1000 Words

Curator Conversations

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Curator Conversations is a collection of interviews with leading curators working within contemporary photography today. It offers precious insights into key modes of thinking behind the curatorial practices that have resulted in influential and landmark exhibitions at galleries and museums across the globe, including MoMA, Tate Modern, Pompidou Centre, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Finnish Museum of Photography, Zeitz MOCAA – Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Instituto Moreira Salles and SCôP: Shanghai Center of Photography, among others.

Set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many institutions were forced to close to the public, these interviews provide wide-ranging discussions and a strong sense of critical self-reflexivity to explore the various ways curating mediates our experience and understanding of the photographic image. Among the fundamental questions engaged in the book are the medium specificity of photography; exhibitions as ‘artwork’; critical contexts for imagery; the curator’s role; collaboration and community; notions of ethics, responsibility and care; relationships between artists and curators, museums and audiences; as well as propositions for decolonisation through forms of curatorial activism. Ultimately, this volume sheds light on the aesthetic, political and personal concerns of creative individuals involved in exhibition-making, generating new pathways for thinking about the display and dissemination of photography.

Featuring Sarah Allen, Mariama Attah, Yves Chatap, Clément Chéroux, Charlotte Cotton, Christine Eyene, Louise Fedotov-Clements, Yining He, Tom Lovelace, Roxana Marcoci, Renée Mussai, Thyago Nogueira, Azu Nwagbogu, Danaé Panchaud, Alona Pardo, Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger, Holly Roussell, Kathrin Schönegg, Urs Stahel, Lisa Sutcliffe, Duncan Wooldridge

Editor Tim Clark
Copy Editor Alex Merola
Design & Art Direction Sarah Boris
Production Assistant Louis Stopforth

Tim Clark is a writer and curator based in London. He is also the Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. 

Publication date March 2021
Format Softcover
Dimensions 198 mm x 129 mm
Pages 144
Publisher 1000 Words (1000 Words Photography Ltd)

Press:

Source Photographic Review
El País
Photomonitor
The British Journal of Photography

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.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#2 Lisa Sutcliffe

Lisa Sutcliffe is the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. From 2007-12, she served as Assistant Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Among the exhibitions Sutcliffe organised at SFMOMA were Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories (2012), developed in association with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography (2009), the first survey of SFMOMA’s internationally renowned collection of Japanese photography. In her current role she has curated numerous exhibitions including Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals (2016)Sara Cwynar: Image Model Muse (2018)The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison (2018); James Benning and Sharon Lockhart: Over Time (2019) and Susan Meiselas: Through a Woman’s Lens (2020). She received an MA in the History of Art from Boston University, where she specialised in the history of photography, and a BA in Art History from Wellesley College.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

I like making an argument through a sequence of images – telling a story about history and culture through objects. This kind of context is so important – it can transform our understanding of ideas large and small. Walking through an exhibition with the public is so rewarding because you can watch as people learn to see.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

We’re experienced sifters of visual information. I immediately think of historical references whenever I see a great picture, and I can sort through “the rest” much more efficiently. I think it is our job to interpret visual language by pointing to historical and cultural context and references.

Our field will undoubtedly be shifting due to the current pandemic and I wonder what it will mean to be a curator in an age of social distancing. I hope we can see this as an opportunity to find new ways to engage the public.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

I think one of the most invaluable skills is having an excellent visual memory. It’s like being fluent in a language and knowing how to find all the references you need to put together an argument.

What was your route into curating?

My mother was a painter, so art has always been an important part of my life and a tool I use to understand the world. I was always particularly interested in photography, but found that I enjoyed interpreting photographs made by others more than making them myself. So I began interning at galleries and museums when I was in college. Afterwards, I went to graduate school to study art history and continued seeking out internships (at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum). My first position after graduate school was as a curatorial fellow at the deCordova. These kinds of opportunities for emerging curators are so important! From there I became an Assistant Curator in the photography department at SFMOMA, and now I am the Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

I’ve seen countless exhibitions that I have liked for various reasons. In terms of what makes something memorable for me, I think it again has to do with context – when an exhibition is site-specific or conceived for a space/time/place, for example.

Sophie Calle’s exhibition at Paris’ Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in 2017 was a wonderful example of an artist inserting her work into a unique collection (of objects and symbols of hunting) in a way that both gave new meaning to her work and transformed our understanding of the collection in which it was shown. How fitting for Calle, whose work examines themes of absence, love, death, often by constructing conceptual games for herself, to interact with a collection dedicated to the hunt. It was playful, vibrant, cerebral, and fresh.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

I think this is a vital question right now. As curators we are responsible for considering equity and inclusion in how we conceive of exhibitions, build collections, and advocate for artists. We have a responsibility to provide a platform for diverse voices and narratives and we must ensure that the institution provides a responsible framework for the conversations we engage in with our public. It is not enough simply to add work to the collection, we must also advocate for artists, which includes providing a platform for their vision and paying them for their time and ideas. W.A.G.E. is a good resource for this in the US.

We must also ask how our institutions are responsible to the communities we represent and serve. When I organised The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison in 2018, I formed partnerships with local and national groups and it was imperative that we didn’t exploit any of these collaborations. One of the most important ways to effect change is to ensure there are diverse voices represented and heard within curatorial/museum staff.

We can’t allow this important work to be sidelined when the economy tightens. The world needs artists and photographers more than ever to make sense of and help us recover from this pandemic.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

That curating is something that can be done with recipe lists and the shoes in your closet. Curating is about caring for objects – making sure they are preserved and conserved – and interpreting their cultural and historical narratives.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

You have to be a great advocate as well as a mediator (and sometimes a therapist). You have to be willing to fight for your ideas, for funding, for artists’ rights and dozens of other things, and you have to do so without creating any conflict. Collaboration is vital when you work for an institution; it takes an effective team to get projects accomplished. ♦

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.

Images:

1-Lisa Sutcliffe

2-View of the exhibition Penelope Umbrico: Future Perfect at Milwaukee Art Museum, 2016.

3-View of the exhibition The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison at Milwaukee Art Museum, 2018.

Christian Patterson

Bottom of the Lake

Essay by Lisa Sutcliffe

Bottom of the Lake brings together Christian Patterson and Paul Schiek, both from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a city of nearly 45,000 people perched on the southern end of Lake Winnebago. The city’s name is French for ‘bottom (or foot) of the lake,’ from which the series of photographs draws its name. In 2006, Schiek, the founder of TBW Books and a photographer himself, began a subscription series of four annual titles, which would include both emerging and well-known artists. Patterson’s group includes Raymond Meeks, Alessandra Sanguinetti, and Wolfgang Tillmans and each book is identical in size, shape, and binding, like a periodical. Taking advantage of the opportunity to make personal and poetic work, Patterson made the pictures over two days when he was home for the holidays. The resulting photographs reveal less about the place than they do about a way of seeing. Indeed, it is difficult to discern much, if anything, about the lakeside city from the abstract and enigmatic pictures. So what do we see?

A few themes are immediately apparent and provide an outline for Patterson’s forensic methods and focused vision. Weaving together diverse visual threads, which overlap again and again, and maintaining the emotional distance he employed in the critically acclaimed Redheaded Peckerwood, Patterson challenges us to analyse and dissect his book, as if it is a problem waiting to be solved. He employs an approach that has come to define his bookmaking: multi-faceted storytelling using a specific colour palette punctured by black-and-white pictures and comprising still-life, landscape, appropriated material, drawings and objects.

Two subjects, a phonebook and a lighthouse, recur throughout the sequence, serving as a key to understanding the structure of the work through time and place. The book opens and closes with an image of the first Yellow Pages published in Fond du Lac after Patterson’s birth. Returning to the time he was born, he presents us with the page that lists taverns, many with colourful names, such as Inn-Ka-Hoots and Attitude Adjustment Hour. How can a city of 45,000 support so many bars, he seems to ask? Patterson sets out to discover which of these pubs from 1973 still exist. As his exploration progresses, we discover matchbooks from these locales posed as fictional advertisements, clip art from the phonebook, and the extant taverns themselves. Apart from the drinking culture, Fond du Lac is known for its lighthouse – a beacon on the shores of the lake. By photographing the interior walls of the lighthouse and the ‘X’ beams that support the structure itself he transforms the town icon into an unrecognisable abstraction. It is as if Patterson returned to his hometown on a mission of discovery: using the yellow pages as his map, the lighthouse as his bearing and the taverns, landscape, and ephemera as signs to be read. The contrast between how the town is publicly known (a safe harbour at the edge of a lake) and the darker connotations that come with a pastime of drinking presents a clinical response to the uncharted perils of harsh winter living.

The polysemous title, Bottom of the Lake, references the literal translation of the city’s name and its location, and also elicits a mood drawn from the deep depths of murky water. The pictures themselves are silent and cold, as if submerged. Colour is an important element in setting this mood. Patterson, who worked with William Eggleston and whose first book, Sound Affects (published by Kaune Sudendorf in 2008) emphasised the relationship between colour and musicality, is savvy in his ability to coax feeling (or the lack thereof) from colour. Both Sound Affects and Redheaded Peckerwood embraced a saturated, even acidic palette that popped against the black-and-white ephemera he so adores. In Bottom of the Lake, the spectrum is confined to a specific blue niche (between a pale sea green and robin’s egg – drawn from the cover of the 1973 Yellow Pages) as if Patterson had translated the crystallised mist of a cold winter day from the air onto emulsion. Each page has only the essential colours against a wood grain that sets the neutral tone – and even the black-and-white pictures are stark, cold, flinty, and crisp.

The taverns, all in black-and-white, enhance this sense of coldness. Often dark and run down, the buildings show their age: a distinct American type, decrepit, with peeling paint and dripping icicles. We never see the interiors or the patrons that keep these establishments in business. The snowdrifts in the foreground build an extra barrier between us – distancing us further from their warmth. It seems as if we’re on a midnight tour, and signs of life are distant or hidden. The depiction of these buildings as aged and frozen evokes both the passage of time and the impossibility of return and the simultaneous memory that remains unchanged.

The series rewards close looking; while the contextual relationships are slower to emerge, formal patterns unite the pictures. Landscapes, images of snowfall, and wood grain seamlessly interweave the progression. Many of the pictures refer to the lighthouse and the landscape surrounding it: the stone monument at its base and the cornerstone, so worn that it no longer reveals the 1933 date the lighthouse was built. These abstract references to the landmark have resonance for the artist, but for us they are sculptural, detached, the connections intangible. Patterson explains, “In the short period of time that I spent making this work, several motifs emerged – the colour blue, snow, stone, water and wood. These natural elements are a common part of life in this northern lakeside town. I was also interested in their abstract visual qualities, and their abilities to resemble one another. There are photographs of snow that resembles stone, wood that resembles water, stone that resembles wood, water frozen into ice, and snow melting into water.”

Bottom of the Lake is not a story about returning home, instead it speaks to transformations in vision and point of view as one evolves as a person. Patterson notes, “I now see Fond du Lac through a strange prism with many different sides – the faded, hazy views of a native, a son, a child, an adolescent and a teenager; the clearer, more discerning eyes of an adult; and now, I hope, the more perceptive gaze of an artist. I guess that gaze is more than just one side of the prism; it is the prism itself.” 

All images courtesy Rose Gallery and Robert Morat Galerie. © Christian Patterson.


Lisa Sutcliffe is the curator of photography at Milwaukee Art Museum.