Sandra Phillips — SFMOMA

Sandra Phillips is Senior Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an institution that has dynamically supported and collected photography since its opening in 1935. Phillips received a B.A. in art and art history from Bard College in 1967 and an M.A. from Bryn Mawr College in 1969. She earned a Ph.D. in art history in 1985 from the City University of New York, where she specialized in the history of photography and American and European art from 1849 to 1940. Phillips has written and lectured widely on photography and is the author or co-author of several books and catalogues. Her recent exhibitions include: “John Szarkowski: Photographs”; “Diane Arbus Revelation”; “Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence”; and “Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation.” Despite the globalization of media and the arts, regional differences are a curious reminder that a sense of place still informs our imagery. Sandra Phillips has an unusual vantage point having grown up with the New York’s MoMA and overseeing the photography collection at SFMOMA.

All of your university degrees, including your Ph.d. from the City of New York, are in art and art history where you specialized in the history of photography along with American and European art from 1849 to 1940. did you have a primary mentor for the study of photography’s history at that time?
 No, but I grew up in New York and loved museums, and I consider myself a student of the work shown at the MoMA. In fact, I remember seeing the show, “New Documents.” I remember seeing the Arbus pictures because I went with a friend, and she thought it would be fun to go. I remember seeing a man spit at some of the pictures in the show.

When did you gravitate towards photography as a field of study?
 I come from a family of art people — my dad was an architect, my mom a landscape architect, and I thought I would be a painter, so when I went to school, that’s what I studied. But I became more interested in looking at art, and it seemed really interesting that no one was then taking the history of modern American art really seriously — this was in the 60s. And then when I got more involved in modern American art, it seemed that one of the major contributions was in photography, which was even less studied, and that intrigued me even more.

Under the direction of curator John Humphrey, SFMOMA was one of the first museums to recognize photography as an art form, over 70 years ago. Can you tell us what initiated that recognition and began the process of creating the SFMOMA’s photography collection in 1935, the same year that it opened? Was there a special collection donated to the museum at that time?
 The San Francisco Museum of Art, as it was then called, was founded by a group of wealthy local individuals. You realize that San Francisco became a city very suddenly when gold was discovered, so everyone in the world was interested in San Francisco, and the 49ers were here and many of them used the services of the daguerreotypists to send records of their recent fortunes back home. There has been a very strong interest in photography here since the 19th century — remember Carleton Watkins, Muybridge, and others used this as their base. There has never been a tradition of important art created here — that is relatively new, but when the museum was founded in the 30s there was an impressive range of important photographers he could own or lease. This might include tents, caves, pictures made within buildings, etc. He is still an active collector, and I tease him that we’re planning the Return of the Paul and Prentice Sack Collection.

SFMOMA recently received another significant donation from the Emil & Silverstein Collection. what distinguishes this collection from the Sack collection?
 This is a very different collection — I would describe the pictures as psychologically informed. It is historical, but the emphasis is on work of surrealist inflection produced in the 1930s and the present. The pictures are also in their own way very personally meaningful to their owners, in a very different way from the work in the Sack collection.

SFMOMA prides itself as having from the first, viewed photography as a modernist art form. Its collection of over 15,000 prints is known for its early American and European modernist photographers as well as western American Landscape photography. how does modernist photography differ from contemporary photography? Would you define photography in the same terms today as in the days of your predecessor, Van deren Coke, who established the department of photography in 1980?
 I would define modernist photography as photographs which aspire to modern art, and which were made by Americans and Europeans in the 1920s and 30s, essentially. Since I came to the museum, in 1987, I have enlarged the scope to include 19th century and have emphasized our tradition of landscape representation. Coke thought about photography in terms of modernist art — I believe the concerns of contemporary photographers are related but different.

In 1980 the exhibit “California Photography 1945–1980” examined the aesthetic and history of photographic image-making unique to California. do you think there remains a special sensibility that divides West Coast from East Coast photography?
 First, I had nothing to do with the California show, but yes, I would generally say that in the west there is an abiding interest in land use and land issues, which is not generally shared by photographers or audiences for photography in the east.

In California today, what influences define West Coast photography?
 There is more of an understanding of Asia here.

Before coming to SFMOMA in 1987, you were the curator at Vassar Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York. did your experience at Vassar provide you with a heightened sensitivity to women photographers?
 Not really, I was there for about a year. But in general, photography has provided women with opportunities not so obvious or available in other fields.

You have organized exhibits and written numerous essays on women photographers, most notable Dorothea Lange in 1994 and Helen Levitt in 1991. Your essay “women Artists in California & Their Engagement in photography” appeared in the book Art/Women/California 1950–2000. what special concerns faced women photographers in the past and do you believe that many of those photographers may still be undervalued?
 If you mean monetarily undervalued I suppose you could say that, but this is an aspect of the field that really doesn’t interest me too much. The “concerns” that women faced in the past are ones they — we — face today. If we are mothers who need to work, how do we do this? That is probably the most obvious difference.

There is an interesting story about one of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photos, a migrant farm worker named Florence Thompson. As Lange’s photo gained wider recognition and value, Florence and her children came forward, angry that neither monetary compensation nor a copy of the photo were ever given to them. You recently organized the Diane Arbus exhibit, another controversial photographer often accused of exploiting her subjects. How do you address this issue when the subject comes up?
 Well, Lange worked for the government, she had a job, and her photographs were made to serve a purpose, one that she very much believed in — then the times changed. I do not think she would have said she was exploiting her subjects. And frankly I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that Arbus “exploited” her subjects either — they look very interested in her, as much as she in them. When she was making these images, they were very new, very raw material. I don’t think you would see anyone today spitting on her photograph of a young man in curlers, as I saw in the MoMA exhibit “New Documents.” I think we’ve become more tolerant, as a culture.

Documentary photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, never anticipated their work on a museum or gallery wall. Their photographs told a story meant for the printed page of national magazines. It seems that today’s documentary photographers anticipate a museum or gallery exhibit along with a well-designed coffee table book. do you think that the nature of documentary photography has changed to appeal to a more limited audience?
 Photography has changed technologically, and the ambition of certain photographers has changed, I think that is the way I would put it. Someone wise once said that the process gets easier but the number of important photographs remains the same. There is a lot of indifferent work being made, but some very interesting work as well.

Many of the snapshots of today, along with the news photos of our time, are in digital form. It is very likely that no “paper trail” will exist in the future for these kinds of images. The history of fine art photography is filled with images that were never intended to be considered fine art. Is this concept lost forever to future collectors and curators?
 If so, maybe that is not such a bad option — look at all the bad stuff out there, and consider all the time needed to sort out the good from the dull.

You’ve spent a good deal of research time at the Vatican Photography Collection and received a Getty fellowship to return to Rome and continue your research. What special fascination does this collection hold for you?
 It’s mainly unknown work by unknown photographers from all over the world.

With John Szarkowski, you organized a major retrospective on Ansel Adams, in 2001, then curated a major retrospective of Szarkowski’s photographs that recently traveled to the NY MoMA. What’s next for SFMOMA? Any future plans for another major retrospective such as one on Van Deren Coke?
 My next big project will be on voyeurism and surveillance. I’m working on a big exhibit about things that are forbidden to be photographed: like violence and death and sexual images. It is also about how we are watched and our ambivalence about photography. It is about a culture that is ferociously looking at images that are taboo.

Sandra Phillips joined the SFMOMA in 1987 and officially retired as of July 1, 2016. Clément Chéroux is the new curator of photography at the SFMOMA. The museum is located at 151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets) San Francisco, California. For general information call (415) 357–4000 or visit www.sfmoma.org.


Originally published at Focus Fine Art Photography Magazine.

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