Brian Wallis, Former Curator of the ICP
The International Center of Photography’s modernist street-level museum is a glowing new addition to the corner of 43rd Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York City. Across the street a glass pavilion marks the entrance to the School of the International Center of Photography. Just one block east of Times Square, this ICP campus is a nearby neighbor to the New York Times and the New York Public Library, apt colleagues for an organization that began its life with a program based on reportage photography. The “new ICP” museum opened in 2000 after outgrowing the neo-Georgian mansion that it had occupied since 1974 at the northern end of Museum Row on Fifth Avenue. Brian Wallis joined the museum as Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator in 2000, the year that marked this shift, an expansion not only in location but also in vision, as the museum expanded its exhibition program and joined with the George Eastman House to collaborate on exhibitions and publications. Wallis was formerly a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (1982–88) and Senior Editor at Art in America (1989–1996). Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, a book he edited in 1984, is still a part of university syllabi. On the surface, his background suggests a remarkably different view of photography than that propounded by ICP founder Cornell Capa and the original organization Capa developed out of the International Fund for Concerned Photography. In the corner conference room, with a clear view of the Empire State Building and the ICP school across the street, we discussed these issues.
You’ve been a critic, an educator, and a writer on art and cultural studies, as well as a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. You have a degree in art history and you are working on your doctorate in American Studies. Meanwhile, as the Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator at the International Center of Photography, you oversee a museum whose collection is largely based on photojournalism. Do you see a melding of documentary photography with the kind of critical discourse that has so often been the focus of your writing and curatorial projects?
Brian Wallis: No. My interests in theories of postmodernism and specifically in contemporary critical art theory since the early 1980s have depended a lot on questioning certain presuppositions regarding the nature and social uses of representation, particularly as those from political attitudes or fictions. And central to that questioning or counter-narrative was the whole field of photography, including the photographic vision that emerged as a dominant component of modernist culture. So, even though the object of my focus was contemporary art, most of the artists that I was engaged in dialogue with were actually conducting sophisticated interrogations of photography, even the history of photography. For example, artists like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, even Hans Haacke, offered very interesting new perspectives on how to think about photography and the way that it represents, or misrepresents, the world.
Before you began working at the New Museum, you were at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. When was it that you began to develop your approach to photography as a medium for cultural studies? I was just out of graduate school when I worked at the Guggenheim and at the Modern. I was interested in understanding modernist and contemporary art, but I think that my interest in photography probably grew during the period that I worked at the New Museum. My first project there was working on a book called Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, which was an anthology of contemporary art theory, including the work of many critical writers who were my contemporaries. Much of their work investigated theories of photography and provided a perspective from which to examine the way photography functions -and has functioned historically — as an agent in social formations. For example, the writings of Allen Sekula, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and other writers closely associated with October magazine -including Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Benjamin Buchloh, and, of course, Rosalind Krauss — were very important to me at that time.
In the 1980s the New Museum was very much a center for the downtown art scene and many of the exhibitions there reflected a kind of edgy, concept-driven, socially reflective art that has now moved uptown into the larger art institutions. How do you see ICP’s reverence for documentary photography incorporating these ideas? Or do you see documentary photography itself changing in its projection of the society it mirrors? Well, that’s a multi-leveled question, based on the assumption that ICP is still focused primarily on documentary photography -and on a static or conventional view of documentary photography at that! Not only is documentary photography changing, and changing radically as it’s practiced today, but our conceptions of documentary photography and the historical basis for it are also changing -at ICP certainly, but elsewhere as well. Just to take one example, you might consider “The Body at Risk: Photography of Disorder, Illness, and Healing,” an exhibition recently organized by Carol Squiers at ICP. This was a revisionist survey of documentary photography, both historical and contemporary, that brilliantly showed the ways artists and photographers are transforming the uses of documentary photography as a form of social activism. Now, this is in some ways the logical legacy of Cornell Capa’s concept of “Concerned Photography,” by which he meant a partisan approach that sought to use documentary photography for social change. “The Body at Risk” even used some of Capa’s key concerned photographers, such as Lewis Hine and W. Eugene Smith. But Carol brought the questions Capa raised up-to-date by showing how documentary photographers continue to investigate social issues that are often otherwise invisible, even when the technical formats of photography and its means of distribution have changed fundamentally. It’s not so much a focus on a particular style or format, but an attention to photography as the appropriate means to critically address social and political issues that distinguishes this type of documentary photography. On a theoretical level, I think the underpinnings of the presumptions about documentary photography and its supposedly objective relation to the exterior world have been pretty much eroded or challenged. That has allowed for a more ambivalent or ambiguous form of documentary photography that often involves a highly subjective, first-person engagement or the supplement of non-photographic information, such as written text or oral histories, to amplify and maybe even challenge the singular vision of the photograph itself.
How would you characterize the ICP approach to collecting photography today as opposed to it’s formative years when Cornell Capa’s ICP predecessor, the International Fund for Concerned Photography, formed the base for the collection and the beginnings of the museum in 1974?
Well, my understanding of Cornell Capa’s original approach to the International Center of Photography was as a kind of study center, a locus from which exhibitions and educational programs would emanate. Our current director, Buzz Hartshorn, has greatly expanded, creatively updated, and thoroughly professionalized that initial vision. But, of course, the status of photography was very different in 1974, when Capa founded ICP, and it was incumbent upon him to adopt a kind of missionary or promotional attitude toward photography. His goal was to try to get viewers to see photography as important in its own right and not just as a record of historical or social events. In a way, this mission was similar to the advocacy position of other upstart museums, like the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s, when it sought to get a skeptical public to understand and appreciate modern art. Capa’s unique focus was on photography, and not so much the aesthetics of photography but its social role. He began forming a collection of photography at ICP not as much to document the history of the medium as laid down by Beaumont Newhall and others, but more to honor the work of photojournalists he admired -including Henri Cartier-Bresson and his own brother, Robert Capa -and to support his ideas of the uses of photography in society. I think in the beginning the collection was comprised of materials that were useful to making those points in exhibitions, in books, and in teaching, which were the forms of outreach that ICP practiced. The collection that Cornell formulated with the active assistance of curator Miles Barth grew to become the most comprehensive collection anywhere of twentieth-century photojournalism. We have substantial archives of the work of Robert Capa, Cornell Capa, David Seymour, Roman Vishniac, and Weegee. But it includes many, many other great things as well — in all, over 120,000 photographs, from 1839 to the present. Today we’re interested in adding to our great strengths in photojournalism and documentary photography, but also exploring some other areas of photography and photographic history. For instance, we have developed a substantial collection of contemporary photography, including great work from our recent shows focusing on China and Africa. Christopher Phillips also initiated a key collection of photographically illustrated magazines from the nineteen-twenties and thirties, the predecessors of Life magazine. These publications are valuable because they show the context in which so many of the early documentary photographers and photojournalists intended their work to be seen. They weren’t taking photographs to be exhibited in galleries or museums, they were intending them for publication. Now those magazines are increasingly rare and an invaluable part of photographic history. We’ve also extended the institutional interest in documentary photography to a wider range of photographic approaches, including vernacular photography, commercial photography, and personal photography -approaches that Cornell Capa always showed an interest in but never actively collected.
A recent exhibit at ICP titled “African American Vernacular Photography: Selections from the Cowin Collection” documented the history of African Americans from the 1850s to 1940s mostly through family snapshots and portraits taken by local studio photographers. Do you see documentary photography as more of a cultural artifact than the product of a single individual’s reflective eye?
The last part of your statement is provocative. But, yes, I think all photographs are cultural artifacts, a form of material culture. That’s certainly an important and useful way to look at photography. And I think that artifactual aspect explains some of the reason why people are so interested in the concept of “vintage” photographs today. There is something very tangible and exciting about handling the original historical artifact, whether it’s a photograph or any other sort of document — rather than a later copy of the same thing. That direct connection to the historical moment goes well beyond what the image conveys. For example, we just received an extraordinary donation of photographs from Time-Life, which includes many of W. Eugene Smith’s original photographs for his classic photographic essay, “The Spanish Village,” published in Life magazine in 1951. When you look at those pictures and turn them over, there are all the stamps from the original publication, and handwritten captions and so forth. The inestimable value of an artifact like that is that it not only provides a window on the wider social context governing the picture’s usage but also that it takes you back to the immediacy of the specific moment of its creation and circulation. In a broader sense, I think people are now increasingly interested in the vast submerged iceberg of photographs that were not created for exhibition or for strictly aesthetic purposes, but which may have been taken for personal or legal or professional reasons -snapshots and commercial photographs, documentary records of businesses or occupations or events. And this whole genre of photography that people are now referring to as vernacular photography is, I think, the great folk art of the twentieth century. It’s the people’s expression of the texture and experience of everyday life in the modern era, as opposed to the more rarified and sophisticated or even dandified versions that you see in high art photography. To me, it’s an immensely exciting and rich field that at this point is wide open for exploration. As for the particular exhibition, you referred to, it just so happened that in 1990, a far-sighted trustee of the International Center of Photography, Daniel Cowin, donated this astonishing trove of images of African American life that he had acquired, some 3,000 images. To my mind, it is one of the great treasures of the ICP collection. In this exhibition, it was tremendously exciting to consider the images as part of a largely unwritten cultural history. But it was also an extremely rich aesthetic experience to look at these photographs that were not taken with aesthetics as the primary motivation. Each picture revealed in various ways new perspectives on how the camera shapes and focuses visions, records certain kinds of activities and not other kinds, and establishes relationships between photographers and sitters through the conventions of genre and pose. All these questions are very different when you’re talking about the highly self-conscious high art photography versus the more particular and functional but equally exciting vernacular photography that was included in this show. Of course, there is also a profoundly political social history that underlies and circumscribes every thought and gesture in these pictures, which are, on one level, a stark and highly nuanced visual record of minority culture’s attempts to deal with a racist — or at least oppressive — society around them.
In another interview you referred to the shock of the familiar. Do you think that’s still true? Were you were referring to snapshots?
Well, I don’t think I would have been clever enough to say “the shock of the familiar.” But that’s a good phrase. Anyway, I am increasingly excited about people looking closely at photographs — well, pictures of all kinds, but especially what might be called “common” photographs. One of the goals of the “African American Vernacular Photography” exhibition was that we hoped it would be about close viewing of a small selection of essentially anonymous photographs disengaged from their original historical and social contexts. To prepare for the exhibition we brought to bear on these seemingly ephemeral or insignificant images all the historical research methodologies that one could possibly apply to any object of historical significance. We tried to find out everything we could about the photographers, the sitters, the dating, the historical circumstances and consider their implications. This was not idle research. We wanted to try to get the viewer to slow down and to look more closely at the pictures, to examine them, to understand them, to think about their original purposes
-and their current ones. That kind of close, critical, trans-disciplinary examination is always tremendously rewarding mand really is what art history or the history of photography is all about: encouraging a way of reading images that helps people understand better their own lives and culture.
Your anthology Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation is a seminal work on contemporary art criticism. Following the digital revolution, do you think many of the viewpoints in the book, written in 1984, would be radically altered if written today?
I see that book as an early attempt to articulate a set of cultural and critical problematics that defined the concept of postmodernism, which I think remains a valid historical demarcation. The historical break that occurred in the early 1960s was overtly manifested in various kinds of social change, but perhaps more lastingly in certain profound conceptual shifts instigated in the fields of critical theory and avant-garde art practice. My personal feeling is that what you’re calling the digital revolution is part of the response to this radically transformed view of culture and how it functions. For example, many postmodern theorists challenged monolithic definitions of history for both structural and political reasons and offered instead more relativistic or overlapping or molecular genealogies of historical processes. At the same time, they sought to reaffirm suppressed or overlooked histories or points of view. Among other things, this involved a vast reconsideration of how knowledge is organized and deployed, what Foucault called an “archaeology of knowledge.” Our current theories of digital or electronic languages largely came out of that prefabricated view of how information is stored, understood, communicated.
The ICP has always supported the publication of photography books, such as the book you edited with Grant Romer, Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes, from the exhibition that grew out of the alliance and collaboration with the George Eastman House. ICP also recently forged a new partnership with Steidl Publishers in Germany. Can you comment on the growth of photographic books and their importance in museum collections?
The ICP collection includes many examples of photographically illustrated books, and we have a library across the street with 15,000 photographic books and its own rare book collection. We have also done several exhibitions on photographic books and publications, including last summer’s The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present, which we did with Steidl. So the information on the history of photography and the study and dissemination of photography through books is very important to our program and to our partnership with the George Eastman House. I suspect that the library of the George Eastman House has the greatest collection of photo books and photographic literature in the world. We showed an exhibition of photographically illustrated books from their collection, organized by their superb librarian, Rachel Stuhlman. Do you think the recent trend towards DVDs and web pages of photographic images will eclipse the printed image? Well, I’m thrilled by the phenomenal advances in information storage and retrieval. That is what made our Southworth and Hawes catalogue Raisonne possible. But there’s still something uniquely satisfying about books as hand-held objects. And one thing that Steidl has undertaken is the republication of a number of classic photographic books, and it’s a pleasure to go back and look at those again.
Your most recent exhibition, “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” is curated by Okwui Enwezor. As the curator of Documenta 11, he introduced a radical shift from previous Documents, emphasizing a more global view in both his choice of artists as well as in his politics. You reviewed his work in an article in Artforum in 2002. Do you see his approach of incorporating global politics, collaborative art collectives and partnerships and symposia as a trend away from the art institution as we know it? If so, is there a place for aesthetics in this trend?
Documenta 11, which Okwui organized in 2002, was, to my mind, a path-breaking exhibition. And, beyond the exhibition itself, it also involved various platforms or symposia that took place on different continents, generating discussions not only about art practices but also about local political and cultural issues. I thought that was an extraordinarily valuable approach to -or deviation from -the conventional exhibition that is located at a single specific site. I am very interested in ways of expanding the capacity of the museum to reach out to various audiences, and I thought this showed one important way to do so. The whole project was doubly important because it foregrounded critical issues pertaining to global politics or globalism, raising cultural hybridity and cultural migration as key concerns in contemporary artistic practice. These were topics we also tried to address in our 2003 ICP Triennial, called “Strangers,” which was, in part about global questions of personal and cultural identity as reflected in the work of many contemporary artists. I don’t think that there’s a discrepancy between those approaches and aesthetics so much as an amplification of the role of art, in which aesthetics is not jettisoned but it’s just one of an increasingly large toolkit that artists and curators have to call upon. Okwui is a very inventive curator who is always looking for new artists, new ways of art making, and new ways of thinking about exhibiting and circulating that work -and who doesn’t shy away from the political meanings or consequences. I was thrilled when he agreed to join our staff as adjunct curator and to organize this exhibition -the first of several exhibitions that he is planning for us.
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Originally published at Focus Fine Art Photography Magazine.