#8 Charlotte Cotton
Charlotte Cotton is a curator, writer and creative consultant who has explored photographic culture for over twenty years. She has held positions including Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Head of Programming at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, and Curator and Head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at LACMA | Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her books include Public, Private, Secret: On Photography and the Configuration of Self (Aperture/International Center of Photography, 2018); Photography is Magic (Aperture, 2015); This Place (MACK, 2014); Words Without Pictures (Aperture, 2010) and The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2004), which has been published in ten languages and is a key text in charting the rise of photography as an undisputed art form in the 21st century. The fourth edition will be published in September 2020. She is also the co-founder of eitherand.org.
What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?
For me, it’s the scope of possibilities within the exhibition form that is enticing. I return to exhibition-making when a physical orchestration – a spatially-led staging – is the form that an idea needs to take. I think about where in the body an experience is held – in the gut, the throat, fingertips, or immediately laid out for the mind’s eye. I think about the shift in the tonality of conversations from bedrooms, kitchens, and formal dining rooms and how that translates into exhibition design – the meaning of thresholds, acoustics, vantage points, enclosures, and twists and turns that you build into an exhibition’s narrative, embedded into the architecture of the space. I absolutely love the process of making exhibitions – from the openness of an idea in gestation, the critique and testing of a concept, through to the coming together of the exhibition form. My favourite part is the exhibition installation when all eyes are on the job and everyone is aiming for the same idea of excellence, and responding to the planned and unexpected of giving form.
What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?
I don’t think that the vocation of being a curator is fundamentally changed by our present day image environment. Curating remains an act of creating (experiences and exchanges) for other people – of “taking care”. I prefer the verb version of “curate” (and also “photograph”) to their noun definitions – I like both to be acknowledged as metabolic action, and that levelling of the hierarchies of who has claim to what can be done in the name of photography – or its curation – is well overdue and called forth in this age of data excess, fake news, and hyper-surveillance. I don’t confuse curating with image editing or connoisseurship, or with the roles of impresarios, A&R’s, taste-makers, or academics. On a bad day, when I suspect that I’m in a situation where “curator” means something I am not comfortable with, because it’s too elite or co-opted in the given context, I’ll shift to being an interlocutor – “someone who is involved in a conversation”.
What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?
Rigorous yet open curiosity.
What was your route into curating?
The earliest memories I have from childhood are pretty formative of my chosen path. Through the 1970s, my parents were antique furniture restorers, working with pre-factory production “vernacular” furniture (it was “country” furniture back in the day), from across the British Isles. They supplied antiques dealers, interior designers, and collectors, mainly in London and across the West Coast of America. Container loads of furniture would arrive for restoration and it was a total thrill for me and my sister to touch, open, and choose our favourite pieces, play, and invent stories about where the furniture came from. To watch the furniture transformed with care, and my parents’ subsequent research and writing of the first history of British regional, working class furniture-making – their articulate empathy for where creativity lies – was undoubtedly my curatorial education. We also met amazing, glamorous, charismatic people who would come to do business. Our 1979 family road trip along the Pacific Highway and my first trip to Portobello Road have pretty much defined where and how I like to live and who I am close to. This visceral training is something that I am thinking about during COVID-19 lockdown. You might be able to tell that I’ve returned to the town where I was born! I’m walking in the woods and lanes with my 17-month-old nephew and watching him experience the feel of moss, look up into the tree canopies with amazement, give hugs to beautiful trees, and his sheer joy at aesthetic experience, and it is the best part of my day. When I was a teenager, photography became my passion because of the aesthetic experience it gives me, its embedded-ness in lived experience, and the kindnesses, fellowship and joy of its interlocutors. Which leads me on to your next question.
What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?
There are many exhibition experiences that I can recall a visual memory of where I was standing, and what I felt. But one of my first memorable experiences was just after I graduated from my BA (Hons) Art History and I went to an exhibition spearheaded by David Elliott at Modern Art Oxford called Photography in Russia: 1840-1940. The constellation of photographs from a century of photographic practice was dense (in a good way), and overwhelming – perhaps some of the characteristics that can still impress me in classic exhibition making. In retrospect, I think I was responding to the way that the exhibition made me move in and out – step back and assess, peer in and engage. There was an autochrome self-portrait by the playwright and novelist Leonid Andreyev from about 1910. I’d never seen an autochrome before, and there was this beautiful man, depicted unexpectedly in colour. I encountered him. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I adore exhibitions that just glide you into paying attention – especially those where you get to think that it is constructed just for you.
What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?
I’ve never shaken off (nor wanted to) the abbreviated top line of my job descriptions for the twelve years that I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum – “to increase the physical and intellectual access to photography”. That’s still a divining rod for when I commit to a curatorial project; whether I have faith that the situation and the team perceive that as the ultimate end goal. I feel great responsibility to the artists who participate in the curatorial projects I create and that they feel well-represented and understood, and I go deeply into channelling and animating historical archives and oeuvres in ways that resonate with contemporary viewership. I actively enjoy the responsibility of understanding, nurturing, publicly acknowledging the teams in which I work. On all levels, I recognise that my curatorial life has been supported, encouraged and allowed to roam by others, and being collegiate in a true sense is one of the last vestiges of why I try to not entirely give up on now-historic frameworks for our labour. Like everyone, I am responsible for acknowledging my inner biases and shortcomings and that’s only possible if you invite in wise counsel and fellowship that calls you out and helps you restructure your thinking. And, finally, (this is a long list of responsibilities, you may be able to tell that I started my career as a museum curator in an age when that meant you were a public servant) you have a responsibility to yourself – I respect my craft, my purpose, my processes, the merits of urgent curiosity, shifting my vantage point, and having something to say.
What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?
That it’s a solitary form of creativity that merits recognition through single authorship. Curating is relational, situational, and collaborative. That’s the joy of it for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring curators?
Try it! Hold your vision and your ideal viewer in close communion, and you will find that right form. And let me know if I can help.♦
Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.
Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.
1-Charlotte Cotton © Christian MacDonald
2-Installation view of Public, Private, Secret, International Center of Photography, New York, 2016-17.
3-Installation view of Public, Private, Secret, International Center of Photography, New York, 2016-17.