Peter Galassi, Former Chief Curator of Photography, MoMA, New York

Interview conducted in October 2013

Daniel Palmer: In thirty years, or more, of being involved in photography, what are some of the changes you would identify in the field of photography and photography curating?

Peter Galassi: The biggest thing that happened, and what defined the biggest challenge of my twenty years as Chief Curator, was that photography’s indigenous traditions, photographic traditions, were joined by a new tradition of photography within the contemporary art world. It really began to take shape in the 1960s, and by the late 1970s was a real force to be contended with. This now I think is sort of all over, and we’re now in a different era, but at the time, especially in New York, there was not just mutual incomprehension, but real animosity. You know, Cindy [Sherman] is one of the sweetest people who ever walked the earth, incapable of animosity. But, the people who were struggling to establish that her work illustrated their ideas, for them old photography was over, it was the past, it was dead. So I saw it as my responsibility, sitting in that chair, to deal with both of those [groups] and to encourage degrees of interaction between them. The other big challenge was that we’re now towards the end of the golden age of collecting, and I was very aware of that as well. I think that, certainly within another twenty years, the formation of the great collections, historical collections, will be over. I was very conscious that MoMA’s photography collection was not the equivalent of its painting collection, and that there were certain things that needed to be addressed.

DP: Did the relationship between the photography department and other areas at MoMA like painting and sculpture shift over time?

PG: Probably yes, there was more interaction, and I had some terrific colleagues who were very sympathetic to what I was trying to do. But it’s a very complicated question. I would say now the challenge is completely different, well, not completely different. I happened to be in Paris right after Quentin [Bajac] accepted the job, and I was saying to him, you know, one of the things to be aware of at MoMA is that there are still people on the board, on the staff, who think of the museum as a painting and sculpture museum, with a little bit of ‘basket weaving’ on the side. And he smiled and he said, well, that’s Pompidou, still. One of the things that has happened now, though, is that within contemporary people are eager to insist that anything goes (even though there are lots of artists who do just one thing, they make sculptures or they make video installations for instance). Everybody insists that mediums don’t matter now, anybody can work in any medium, which I actually don’t agree with. In the old days, Bill Rubin and John Szarkowski for example, who completely respected each other, worked in a different situation. Rubin was a painting guy with a little sculpture on the side. He wasn’t interested in Garry Winogrand, say, but he was perfectly happy for John to do his thing over there in the photography department. And that was photography, and you add a certain amount of space and a certain amount of money and that was fine. And so you had John’s great program. Now, today you have a situation where everybody says, oh photography, no problem, I love it. What used to be called the painting and sculpture people, they are in principle totally sympathetic to photography, but they still haven’t learned how to look at photographs. And so in a way it’s worse for photographic traditions, for traditions that are rooted in the use of photography as a way of going out and engaging and exploring the world, developing a real point of view about it that’s expressed in the pictures, not in the caption underneath. That tradition I think still continues to suffer.

DP: I take it, then, that you believe the department of photography and indeed photography-specific galleries more broadly need to continue to exist?

PG: Well, I was prepared, and I told my colleagues when I was still Chief Curator, to give up photo-specific galleries.

DP: The galleries, but not the department?

PG: Well the great thing about departments – and this is true of all kinds of different things – has to do with expertise. Nobody can know everything and actually, what you have in an institution like MoMA, where there are different departments, is that you have areas of expertise. Christophe Cherix [Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints] is very active in contemporary art in conceptual traditions since the 1970s and so forth, but he knows the print tradition inside out, all the specific connoisseurship issues, all the issues related to dealers and collectors and so forth, and if you don’t have that you’re missing something important. So in photography too, you need to have people on staff who know what they’re looking at, and how it was made, and who else knows about it and who collects it. And when you have institutions that don’t have that expertise, you have huge gaps, like the Walker Art Center, which is a great institution and has been very pioneering in a lot of ways, but photography is sort of marginal there (although now Darsie Alexander, who is now chief curator, was a photography curator, so it’s a different world now)

DP: Obviously the photography-specific galleries still exist at MoMA – I’m fascinated that you were prepared to give them up.

PG: Well if the photography galleries went away something would be lost, because photography does have its own traditions. If there aren’t galleries just for photography the coherence of those traditions is lost. Nevertheless, I would have been willing to give them up on the condition that the integrated galleries included ‘photography’ photography, if I can put it that way – photographic traditions. I think MoMA has an opportunity that it still hasn’t seized – and I’m talking about art up until the 1970s (after all, from 1880 to 1970 MoMA, along with the Centre Pompidou, and maybe eventually there will be other institutions that are at that level, but there aren’t very many who have the collection [at that standard]) – and that’s to tell the story of one of the great episodes in Western European painting and sculpture tradition, [which] is those hundred years. So it matters, but there are a lot of other things that go along with that. When we did this ‘MoMA2000’ project that was all out of the collection, we learned two things. One is what’s great about modern art, that painting and sculpture tradition, painting especially is a great, great tradition, but what’s really great about modern art is that more than one thing was happening at the same time. And so, every time somebody said ‘Let’s bring the different mediums together’, people go right to Constructivism or Bauhaus, or those moment when they were all doing the same thing, more or less. But in fact, it’s much more interesting when you acknowledge that very different things, even incompatible things, were going on at the same time. And, with a collection as rich as MoMA’s, you can show that out of the collection. You don’t do it by hanging a little black and white photograph next to a huge painting that is doing something else completely. But, you can have a gallery that has the photograph in it next to a gallery that has the painting in it, and when you walk through that door you feel the difference without insulting either one. But MoMA has never done that. Little things happened during ‘MoMA2000’, which was an experiment, but in reality nobody’s done it, because the painting and sculpture people don’t want to do it. They say they do, but they don’t do it.

DP: In your history of the Department of Photography in your text ‘Two Stories’ [in American Photography 1890–1965], you trace a history from Beaumont Newhall’s Modernist initiation with Alfred Barr, Edward Steichen’s ‘populism’ and then John Szarkowski and your time after that. In terms of the different engagements, the different kinds of photographs that have been exhibited and collected at MoMA over the years, you at one point characterise Newhall in terms of the traditional function of an art museum, and Steichen as a ‘lively workshop of mass communication’. Where do you locate yourself?

PG: Well I think of Steichen as an aberration in an otherwise normal history of a museum. You know Steichen was a great artist, he was a great artist at least twice over, but by the time he came to MoMA he was a person who always wanted to be at the centre of things. And his perception, beginning sometime in the 1930s, was that the centre of things was the magazine business – photography as mass communication. He set out to be a big player in that world and at MoMA that’s what he was, he was like Life magazine inside the walls of the museum. And that coincided with a MoMA that had been destabilised by the War – you have to remember that the museum was very young. Alfred Barr was fired in 1943 during the War so the War did destabilise MoMA, and certain parts of the Board of Trustees, led by Nelson Rockefeller, thought that the photography program should be a populist program that would get a lot of money from the industry. That’s why Steichen was hired, to do that. He actually never did get any money from the industry, but he certainly delivered on the populist issue. So in those terms it was very successful. But in my terms it was a travesty of the function of the museum.

DP: And how about in relation to the huge legacy of Szarkowski, from whom you took over after having worked with him.

PG: You know when I was beginning to do graduate school, my big hero was Meyer Schapiro. I was going to school where he had taught his whole career, in fact his last lecture course was my first semester at Columbia. I was acutely aware that I could never even play in his league, and this was a problem for me until I realised that if you compare Meyer Schapiro to Mozart or Shakespeare, he’s nothing! So then, if my hero was nothing, it’s sort of liberating! All you can do is your best. You can’t blame yourself because you’re not Mozart, otherwise most of us would have to commit suicide. So that was very liberating. I think Szarkowski is still, by a long shot, the best curator and historian photography has had, so far. But that doesn’t mean he was always right. He was unresponsive to a certain swath of activity, that’s for sure. Of course, curators have a responsibility that artists don’t have, nevertheless, you judge artists on their best work, not on their average work. So if you judge Szarkowski on his best work, no other curator’s done that well. And after all, now that the dust is settling on this, if you had to pick the three most important photographers, the three most important artists who made photographs in the 1960s – Winogrand, Friedlander, Arbus…

DP: Yes, he picked them.

PG: And this is one of the nice things about the history that evolves now, is that you have brilliant characters like Jeff Wall who say, ‘I was wrong!’ And he’s strong enough to do that. Szarkowski was a great curator but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to just try to repeat what he did, because that wouldn’t be good.

DP: Obviously, if MoMA is an art museum, its primary responsibility is to collect the work of artists, that’s quite unambiguous. Yet there’s also a lot of vernacular photography in the collection, partly through Steichen’s activity that you just characterised as ‘abberant’. What, in your view, is the place of vernacular photography in the museum?

PG: Can I give you first a broader, philosophical answer that doesn’t have to do with museums? In MoMA, there are now seven curatorial departments, because there’s now media and performance art, which deals with something that’s really from the 1960s onwards. There are three departments devoted to the traditional, old-fashioned arts – painting and sculpture, drawing, and printmaking. Then there are three other departments – architecture and design, film, and photography – and none of these three can be dealt with without dealing with a huge vernacular. It’s not curators who did this, it’s artists who did this. In 1920 Atget was a craftsman who was known to his clients. By 1935, every single advanced photographer, of all stripes, from Man Ray to Edward Weston had said, we don’t care what the definition is, this guy was a great artist. It’s the artists who did that, there weren’t any curators. So the museums, like the FBI, follow the money. The museums had to follow what the artists did. Timothy O’Sullivan, he wasn’t an artist either until the artists made him an artist. In photography you cannot escape that, it’s at the centre of what photography is.

DP: Today, as you’ve already noted, photography is thoroughly immersed in the art world, and photography takes shapes in many different forms, including online. How do you think MoMA has to approach photography now? How does a photography curator in general approach these issues?

PG: Well, one of the great things about my life now is that’s somebody else’s problem. It’s not an easy problem. Again, to step back, when MoMA was founded, everybody was convinced that Cézanne, Gaugin, Seurat, van Gogh, the four heroes of the beginning of the museum, that they had made a radical break with a prior painting tradition, and that there was something completely new that had to be dealt with by new institutions. Now we know that they were wrong, that in fact that was the beginning of the last great expression of a European painting tradition that started with Duccio. You can argue about the cut-offs, but for me, Willem de Kooning, he painted well in the 1980s, was an old master painter. He had more to do with Duccio than he had to do with Andy Warhol. The real break came later, in the 1960s, which had to do with Warhol and a whole other thing that is happening now. So institutions like MoMA, Tate, Pompidou, are standing on a San Andreas Fault, that is only going to get wider and wider and wider. Again, the institutions can do their best, but reality rules. The art rules. It’s like the people who thought that MoMA made Picasso and Matisse great, no no no! Picasso and Matisse made MoMA great! That’s how it works, and that’s what I think. Besides the artistic activity, there’s the whole global activity now. MoMA used to deal with the US and Europe and a little bit of Japan. This is not tenable now. The art world is truly global, and it’s a whole different kettle of fish, and that’s a challenge because it’s very difficult to be responsive. I read a piece last week in The New Republic that was about what the writer called the ‘global turn in history’, where these big books that try to take in the whole twentieth century, all around the world – which of course, they should try to do. But the author was pointing out that you have this huge book that’s fascinating, that’s based on an enormous amount of research, but which barely mentions Winston Churchill. So there’s a problem here. Maybe, actually, you can’t really do the global history of the twentieth century, something breaks down because it’s too big. I’m working on a Robert Frank project now that’s teaching me that to really understand things you have to go deeper and deeper and deeper. So how are we going to go deep in all these places where you don’t speak the language, where you don’t understand the most basic cultural clues. I mean, you can get educated, you can make friends with people, but it is a huge challenge. So I do not have the answer to how to curate photography today, but I respect the problem. Because I think it’s huge. Or perhaps it’s that contemporary art is more and more just becoming something that’s for biennials and art fairs, and the artists are just on an airplane all the time, they’re not connected to the cultures they came from? They live in this world that’s the world of contemporary art that has detached itself from the entire rest of the world. Didn’t Vasif Kortun say, at one point, that biennials were sort of ‘remedial’ phenomenon?

DP: We haven’t talked much about the impact of digital imaging on photography, which obviously also happened during the time you were at MoMA. Does this pose any particular challenges, opportunities?

PG: Well, again, I think that the curators are there to follow the artists, even if you’re following them right behind their collar. So far in photography, this has been possible to follow. In fact the technology has solved the whole problem of fugitive colour, it’s been solved by the digital realm, so that it’s now just a little historical blip. So that’s a very welcome development. I also think, obviously, the digital revolution is utterly transforming every aspect of our lives, and I think we’re still at the beginning of it. I think that the people who are sure they know what’s going to happen are the only people sure to be wrong. I am so tired of hearing about how digital technology has destroyed photography’s connection to the real world, that I’m thinking about organizing a show about all the ways that digital technology has enhanced photographers’ abilities to be involved in the real world.

DP: Given that most people’s experience of viewing photographs is online, does that change what curating in a physical space might need to be?

PG: Not unless the artist says, ‘My work of art is what you see on your laptop’. At which point, the museum is irrelevant, because everybody has their own thing in front of them. As far as I know, no artist has actually said that, and the quaint ones from thirty years ago who said ‘My art is on the computer’, everybody has forgotten about these people. But it’s quite possible that everything will change tomorrow, you know when the most interesting artists go and do something else, and then people are going to pay attention to that.

DP: I guess I’m thinking about display. As a curator, you do make certain choices about how things are displayed.

PG: But the artist decides what the thing is.

DP: But even showing old nineteenth century photographs, in terms of the way they are displayed, does it inevitably become about the materiality of the object a bit more?

PG: I don’t think so. Remember, museums are artificial, and they’re young, they’re only a little more than two hundred years old anyway. That means that everything that’s more than two hundred years old that’s in a museum is in the wrong place. It’s displaced from its original function, and of course most photographs, up until our times, were not intended to be on the walls of museums. But you accept this, just like with Italian altarpieces that have been ripped out of their churches and put in museums, or with a nineteenth century photograph that was in an album is now on a wall. So yes, it’s a problem that you should be aware of but the purpose is so that people can see it, the real thing. So that’s what I think about display, and we should acknowledge that for most things the museum is an artificial environment, so that people can see things that they can’t own.

On the other hand, the Internet has totally changed the way we do everything. When I work, just like everybody else, I’ve got Google search open, I’ve got a dictionary open, I’ve got a thesaurus open, all on the computer. I’ve got translation to other languages constantly open, and you just work like that, you don’t have to sit there wondering, ‘Now who was that guy’, you just go and you learn what you need to know, and it changes everything. The same with pictures now, you can do so much online with pictures. You can’t do everything, but you can do some things. At MoMA, the arrival of a computerised catalogue of the collection of the museum changed my relationship to a collection that I knew very, very well. Firstly because of the speed with which you can work, but also because the great thing that computers can do is, ‘Show me everything that is eight and a half inches tall’, and it will show you everything that is eight and a half inches tall, or ‘Show me everything that is French’. Computers can do that, which you just can’t do any other way. So there is a whole different relationship to the collection.

DP: Digital technologies have also enabled a flourishing of self-published photo books. Do you have any thoughts about the museum’s relationship to showing photo books, particularly since Newhall was originally appointed as MoMA’s librarian!

PG: Alfred Barr was very resourceful at the beginning of the museum; he had money for a librarian but not a photography curator so he sneaked in Beaumont [Newhall]. But museums shouldn’t try to do everything. The whole reason that the photo book tradition is so important in photography is, one, that photographs are very much at home in the book, and two, books go anywhere. I had an exchange with Martin Parr and Gerry Badger about this recently, who have obviously worked hard to expand our awareness of these photo books that in many cases have become very collectable and rare. As a consequence you know about this thing that you can’t see. Martin told me that there’s a possibility that Tate will acquire his collection, and that if so that will eventually all be digitised, so that you can actually look at the whole book online, without owning it. Eventually that’s going to happen. Similarly, Manfred Heiting, the German-born PR guy who worked for Polaroid. He made a very important collection of photographs that was acquired by Houston Museum of Fine Arts, from which he earned a lot of money. He lives in Los Angeles now and he set about creating the great collection of photographic books, where he would constantly upgrade the quality, he made sure he had the jacket and so on. Eventually that resource will be online. Right now you have to own the books yourself, which can mean spending thousands of dollars, or find an institution that has them and lets you put on the white gloves. That’s why we at MoMA never collected Lee Friedlander’s wonderful productions of special edition books, because people can’t experience them. They can be in the museum collection, and you put it in a vitrine but you only see a spread. The other thing is that while self-published photography books used to be rare, now you can’t get through them all. And of course most of them are junk!

DP: How active has MoMA been in collecting press photographs?

PG: It was active. I did a press photography exhibition [Pictures of the Times: A Century of Photography from The New York Times, 1996], but it was a lucky opportunity, because it was the hundredth anniversary of the Sulzberger family ownership of The New York Times, and they wanted to do all these celebrations. One of the big guns over there called me up one day and said, would you like to do a show of photographs of Times Square, which is of course named after The New York Times. I said, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting to us’, but I said we’d love to do a show out of your morgue, but the museum has a policy that we can’t do a show where all the stuff belongs to a private entity. And he said, well what if we gave them to you? So they gave us 300 pictures, because of course they didn’t need them anymore, and we did a show of 150 pictures. Coincidentally, while we were working on this project The Times shut down its darkroom; for a while, some photographers would still shoot negatives and their pictures would be scanned and so forth, but pretty soon that was over too. In that show, actually, there was a monitor that showed what the picture editors looked at, on their desks, with the feed of the pictures coming by. And in the back of that catalogue is a chronology of photographs in newspapers, and once we got to the digital age, it was fascinating, since there wasn’t any one person who could do the whole thing. We had to talk to twenty different people, and it hadn’t been written, there was no place where the history was written down. It was in the heads of different people because it was happening so fast. Of course, that collection only goes up to 1995 – again the museum can’t be responsible for everything. It’s an important cultural question to ask whether digital press images are adequately collected and archived. But it’s not necessarily the museum’s job to do that. There were four of us working on this project and at the time, they estimated the The Times’ morgue had six million pictures in it, and we did a little calculation that if each of us worked forty hours a week and looked for one second at each picture, that over the five or six months that we had to do the project we would still look at a tiny minority of the pictures that were there. Because there is one thing that digital technology has not yet changed and doesn’t promise to change – every individual person has one body and lives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

DP: Could you tell me about how the video and performance department at MoMA interacts with photography?

PG: The reason for having all those departments under the one roof is so as to not have to decide in advance how they relate to each other. On the one hand there’s the technology – but for the museum what really matters are the artistic traditions that are rooted in those technologies. In terms of experiencing art, one of the things that I think is absolutely ceaselessly fascinating to me is how different still and moving photographs are from each other. It’s the same technology, but we have a few of these very strong examples of that, like Eddie Adams’s picture of the South Vietnamese office, that exists on film, or Cartier-Bresson in the displaced persons camp, that exists on film too. Even though movies have a powerful potential to just leave still photography in the dust – I mean what they can do is just incredible, with the sound and all – but for those kinds of things [Adams & Cartier-Bresson], the still picture is stronger than the moving picture. So it’s memory, but it’s also that it won’t let you go, it doesn’t go away. Still photography is very artificial because it’s still. Life isn’t still. So with video and photography there’s a big difference.


Peter Galassi is a scholar and curator whose principal fields are photography and nineteenth-century French art. He was Chief Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for two decades from 1991 to 2011. Having begun as a curatorial intern in 1974, and joining the photography department seven year later, he was only the fourth person to serve as Chief Curator when he took over from John Szarkowski in 1991. At MoMA he curated more than 40 exhibitions including Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography (1981), Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort (1991), American Photography 1890–1965 (1995), Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills (1997), and major surveys of Henri Cartier-Bresson (2010), Roy DeCarava (1996), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1998), Andreas Gursky (2001), Lee Friedlander (2005) and Jeff Wall (2007). Since leaving MoMA, he has been working on independent writing and curatorial projects, including the exhibition Robert Frank in America at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center (2014). He is currently organizing a Brassaï retrospective to open at Fundación MAPFRE in Barcelona in 2018.