. We are definitely utilizing the digitization of our collection, but the end image is still rooted in an actual object or work of art. It’s another experience when it’s digital. We are also having another conversation right now about the potential of putting some of our images from the collection up on billboards as a public art project-a digital billboard. What might it mean to see a photograph in a way, for art’s sake, like on a billboard just passing by, not selling anything? But again we still come back to this object-based collection.

DP: That all sounds very interesting-one of our aims of this research is to think about the challenges and opportunities thrown up by online imagery. There are some interesting models emerging, for example what the London Photographers’ Gallery are doing is interesting and quite brave. And libraries are experimenting with participatory forms, although often as a form of ‘marketing’. For institutions that attempt to be encyclopaedic-that collect vernacular imagery and so on-like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it would seem that they’re going to have to start collecting some form of digital imagery.

NE: Definitely. Maybe it’s good that we didn’t go down the road of collecting vernacular! [laughs] It’s just a different beast. Because then you’re collecting [and asking], ‘Where’s our collection of cat photography on the Internet’. I’m sorry, I just have no interest in collecting cat photography. But I do like what the Photographers’ Gallery is doing, and what the Walker Art Center has done-inviting their audience to participate in The Internet Cat Video Festival. I just don’t think we need to add those videos to our collection. That’s something for sociologists and anthropologists to write about, and historians, and to include in exhibitions, but does it need to be collected as an art object? Here? No, I don’t think so. But people ask us all the time: why don’t we change our name? But what would we be? I think ‘photography’ is OK. We’ve gone from a discussion where the term photography is limiting, to where it’s now making sense again.

DP: In the 1990s in Australia, a lot of educational institutions changed photography to ‘photomedia’ to sound more ‘digital’, which I think is a dreadful term. In the UK, I understand that term signifies ‘applied’ or commercial photography, so it’s quite confusing. At my university we eventually changed it back to photography!

NE: That’s good to know. I think we made it through that phase. We feel fine with our name right now. Because for a while there we were worried-what if people don’t show with us because we’re so photo-centric? But I think if anybody looks at our history they can see our past exhibitions and realise that we’re always stretching the definition of the word photography.

DP: For some people, after digital imaging, photography has become a ‘heritage’ medium.Do you have any feelings about whether photography departments in museums still need to exist?

NE: I think when you’re talking about the history of photography, when you’re in an encyclopaedic museum, I think it’s great. The photography department at the Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, is only forty years old. There was an interesting shift from photographs existing in a works on paper environment to a photography department. I do think that in an encyclopaedic museum that it is a whole different field to understand the history of photography, compared to a lot of places that have it as works on paper. I think the speciality is absolutely different. Where it gets difficult, is when you’re working with contemporary photography in a museum that also has a contemporary art department. This is the particular challenge for curators like Quentin Bajac at the Museum of Modern Art. There, I think, if the object is a photograph for conservation purposes and storage, it lands in the photography department. However, I think at the Art Institute of Chicago, before Matt Witkovsky joined the department, certain contemporary photographs would land in the contemporary art department because both departments had different collector groups and donors, with the photography department leaning more toward vintage work. I could be wrong, but I think the Jeff Wall photographs owned by the Art Institute of Chicago are under the purview of the contemporary art department. I think Matt is someone who is working very well at collaborating with the contemporary department and is, probably, more like MoMA: ‘This object is a photograph, it’s also contemporary art, I recognise that, and therefore that’s more my purview to discuss its relationship to the history’.

DP: There’s also the question about whether museums need to have specific photography galleries as well.

NE: That’s another great question. I can understand having certain specific galleries, like modern and contemporary. I know the Art Institute of Chicago chose to build separate photo and video galleries within the Modern wing, for instance. However, what was built for temporary contemporary art exhibitions is often shared with photography (for example, with the William Eggleston exhibition). Here at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the integration of photography within contemporary art has never been a debate, rather it has simply made it more expensive to collect. When we first started, photography was a more affordable medium. As a result we have a hard time buying some contemporary work: for instance, we don’t own a Jeff Wall, and we don’t own anything by Andreas Gursky. However, we have built an excellent collection by focusing on emerging artists and are able to persevere in collecting and presenting a history of photography.


Natasha Egan is the executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago where she has organized numerous exhibitions such as Alienation and Assimilation: Contemporary Images and Installations from the Republic of Korea (1998); a series of solo exhibitions with international artists such as Sophie Calle, Candida Höfer, Nikki S. Lee and Zwelethu Mthethwa (2001-2002); Andrea Robbins and Max Becher: The Transportation of Place (2003); Consuming Nature (2004); Manufactured Self (2005); Made in China (2006); Loaded Landscapes (2007); The Edge of Intent (2009) The Road to Nowhere? for FOTOFEST 2010 in Houston; co-organized with Shanghai based curator Davide Quadrio Reversed Images: Representations of Shanghai and Its Contemporary Material Culture (2009) and Survival Techniques: Narratives of Resistance (2012); and Archive State (2014). Egan has contributed essays to such publications as Shimon Attie: The History of Another (Twin Palms); Photography Plugged and Unplugged (Contemporary Magazine); Beate Gütschow LS / S (Aperture); Michael Wolf: The Transparent City (Aperture); Placing Memory: A Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment with photographs by Todd Stewart (University of Oklahoma), Black Maps: American Landscapes and the Apocalyptic Sublime with photographs by David Maisel (Steidl) and Taxonomy of Landscape with photographs by Victoria Sambunaris (Radius). Egan has taught in the photography and humanities departments at Columbia College Chicago for over a decade, lectures internationally, and serves as a juror for national and international exhibitions. She holds a BA in Asian studies, MA in museum studies, and MFA in fine art photography.