Interview with Erin Barnett
Director of Exhibitions and Collections at International Center of Photography
Can you talk a bit about how you became interested in photography and curation? I took an “Art Since the 1960s” class with Patricia Mathews in undergrad and really got into the Guerrilla Girls, as you do when you’re a woman at a very liberal liberal arts college like Oberlin. That swayed my interest toward contemporary art. I had been looking at Chinese art—porcelain and jades and things like that—and was thinking that I was going to focus on that area. Suddenly, I had a revelation that I needed to do something that was more contemporary and more pertinent to me. That class really opened my eyes to photography.
Then I went to the University of Kansas with John Pultz, who had written a book on photography and the body. That was my crossover between contemporary art and photographic practices. The Spencer Museum of Art is located there and they have the Esquire magazine archive, which has early Diane Arbus pictures. Part of the graduate program allowed you to apply to work in the museum. I was a curatorial assistant in the Department of Photographs, which was really a great opportunity.
I had worked in education departments in undergrad and had done a lot of research on Asian art for teacher packets. I liked that aspect, but I wanted to work more with objects. I also knew that I didn’t want to write a dissertation; I couldn’t imagine spending so much time on one topic. I wanted more people to learn about things in the Guerrilla Girls way like, “Look at all this fabulous stuff that nobody’s looking at.” I wanted my mom to be able to go into a museum and learn about the work, not just ten people who are really interested in a very specific topic. That’s how I approached museum work.
You worked on curatorial teams at the International Center of Photography (ICP), the New Museum, and the Guggenheim, and you’re an alumnus of the Whitney Independent Study Program. You’re now the Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the ICP. Can you describe what that entails and what led you to this position? My first museum job was at the Guggenheim in modern art. I was working with the collection’s curator, Tracey Bashkoff, who’s still there and is fantastic. I was working mostly with postwar paintings and sculpture, which was not my forte, but I really wanted to do museum work. She was a real mentor and a solid person who showed me that you didn’t have to be a diva to be a curator.
Then I worked briefly at ICP on a project basis after the Guggenheim cut the curatorial department in half, and then I received a fellowship at the New Museum because of the Whitney Independent Study Program. I worked with Marvin Heiferman on a John Waters retrospective, and I wrote brochures for the Trisha Brown and José Antonio Hernández-Diez exhibitions. I worked on books at the New Museum as well, so did a little bit of everything there and it was a great experience.
When I was first at ICP, I worked with Carol Squiers on a science show, and then the assistant curator of collections moved to Boston. There was an opening, so I became the curatorial assistant of collections, which I think suited me really well at that time because I could delve into research. Then I went back to publishing during my hiatus from the ICP. I returned to Abrams—I love working on publications—and then came back to ICP. This, however, is a very different position from my previous one; I need to figure out what’s going on in all of the exhibition spaces.
I have a colleague who’s helping me with the collection, so we’ve split that duty, but it’s much more macro- than micro-level; I’m learning to adjust to that. I also try to make sure I give the curatorial team both guidance and the freedom to do the projects that they want to do, as long as they fit within the purview of the institution.
In a curatorial role at these institutions, and in your current position, what part have/do you play in the collection process? Now, I’m in charge of research and interpretation and my colleague, Deirdre Donohue, is in charge of stewardship of objects and cataloging projects. When I work with the collections team, I have to make sure that there’s more catalog information and that it’s available online on our website and collections blog. Eventually, I will be putting together exhibitions drawn from the collections.
There are collections works in the current exhibition, “Perpetual Revolution,” and there were collections works in the previous exhibition, “Public, Private, Secret”; we try to make sure that we use the collection in new ways. I’m also in charge of the Acquisitions Committee, so I get to present works for consideration for acquisitions three times a year. That’s been absolutely fantastic because I feel like I can support artists that I think are great. For example, we bought some Zanele Muholi prints from her Faces and Phases series, and we recently purchased some of Paul Sepuya’s work.
We try to buy the pieces that we’re showing in exhibitions so that there’s a trace of the exhibition history in the collections, but we also try to fill in gaps. We acquired fifteen prints by Han Youngsoo, a South Korean photographer. Christopher Phillips, an adjunct curator, organized an exhibition of his work at ICP’s gallery at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. It’s the first U.S. showing of his work. As Christopher says, he’s basically a long-lost Asian cousin of the Magnum photographers. It looks like Magnum in South Korea right after the war. They’re beautiful pictures. We now have the largest collection of Han Youngsoo in the United States.
You have partially answered my next question, but I’d love for you to elaborate a bit. Prior to your current position you worked in ICP’s Exhibitions and Collections department organizing, curating, and co-curating exhibitions. Can you talk about the differences between these two positions and what you’ve taken out of those different situations personally and professionally? In my previous position, I curated a lot of shows directly from the collections. Most of the exhibitions I organized in my previous position were small and tightly conceived. I did shows from our Hiroshima, Jefferson Davis, and River Baptism archives. Those were much more esoteric, small, highly researched, and tightly focused exhibitions. Now, I don’t have any exhibition projects because I need to manage the entire program, and I’m trying to understand how long it takes to do things. I need to focus more on the big picture than I did in the past. My collections experience helps with that because I did a variety of different things within collections: exhibitions, publications, cataloguing, research. But I’m now trying to figure out how best to represent the institution.
Having held curatorial positions at some major institutions, do you see their collections reflecting current trends in contemporary photography? Paul Sepuya, a young and very relevant artist, is a good example of the ICP’s recent acquisitions. But it seems like there is a tendency to not collect an artist’s work until it has been determined historically significant. That is part of what we’re trying to do. A contemporary show can be much messier. It’s a different reward to engage with really contemporary material in the museum space because you don’t have 20/20 hindsight. Maybe some of this work won’t be relevant at all, but it seems relevant right now, so we want to show it now. I also think that, for institutions that are strapped for cash, it’s easier to buy work from somebody young who you feel good about and want to support, someone who also needs the money to continue doing their work. ICP is a very unique institution in that we only collect photography and photo-based work, which is different than institutions that have photography departments within large museums and very different collecting policies.
The nice thing is that we have some freedom because photography does encompass so many different things. We bought a Hakan Topal piece, the table in the refugee section of the “Perpetual Revolution” exhibition, that we commissioned. He looked at how people are finding out about the refugee crisis and images that change migration policies in the European Union.
It’s a piece that’s very much about what’s going on now. I’m really proud that the Acquisitions Committee supported the project and the artist. We do, however, have things in the collection that make me wonder how they got there. Some work doesn’t hold up as well. I imagine that in fifty years, people looking at our collection may say the same thing about some of the contemporary work that we have acquired, but I hope not. It’s really important to support photographers and artists as much as possible within our communities.
A great deal of photography, and contemporary art in general, made over the last ten years only exists on the Internet. How do institutions preserve and organize all of this information, much of which does not exist as objects? We haven’t done it as much as we should. We acquired three Natalie Bookchin works from her Testament series that were presented in our “Public, Private, Secret” exhibition that are based on images from the web that she put together, and we have a Tomas van Houtryve piece [Traces of Exile]; he uses geolocated Instagram images. Those were artists’ interventions with images that they found online. We haven’t, at this point, acquired anything that’s just Internet-based.
The only thing that’s a little bit similar are the digital files. We did a show on Abu Ghraib in 2002. We received the digital files from the New Yorker and we printed them. We have them as digital files, but we also have them as objects. They didn’t really exist as objects because they were taken with the digital camera, and we made them into objects. That was over fifteen years ago. The exhibition is our first step in dealing with images online, and we need to develop some collections policy about that.
It’s an interesting conundrum that a lot of institutions are going to have to resolve within the next ten-plus years, because so much work is made to exist solely in its digital form. Yes, it has to be a collaboration between curators and tech folks.
In 2012 you curated an exhibition titled The Loving Story. The exhibition featured intimate photographs of the Lovings taken by LIFE photographer Grey Villet. While the exhibition was up, a documentary called The Loving Story debuted on HBO. The Lovings’ story has now been made into a Hollywood film (released in Nov. 2016). Can you talk about your process of curating this exhibition and the significance of telling the Lovings’ story through photographs? That project came to the institution from Nancy Buirski, who was the director of the HBO documentary. When she was interviewing Peggy Loving, Richard and Mildred’s daughter, she asked if Peggy had any family photographs. I believe she said, “I don’t have that many, but I’ll show you what I have.” Peggy brought out these vintage Life prints because Grey had given the family some of the prints after he visited them. Then Nancy talked with Barbara Villet, Grey’s widow, and she had other prints from that same photo shoot. I looked at all of those prints and tried to figure out the best way to tell the story. I worked closely with Barbara because she had access to the original captions through Life Magazine, so we were able to piece together some of the locations that we weren’t sure about.
Around that time was when the issue of marriage equality was heating up, so that was a good parallel. It was fascinating because we had younger people who came into the show who didn’t know that it was illegal for people of different races to marry in the United States. This was distressing to me as a historian but also informative.
We had conversations with civil rights lawyers from that time, and it was great to see a variety of different groups of people who were really interested in the pictures. I think the nice thing about the Hollywood movie, which I finally just saw, is that it shows the role that the photographs played in their story. I think the other interesting thing is that the pictures that Life decided to publish are the most sterile pictures that Grey took.
It was single pictures of Mildred or Richard or pictures of the kids together, but not these wonderful and sensitive photos of Richard and Mildred together. I think Life was worried about what the reaction was going to be, so I was glad that we could show what Grey had really captured and the power of the Lovings’ relationship. The film does a really great job of this too, but I think in the images you see and feel the love. The Lovings were not political people and just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go about their business. The photographs captured that feeling.
Yes, I was looking at the photographs online and they are so intimate. There is this innate warmness in each of them. It’s interesting to think about what Life chose to publish versus what the exhibition was able to add to their story. That’s why I think it was important for me to include the Life Magazine article to show that, yes, while there were all of these other images that Grey shot, specific editorial decisions were made. These decisions happen all the time in newspapers and magazines.
The ICP’s mission is to “preserve the legacy of concerned photography.” I think that in light of recent events, a lot of photographers, and artists in general, are challenging themselves to find new ways to create images that address current political and social issues. How do you see photography changing in the near future (and where does the ICP fit into that)? Definitely, I also see that. I was having a conversation with Nayland Blake, who’s the head of the ICP-Bard M.F.A program. The students are talking about this today. There’s a new generation who are critiquing the ’90s photographers who were dealing with identity politics. We’ve gotten to the point where younger artists are saying, “No, you didn’t do enough.” Although at that time, those photographers and artists seemed so radical.
It seems like there is this jump now to the intersectionality of identity politics; you’re not just dealing with race or gender, you’re dealing with race and gender. This exhibition, “Perpetual Revolution,” for example, deals with climate change and climate change refugees, but also with refugees caused by war or by racism. There is a way that artists are trying to get people to engage with serious issues in a less straightforward way.
I don’t know if you had the opportunity to see the Mel Chin video on climate change. It’s a wonderful video. It’s about a native person who comes to Paris, and it shows him in a sled drawn by French poodles. He talks about how his people, who have always lived with the land, have to deal with climate change before city dwellers do, but how we’ll all have to deal with it eventually.
It is didactic in a way, but less didactic than some of the identity politics work of the ’90s. That’s part of a trend. It is still in your face and demands respect, but it’s less confrontational. It addresses the idea that people have the right to depict themselves and their communities, and they don’t need our permission to do that. Zanele Muholi’s images deal with the fluidity of gender. It’s not about making pictures for you to see how people look or live, but about making images for their own community. If you happen to engage with that, fantastic. They’re not making it for you. They’re making it for themselves.
That’s interesting. I often question whether an artist needs to be so didactic when dealing with politicized imagery. Because if they’re relating it to personal experiences, then saying, “I have to do this to teach you,” seems reductive of how the artist is responding to these experiences. The Tomas van Houtyve piece that’s in the exhibition uses Instagram images of refugees’ selfies. The images taken by refugees look very different than the images that are taken by photojournalists or the images that are circulated by NGOs. You see these images of refugees who are happy, giving a thumbs-up. Sometimes they look bedraggled, but they’re on a journey, and they’re happy about that journey; it’s not all misery. Again, having that opportunity to show people your reality is part of what’s happening in photography, too.
Interview conducted April 12, 2017 at AIPAD by Jaclyn Wright
Photo by Geoffrey Berliner