Dan Leers became the Carnegie Museum of Art’s second Curator of Photography in 2015, and has been getting us to look at photography in new and interesting ways ever since. Having just exhibited some of the world’s oldest photographs, the Carnegie Museum of Art will open a major exhibition of contemporary photography by Deana Lawson on March 15. Jen Saffron, Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and a photographer, herself, talks with Dan Leers about his vision for the photography program at the museum and what photographs might do for Pittsburgh.
So, Dan, the Talbot show just closed out – awesome exhibition and very rare, not just for Pittsburgh. How did that happen?
I realized in so many of those pictures there was such incredible detail – you could get up close and count the cobblestones in the street, read the signs posted at the construction site of Trafalgar Square. This detail is a lot of what photography actually was for Talbot, that he could take the lens off this machine and it would record everything much more accurately than his hand could have ever drawn it. When you’re talking about detail, you are talking about time, nostalgia, history and I think all of those elements are present in his work and that was one reason for doing a show like that – simply showing these incredibly detailed and early photographs.
Another reason is our relationship with a generous donor of the museum, William Talbott Hillman who is a collector of photography and a photographer, himself, from Pittsburgh – he has a great relationship with the museum, and owns several Talbot photographs. When I first visited him to see his collection in New York City, these early, early photographs sparked the idea that this was the very beginning of photography, this is the first time I am meeting Mr. Hillman, and this is the perfect way to solidify the relationship with the museum.
In the course of organizing the show I was looking at his collection but also building on it with loans from places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art to fill out the big picture of who William Henry Fox Talbot was – he was the quintessential Renaissance man. He was someone who knew a little bit about a lot – botany and chemistry and art history and astronomy – and all of that is in the photographs. I saw themes running through these pictures: the idea of place, his house, his home, his family, his objects, still life, genre-type photographs. So, I started arranging this show and it became 31 photographs. On its face that doesn’t seem like a lot, but these things are incredibly fragile, so 31 is the largest Talbot show in this country in the past 15 years.
You just mentioned place, home, objects, still life imagery. Fast forward, you’re about to open Deana Lawson’s show. While Deana’s work almost looks like a candid photograph, we know from studying her work that these are highly posed works – they are so different than Talbot in mood, tone, temporality, yet you can see the relationship. Can you talk a little bit about how that relationship works for you, as a curator, when you’re looking at such different/similar bodies of work?
Probably there are more differences than similarities in the work but you’re right, there are genres like portraiture and still life that are very much present in Deana’s work that exist absolutely in Talbot’s. We can go back to Renaissance and Medieval art, and ground ourselves in conversations about Deana’s work in those [periods], but understanding that it’s significant that she herself is an African American photographer, female photographer, making pictures of other African American or African diaspora people. She’s taking those very traditional genres or themes and inserting her own vision into them. [Her sitters] bear the weight of heavier conversations about beauty and what is beauty and what defines beauty. And, how do we indicate wealth? Is it purely material or is there spiritual wealth?
I think Deana raises all of those questions in her beautiful and challenging and difficult way. I would say that most of the time her subjects look back at us and challenge us about what are accepted or stereotypical notions of beauty and identity. Part of it is about discomfort. I liken it to the car accident where you know you’re not supposed to look but you can’t help but rubberneck. That’s the sign of a good photograph, regardless of the subject, you want to look but you feel a little uncomfortable looking – you are challenged, you are on your toes, you are thinking in ways you may not have been thinking as a more passive viewer or a voyeur.
If we were take a 10,000 foot view of what you just said, it seems like you are interested in challenging the museum to think about photography in new ways, to reconsider its role in the museum and therefore think about the museum’s relationship to its audiences – what are you hoping to elicit from the audience? What do you think this show of Deana’s will elicit?
I’m interested in the different forms or functions of photography, and if you take Talbot as one book end then Deana is the other, and the history of photography happens in between. I think what’s really important is that I am trying to present different ways of looking at photography or making photography that people are probably familiar with at least in some way, but maybe they haven’t seen or thought about on their own. I am very interested in presenting a diversity of identities and perspectives that will hopefully serve a wide variety of the Pittsburgh local population as well as people coming to Pittsburgh from further afield.
I feel very fortunate that I work with photography in that it’s something almost everyone is comfortable with, now through our cell phones and it’s a way that most people feel like they can get a foothold in the museum. I’m looking for a hook, and photography can be that hook – when the subject of the photograph, like in Deana’s work, is looking right at you and you stop and lock eyes with them, then the experience may be more meaningful and different than you might have with any other kind of art work.
You’ve set about acquiring new artists and bodies of work for the museum’s photography collection. Knowing that people only see a fraction of the collection and the museum by its nature a collecting institution, what’s in our collection? You landed here as a curator and have this collection and also relationships with people outside the museum - relationships that can help shape the collection. What kind of collection do you want, and can you talk about some of your recent acquisitions?
Well, first off I will say that the collection here is an idiosyncratic one. We’ve got about 5,000 photographs, and about 75% of them are pictures of Pittsburgh or pictures made by somebody from Pittsburgh [and that’s not including the Teenie Harris Archive]. It’s certainly the largest holding of pictures of Pittsburgh in an art museum. And, rather than turning away from that, I am interested in embracing that and understanding that as our foundation.
That doesn’t mean we only acquire pictures of Pittsburgh. I’m interested in thinking about it more broadly. That can happen in a lot of different ways. If we think about pictures of Pittsburgh as pictures of a city, or pictures of an industrialized city, well that opens us to think about lots of places like NYC, Chicago, Birmingham, England or Birmingham, Alabama. We can also think about the concept of place - there are many photographers who lived in only one city and only made photographs in that place. What does that mean? What does that do for a collection of photographs?
I am also interested in expanding beyond what we could call the classic or canonical list of artists and movements in the history of photography. It’s only recently that museums have begun to think about vernacular photography or photography made by amateurs. One of the largest acquisitions I’ve made since I’ve come to the museum was about 200 photographs made by amateurs and hobbyists showing daily life. These are the kinds of photographs you have in shoeboxes under your bed. These are the postcards you see at the drugstore. This is the way that photographs exist for most of us. For most of us, we don’t have the pristine, framed black and white photographs, we have the family photo album. So, why isn’t that in our museum?
I’m also interested in expanding the collection in terms of the artists we are representing. Female artists, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ artists – people from these communities have been underrepresented in museum collections and exhibitions and I think that is a mistake. We’ve set about trying to build our collection by acquiring works by Deana Lawson and Mickalene Thomas and many other artists.
I’ve also expanded the collection to include work by African photographers because I’ve lived in and done a lot of research on photography on the African continent. These are important works that have traditionally been ignored by museums. It’s not about presenting competing histories, it’s about parallel histories. What was happening in South African versus what was happening in the U.S.? What was happening in Brazil during a certain period of time? What was happening in Japan? I am really keen to have our collection raise and perhaps answer some of those questions.
As you’ve been saying, photography is not in a vacuum and while some of what we do requires specialized gear and knowledge and science, the majority of photographs tare taken are taken by mothers of small children and we’re all taking photos with our phones. Photography is ubiquitous. So, what do you think is a healthy relationship between curators like you who are in a specialized world of collecting photographs for institutions and the galleries that support more local work and the local buyers? What does that ecosystem look like for you and how does that play out in Pittsburgh?
You hit on it by calling it an ecosystem. The Museum and I are a part of a constellation of outlets that support photography, whether it is Silver Eye or the Mattress Factory or Concept Art Gallery or the PGH Photo Fair all of those are different places where people experience or see photography. Not to mention all of the colleges and universities and their photography programs. I am very interested in being a contributing part of that constellation. We might have the ability, resources, and desire to show photography in a way that other institutions might not but that’s not better or worse, that’s just different.
I am also always interested in seeing what artists are doing – I take my cue from what photographers and artists are thinking about. I am a curator but I am also a person. I like meeting people and hearing what they are interested in. They make other introductions for me to artists and ideas I didn’t know about and I am eager to learn about, and I hope that it’s a two–way street. I hope in turn they can come here and learn something from us.
I don’t want to turn my back on the fact that Pittsburgh forms the backbone of our collection. I am eager to engage with local makers and have started conversations about acquisitions with local artists. I think an artist working here has just a viable practice as an artist working in New York City or any other place. These artists are sometimes even more interesting to us as we can connect it to our collection and our communities. If I find ways to make those local connections and expand them more broadly, then I am doing my job.
Photo captions, in order of appearance:
William Henry Fox Talbot
Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, first week of April 1844
Salted paper print from a calotype negative
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift and Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts; 2004 Benefit Fund; W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Gift; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel; Susan and Thomas Dunn and Constance and Leonard Goodman
© 2018 Deana Lawson