Former MoMA Photography Curator Peter Galassi

Chief Curator of Photography at MoMA, Peter Galassi, sits in the midst of a small office in a warren of offices. The building may be brand new, but the piles of papers, books and catalogues speak to his long history with the museum as well as his passion for photography. His extensive writing on the subject decorates every surface. Moving a book or two and sipping from a cup of coffee already made cold by the distractions of his work, he makes time for this interview.

Your interest in photography goes back to the sixties and early ‘70’s when few people took photography seriously as an art medium. What sparked that interest?
 Like most people my generation or older, I got interested as a teenager in taking pictures. There was no apparatus for the study of photography as part of our history. I’ve never taken a course in the history of photography, I would have loved to but there weren’t any in my school. There was a school darkroom. I learned the media there.

As a curatorial intern in the photography department at MoMA in 1974, you began your career working with one of the most influential photography authorities in history: John Szarkowski. What effect did his vision have on your approach to photography as an art medium?
 I object to the term “formalist.” If you are interested in snapshots and news photography you are not just interested in how one shape fits next to another, if that’s what you mean by “formalist.” John Szarkowski was the first really first class mind to devote his life to being an historian, critic and curator of photography. Not his entire life, he has another career as a photographer, but 29 years is a big chunk of his life. He’s still the most provocative, useful person who has done that. As I said, I never studied the history of photography in the classroom: working for him everyday I didn’t need to!

Did you find any differences in the way you viewed photography with Szarkowski’s vision?
 It was a very different world when I began as an intern in 1974. I’m very grateful for that time when the only people involved were people who really understood photography. There were five people in the department, including the intern and the secretary. Most interns did curate exhibits. I did a little show then that opened in the fall of 1975, called “Picture Puzzles” where the theme was straight photographs of arranged objects by Man Ray, Frederick Sommer, John Locklern and Robert Cummings. It was an exploration of an alternative tradition. It was conceived as a show, that by reputation, John wouldn’t have done. He was a big part of my education and I value him enormously but one doesn’t learn only from one person. I don’t think of photography as separate from everything else. I’m a conventionally trained art historian. I wasn’t just interested in photography, even as a teenager.

You returned to the museum in 1981 as an associate curator while earning your PHD at Columbia in art history and succeeded him as chief curator in 1991. As chief curator, what would you describe as the seminal exhibit for you that began your tenure and brought your vision to the walls at MoMA?
 Each exhibit is an experiment that seems useful to do at the time. When John Szarkowski came to MoMA his first exhibition was “5 Unrelated Photographers” which was a deliberate effort to challenge the Steichen era. Steichen was a great man. He was one of the great photographers of the 20th century but as a curator he was wrapped up in the idea of photography as mass communication, which really didn’t have a place in a museum. When John came here, in addition to his formidable talents as a curator, he also returned the photography department to the conventional museum functions as a curatorial department that began under Beaumont & Nancy Newhall. That was a big change: a bigger than normal change from one curator to another. Nevertheless, I did an exhibition that was planned while John was still chief and he helped me a lot. “The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” opened in the fall of 1991. The show was based on the recognition of the theme: bourgeois life as seen from the inside, a common aspect in a broad range of contemporary work, especially in this country. The show turned out to be only American photographs. It was also an attempt to deal with photography’s documentary traditions with some of the new roles of photography in the art world. On one end it had Nicolas Nixon and on the other end it had Cindy Sherman. As chief curator the first show I did was from the permanent collection of work made since 1980. It was called “More than One Photography.” This was my “Five Unrelated Photographers.”

What is the greatest challenge you face as a curator?
 For photography critics, curators and historians of my generation, the biggest single challenge is to try to deal with the fact that there are still two photographic worlds: old photographic traditions and the newer traditions that result from the uses of photography developed in the art world. Even though there is more exchange and overlap between those two worlds than there was twenty-five years ago, there are still two different worlds. As part of my job, I need to be responsive to both of them and to encourage them to be aware of each other.

You have had the opportunity to work with so many living artists. How would you describe that experience?
 It’s great! MoMA’s mission includes contemporary art, not just contemporary art. The hypothesis is that the oldest things here are related to the newest things here. It’s an honor and a pleasure to work with the people who actually make these things.

Can you tell us of some of the memorable artists you’ve met?
 Henri Cartier-Bresson is the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. He was intelligent in every aspect of life. My definition of an intellectual is not somebody who has read a lot of books, but is somebody that in the areas that matter to them, refuses to accept received wisdom. In my opinion, all good artists are intellectuals in that sense: in matters they care about they think through themselves. That’s extremely refreshing.

The summer ’05 Lee Friedlander exhibit was one of the largest solo exhibits of a living photographer. Friedlander also made his debut at MoMA in a large group exhibit “The Photographer’s Eye” in 1964 and again in 1967 in Szarkowski’s “New Documents” exhibit. In organizing this exhibit what most intrigued you?
 Lee Friedlander is a rare case of someone who is extremely talented and has managed to keep an original artistic vision alive and growing. That’s very impressive! I felt very lucky to work on that exhibit. It is so rich! I was just in Munich a couple of weeks ago installing the show there and it was like a whole new adventure! The challenge to a curator is to be alert across the board. Of course, no curator can entirely achieve that but the three photographers that Szarkowski elected as the major young talents in the sixties: Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander. Now you could add other people, but it would be hard to object to those three! A lot of people never actually looked very hard at Winogrand, Friedlander and Arbus. Arbus is a little different because of the sensationalism connected to her images, but I would say that the art world in general still doesn’t have a clue as to who Garry Winogrand is and Lee is just beginning to be recognized as a towering figure in the art world. This is one of the great artistic figures of the second half of the 20th century! The most radical of those three was Winogrand and as a result, he’s still the one who is the least appreciated. He became so sophisticated photographing in the open street that it would be really hard for someone to compete with him. The only other photographer who can is Phillip Lorca Di Corcia and he’s just done that.

You have observed photography’s incredible technological shifts from the standard black and white silver print to color to digital. All of these media changes have certainly affected the format of the photographic image, but do you believe it has also affected the content?
 This is another way of recasting the formalist idea. There are several formalist ideas but the useful one is that you can’t separate form and content: a change in form is a change in content. The language creates these different words so that we can talk around something that is indivisible. So I believe that you can’t have the same content in a different form. If the picture looks different, what it means is something different.

Scale is one of the overriding issues with photography today. Do you think that scale is one of the factors that has contributed to the photograph’s place in galleries that formerly were devoted to painting?
 That’s a very complicated question. The simplest answer is market conditions. There is an existing market for things that you hang on your wall that are big and colorful enough to get some attention. So it’s quite natural for artists who want to compete in that arena to make large images. Scale, of course is also an artistic opportunity. Jeff Wall, with whom I am working with on a show, responds to a certain kind of painting in his work. For him, the key thing is to make a picture that deals with the scale of the viewer’s body as found in the great post Renaissance painting tradition. For Wall, Gursky, and others working in this manner, their work would be reduced in quality if reduced in scale. Many mid-twentieth century photographers, by tradition, chose to make images 11” x 14” or smaller, although it was possible to make larger pictures. Richard Avedon was unique in that way. The first large images he made were those multi-frame pictures like the Andy Warhol Factory or Mission Command where, in consequence, the figures were life-size. But remember that our judgments of artistic quality don’t just follow size. Conventional old fashioned photography was not very impressive on the wall but it looks great in books! If you have a good copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans, you own a great work of art.

Moving MoMA to Queens and back again created a major shift in audience and focus for the museum. In Queens, the space was dramatically different from the new Manhattan building. How do you think that affects the way you curate? Does the space itself, dictate a sense of scale?
 One of the things I learned, and I learned this partly with the Friedlander show, working in the big sixth floor gallery, is that it really doesn’t matter. What I noticed is that if you have an eight-by-ten inch image on the wall you’re really only going to be away from it by about three or four feet. The principle of Friedlander’s show, and this came out of his work, is to show everything in groups. That’s how he worked. The result is that the work had the scale of much bigger works of art.

Do you feel that museums are changing their approach to exhibitions in order to appeal to the larger public interest?
 In this museum the curatorial staff tries to figure out what art needs to get shown and then show what is most original, what is the best, what is most interesting. Ultimately, it’s for the public, but the public is made up of individuals, each brings their own interpretation to the art. It is up to us to clarify and provide the opportunity to the public to encounter the real thing.

Do you see any hesitation on the part of museums or collectors in acquiring or exhibiting digital imagery?
 It’s the artist’s job to make the things, and it’s the museum’s job to care for them. Twentieth century art, in conservation terms is the biggest nightmare of any art period. What has emerged is a much more active relationship between the artist and the conservators. We work with artists in a number of ways to understand how they’ve made things but also to suggest ways of making things last longer. We have a very expensive freezer system for color photographs from the seventies into the eighties when color was extremely fugitive. Now the digital print, if it’s done properly, can last a very long time but the original digital file- that’s another matter! The digital file, however, is not the work of art, the interpreted print is.

What exhibit plans do you have for the future at MoMA?
 The gallery’s been open for a year and we’re still moving back into the museum. There’s a lot of behind- the-scenes settling in. We’ve returned to our Fall New Photography series. We’ve got a wonderful sponsor, JGS who has committed to sponsoring the first three years of that series. We’re planning to change the whole permanent collection display twice a year. The big new contemporary art galleries on the second floor will rotate about once a year. They’re not just painting and sculpture galleries anymore, they include everything.

Where do you see photography ten years from now? Any visions?
 Artists lead and museums follow.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is located at 11 W 53 St. in Manhattan. 212.708.9400 Peter Galassi was the Chief Curator of Photography at the MoMA from 1986–2011. Quentin Bajac was appointed The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in January 2013. Since joining the Museum, Mr. Bajac has co-organized the exhibition Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection (2015), and organized A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio (2014) and Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949 (2014) (with Curator Sarah Meister).

Originally published at Focus Fine Art Photography Magazine.

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