Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs at The Museum of the City of New York

Sean Corcoran is the Curator of Prints and Photographs at The Museum of the City of New York. A graduate from Syracuse University, he was previously the Assistant Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. 

Jill Gewirtz (JG): What was involved in your position at George Eastman House and how did it prepare you for working at the Museum of the City of New York?

Sean Corcoran (SC): I worked at the Eastman House for about eight years and my responsibilities changed significantly during my time there. I was hired by Therese Mulligan who is now at Rochester Institute of Technology. When I started at the Eastman House, I was a curatorial assistant. That means I did whatever the curator or department needed. I was really lucky that there were two great archivists, David Wooters and Joe Struble, who I could discuss photography with for hours on end. They had both worked at the museum for about 50 years and knew the collection inside and out. We would talk about photography and they would pull photographs for me to look at.

JG: Essentially they were live educators.

SC: Yes. Between those three, they were really great. It was almost like a graduate school program in photography and the history of photography.

The other great thing about the Eastman House is they have a process historian there, Mark Osterman. He still works there and does workshops on historic processes. He was always experimenting in the labs. If I had free time, I would go over and see what he was doing. He would be making ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, albumen imprints, or salt paper prints. I got to actually see these processes. It was illuminating to be able to see a salt print made and then go to the archive and look at prints. Between the two different curators, the archivists, and the process historian, I had a real education at the Eastman House.

JG: How did your work change during your time at the Eastman House?

Therese eventually left to work at the Rochester Institute of Technology and I took on a lot of new responsibilities. I basically had to keep the department going until they hired Alison Nordstrom whom I worked with for about another three years. That is also where I really learned how to be a curator. I learned all of the mundane details that go into an exhibition, for example how to put a show together and how to do the research to make it possible.

Before leaving, I was the assistant curator, which means I was doing more exhibitions and independent work. I was also coordinating a graduate-level Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program and teaching a class or two.

JG: What are the strong parts of the collection at the Museum of the City of New York?

SC: The museum had been collecting photographs for about 80 years and already had a large collection when I began there. They have about 500,000 photographs in the archive.

The first thing we did institutionally was to survey the existing collection: what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, and how do we move forward? We figured out that the strengths are New York iconography from about 1890 to 1960. There are a lot of architectural photographs, but also documentary and street photography.

JG: How do you determine what to collect? What do you focus on as you review images?

SC: We really want to see where and how people live. We want to see what life in the city looks like. That does not mean we collect street photography per se, but we collect pictures about the way people live in the city.

Recently I have been collecting and exhibiting a lot from the 1970s and 1980s, a time just far enough passed that people still remember it, but they can also view that period more objectively. It was a complex time in the city’s history, so it is interesting to look back on that period and hear lively discussions about what the city was then. It also has a direct impact on what the city is now which, of course, is always interesting.

JG: I know you mentioned in past conversations that you look to collect photographs that capture the social, political, and daily life in New York.

SC: Yes, those three things really are key for us. We do not have a huge acquisition budget and most of our collection is donated, but we buy when we can. Our goal is to show what life in the city is like, and that comes through the eyes of photographers, be it from a more artistic standpoint or a more documentary-style tradition. We often describe ourselves as a history museum that sometimes shows art. We do not really show much conceptual photography.

JG: How do you determine the timing of a show? Are there certain topics you want to address and present to New Yorkers that determine the exhibition schedule?

SC: Timing an exhibition is a real chemistry. There are so many good ideas out there but in reality, we can only do four or five photography shows a year. How do those four or five make it to the top? It is not just because they are the best shows. It is because everything falls into place properly: doing the research, acquiring the work, and raising the money. There are many projects that percolate and slowly develop over many years based on germs of ideas like really wanting to work with a photographer, or a group of photographers, and they move forward slowly until the time is right.

In some cases, an important anniversary makes for an easy decision, but of course the museum has long-term goals. For instance, we want to show the diversity of New York City, whether that is the artists or their subjects. We also want to show life in the outer boroughs because Manhattan tends to get all the attention.

JG: As political events occur, do you coordinate exhibits more spontaneously to express the public issues that arise?

SC: We currently have an exhibition called Beyond Suffrage up right now. That exhibition came about because it is the 100th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote in New York State. We knew that anniversary was coming and we thought it was very timely to trace the history of women’s activism throughout the 20th century to today.

I can offer two other shows as examples. One exhibition we did less than a year after Hurricane Sandy. We made an open call to photographers to submit images for an exhibition that looked back on the storm and the aftermath. Usually we go out and look for photographs, as opposed to passively letting them come in. In this case we edited from thousands of submitted photographs and it worked out well. We got a lot of people involved that do not usually participate in museum exhibitions. Plenty of average citizens sent pictures of their personal experiences. In certain circumstances, this kind of exhibition works well.

More recently, we created an exhibition of photographs of Muslims in New York. Drawn from our permanent collection, the exhibition was in direct response to the current administration’s policy of limiting immigrants, or even visitors, from specific Muslim-dominated countries. We wanted to affirm that Muslims are an important part of our community, and have been, for several hundred years. We wanted to emphasize that Muslims are a part of everyday life and contribute to our quality of life.

JG: Of all the exhibits you have curated, which stand out to you?

SC: I have to admit that I like doing exhibitions about things I feel deserve more attention. I am interested in giving light to somebody who I think really deserves it and maybe has not gotten their due in the past.

Todd Webb, whose work in New York was just outstanding, made in the post-World War II years, was the subject of a recent exhibition. I really felt more people need to know about his work. We have a small collection of Todd’s work and the museum gave Webb his first show in 1946, but few people remember that exhibition. I met Betsy Evans Hunt who is in charge of the Webb archive a few years ago and she expanded my view of Webb’s work. I realized that there was much more quality work than just the handful of images I already knew. That got me interested and I started reading his journals. He was a veteran returning from WWII living in New York for the first time. I began to understand the pictures he was making in those early post-war years as an exploration of the city he was just coming to know and the photographs were his way of seeing and relating to the city. They are remarkable photographs that ultimately give us a real sense of what life was like at the time. Remarkably, he had saved his military pay so that he could live without a job for about a year and just photograph. It really is this intense look at the city, particularly over that one year.

I did another exhibition years ago on Leonard Freed that I still love. Freed rode along with the New York City police department in the 1970s and made some pretty hard-hitting photographs. They show how difficult life in New York was at the time. Again, I just found it a fascinating document of the time.

Outside of photography, I did an exhibition based on a collection donated by a well-known painter named Martin Wong. The museum has his collection works relating to New York City graffiti in the late the 1970s and 1980s. The collection was donated in 1994 but had never really been exhibited.

Graffiti is a subject that until recently was generally avoided by a lot of institutions. I just really found the whole subculture fascinating and it became a real obsession for me. These days some people are nostalgic for New York at that time and liked the graffiti they saw on the trains. Many visitors to the exhibition were educated about the seriousness the kids had about the art they were making. They had no idea that a graffiti writer might actually study and draw obsessively in notebooks, trying to create their own unique style. Since the days of train writing, New York graffiti style has kind of permeated worldwide culture in terms of music, fashion, and graphic design. So, I think people today have a different relationship with the material as a result.

I spent something well over five years working on the exhibition. It was really well received in the end and it has been traveling around the world ever since.

JG: When you decide to do a studio visit with an artist, what are you looking for as you are reviewing their collection of images?

SC: At base, it is about whether there is material that is of interest to the museum for exhibition or the permanent collection. Specifically what I ask myself is: what does it say about life in the city? I am particularly looking for contemporary work that shows life in the city, but am always interested in historical work that is appropriate.

JG: What are you working on for some upcoming exhibits?

SC: We are in the midst of working on a book and an exhibition on Stanley Kubrick’s photographic work for Look Magazine. That one will travel. It will open next spring.

We are doing a small exhibition on Martin Luther King in New York for the 50th anniversary of his assassination, and an exhibition of two photographers who photographed in Chinatown for more than 20 years, Thomas Holton and Chien-Chi Chang.

Over the next few years we have a couple of other exhibitions slated, including exhibition on the work of Fred McDarrah, best known for his work in the Village Voice from the 1950s through the 1970s.

JG: Are all the photos in the permanent collection actually used for exhibition?

SC: We do not specifically consider ourselves a research institution. We are an exhibiting institution. We collect photographs with the expressed intention of being used in exhibitions, not just sitting in boxes to be discovered by researchers years later.

JG: It sounds like you also like to exhibit people that have not been adequately admired and celebrated.

SC: It’s not just through exhibitions, but also through collecting. We collect work by some people who photographed a lot in the 1960s and 1970s, and then they put the camera down and did other work to get by. Then years later they find their negatives, make prints, and start showing it around later in life. If the quality of the work is there, the name recognition is not always at the top of the decision-making chart for us.

This happened recently with a photographer who was working for Rolling Stone in the 1970s doing a little bit of commercial work and personal work. He quit by the end of the decade, but went back to his negatives years later and made a box of prints and showed them to me. One of his photographs is in the Beyond Suffrage exhibition right now. They may not be always used in their own solo exhibition, but they get used in one way or another in exhibitions here at the museum.

Interview by Jill Gewirtz

Photograph of Sean Corcoran by Lissa Rivera