Gregory Harris,
Asst. Curator of Photography at the High Museum of Art

 

First, tell me about your background. Early on, was there one particular exhibition or catalog that bit you with the photography bug? Or was it a culmination of attending different exhibitions over the years? No, it was actually a book. I grew up in rural Massachusetts about seventy-five miles west of Boston, so there weren’t very many opportunities to see serious photography exhibitions. When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to go to a high school that had an amazing art program, so I got to take photography classes. But the first thing that really got me hooked on photography, the first thing that made me think, “Wow! This is something that’s really different,” or “This is something that I can relate to,” was actually a book of photographs by Allen Ginsberg. Obviously, he is known as a poet, but he was also a photographer. He made pictures throughout his life that were very autobiographical and diaristic. And for some reason, when I was fourteen those pictures of his circle really spoke to me. He had a group of people that he worked with, that he spent time with, that were the spark of his work. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I really liked that idea. It seemed like something that was done really well, but at the same time was something that I could emulate. It was inspiring, and it made me want to try it myself.

After you got your B.F.A. in photography from Columbia College, how did you make the transition to curating and what was the impetus for that? Columbia College has an incredibly intense photography program, and by the end of four years in that program, my interest was shifting. I had been so immersed in making pictures and looking at the work of other people. I was finding that I was much more engaged with the work that other people were making than what I was doing. I liked talking with other artists about their process and ideas, how they approached what they were doing, where they wanted to go with things. I just found that I really enjoyed that conversation, looking at and trying to understand other peoples’ work, so I lost interest in doing my own work. Around the same time that I noticed that happening, I was nearing the end of the program and was wondering what my options were, in terms of going out into the world and being a photographer. When I started school, I thought I was going to be a globe-trotting photojournalist or documentary photographer, and then as I got more into it, that option didn’t seem like something that was particularly viable. It wasn’t a lifestyle I really wanted to lead at that point in my life.

Around that same time, I met David Travis, who was one of the first curators of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of my professors connected me with him. He had a sailboat that he would take out on Lake Michigan. One Saturday afternoon, we were bobbing around Lake Michigan, and there was no wind, so he just started talking about what he was doing at work. I don’t remember who he was working with at the time; it might have been Abe Morell. But he just started spinning off all these stories about when he was at Cartier-Bresson’s studio in Paris, the time he met with Brassai, and how he worked with Kertész. I thought, “This is amazing. These are the legends of the medium,” and he was working with them firsthand. He talked about acquiring work for the collection and building that collection at a time when there weren’t really very many models for building an institutional collection of fine art photographs. It just sounded like a dream job—to be working in a museum and having those kinds of experiences with artists and photographs.

After a couple more summers, I worked up the nerve to ask him for an internship and ended up working with Kate Bussard, who was an assistant curator in the department at the time. I stayed for about four years in various jobs at the Art Institute. I was an art installer for about a year. After a year of being an installer, I started grad school in the art history program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I then became a collections photographer in the curatorial department in photography and was going to grad school at the same time. I worked as a collections photographer for two and a half years. I went through the entire collection of photographs, which at the time was about 20,000 prints, box by box, and photographed every single picture in the collection. I was sharing an office with Kate. Since I had interned with her previously and we were sharing an office, I would often ask, when I was done with my quota for the day, if she needed help with anything. She started pitching stuff my way. I would do research for her, and I would help her out on exhibitions, and so she really became my mentor and showed me the ropes of putting together a show and working with a collection—all the little skills you need to be a curator that no one’s going to teach you in school. I was getting this practical hands-on training in the museum, while also getting the art historical and theoretical training at the same time.

And that hands-on training wasn’t part of the program, that was your job? Right. It was a fantastic balance of learning the history and the theory, which lends itself really well to a classroom environment, along with the actual process and skills of being a curator—those things you have to do firsthand to really understand how they work. It’s something you learn both by doing your job and by watching other people do theirs, and I was getting all of that at the same time. I landed a job with the DePaul Art Museum three weeks before graduation. The timing was incredibly fortunate. Because I had so many different kinds of jobs while I was at the Art Institute, I was ready to jump right in. I’d been an installer, a curator, and a photographer, and I had some design experience. I was a jack-of-all-trades. I was able to carve out a niche for myself in that environment.

I understand that the DePaul Art Museum is not photography-specific? No, it’s not medium-specific, nor is it even specific to a particular time period or culture.

So, what kinds of shows did you curate while you were there? The ones that I worked on were almost all photography.

Is that something you expressed going into the role or something that just kind of played itself out once you started? I always knew that photography was my primary interest. In the interview I fibbed a little bit, and said, “Yeah, I’m really excited about doing all these other things,” and I was lying through my teeth. I really only wanted to work on photography. I was so passionate and zeroed in on what kinds of conversations you can start with that medium and the ideas you can get at with photography; that was really all I wanted to do. I found a lot of different ways to take an exhibition that was effectively a photography show, and spin it as a show about narrative, or a show about a particular region of the world. Photography just happened to be a convenient medium to talk about these things. I found different ways to frame the projects that got me excited, so that I could continue to work on photography exhibitions.

Were you primarily showing work that previously had been at other venues, or were you commissioning new work to be shown? In my time there we commissioned one new project, and that was with the Metabolic Studio, which is a group out of Los Angeles that does all kinds of incredibly brilliant and ambitious work. They did a project where they turned a shipping container into a camera obscura and mounted it to the back of a truck. They’d been driving it around the country making photographs. We brought them to Chicago to make a new chapter in that body of work. Before that, we did the first Museum show of a body of work by Paul D’Amato called “We Shall.” It was an in-depth body of work about the African American community on the West Side of Chicago. Then we did an exhibition of photos by Malick Sidibé, a Malian portrait photographer who had a studio in Bamako in the 1960s and ’70s. We did a show with Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen called “The Sochi Project,” where they photographed in the Caucasus region around the city of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics were held. They looked at the social and political upheaval that surrounded this major international sporting event and tried to tell a larger story of the region. Each of these projects tackled different topics from different angles, but in working at a university museum, one of the things we really tried to do was tie in the exhibitions with the curriculum and find ways that the professors could use the exhibitions as teaching tools. I had to find ways to entice professors to bring classes to the Museum and teach from the exhibitions. So take Sidibé, for example. DePaul has a big School of Music, and the music professors would bring in classes, because a lot of his work was about nightlife and dancing and the culture around music. The show was also about post-colonialism, because all the pictures were from the 1960s, right after Mali gained independence. The photographs are about a society in transition that was trying to find its identity in a new political situation. That angle attracted political science classes and African Diaspora studies classes.

Now at your new position here at the High Museum of Art, do you work with any local institutions or universities? I think that the colleges and universities here in Atlanta and the surrounding areas are definitely part of our constituencies, but they’re not necessarily our main focus in the way that they would be for a university museum. We are a general-interest museum, so we’re trying to engage with a much broader public and trying to find ways to reach those audiences.

Speaking of audiences, artists often get asked about their intended audience. How do you think that translates to curators? Are you thinking about the audience when putting together an exhibition? I’m really new in the job, so I’m still getting to know who the audience is here in Atlanta. From what I can tell so far, it’s an audience that is very excited about photography and very informed about the medium. I feel like there’s a hunger for photography exhibitions, and that gives me a lot of latitude in terms of what I can present.

Will you have a role in finding the new Curator of Photography for the Museum, to succeed Brett Abbott? I’m not sure yet. My position as assistant curator was a brand-new position. Previously there had been only one photography curator, so the fact that my job was created shows that the Museum is really committed to the medium of photography and that they’ve made an investment in this particular part of the collection. I don’t have any clear sense of where that’s going. It’s just not a decision I’m privy to at this point.

I want to talk about a specific project, the “Picturing the South” series, and what your role is in it, and when the next exhibitions from that series will be? “Picturing the South” began in 1996, so we just passed the twentieth anniversary of the project. So far there have been thirteen artists, some of the top contemporary photographers, who have been commissioned as part of the project.

With the High being the commissioning institution, do all the works made go into the collection or does the Museum purchase particular prints? Part of the commission agreement is that some portion of the work enters the permanent collection. The amount of work varies widely between artists, because the artists work in different ways and they produce different things. Some artists want to make sure there’s a large presence for their work in different collections, and for other artists that’s less of a priority. For example, Sally Mann received one of the first commissions. We have four 40 x 50″ prints of Sally’s in the collection from her commission. Richard Misrach also did a commission a few years later, starting in 1998, I believe. He then came back ten years later, revisited the project, and made more pictures. As a result, I believe we have eighty photographs by Richard Misrach, from his commission. Some of them are
8 x 10″ contact prints, and some of them are 60″-wide exhibition prints. It really varies with the artist in terms of what seems appropriate and reasonable for the work they do. The other thing we don’t want to do is take advantage of artists. The project is really meant to support artists in making new work and giving them the freedom and resources to do that. We want to make the acquisitions in a way that is mutually beneficial.

Right now we have three commissions out that Brett initiated: Mark Steinmetz from Athens, Georgia; Alex Harris from Durham, North Carolina; and Debbie Fleming Caffery from Lafayette, Louisiana. All three Southern photographers, all mid-career artists, all artists who are well-known but have not had a sizable presence in terms of major museum exhibitions. They have all published books. I think Alex has published seventeen books. Mark has probably published a dozen books. They are artists who are “photographers’ photographers,” who are really known within the photography community, so I think part of Brett’s thinking with commissioning them was that they’re all Southern artists who are going to be looking at the South, and there’s something really wonderful about that confluence. But this commission is also an opportunity for these artists to reach a much bigger audience. It gives them a bigger stage where they can show their talent. I think that it’s really exciting to see what they’re going to be able to do. The projects are completely self-directed and open-ended. All we ask is that they photograph in the region and that they produce a certain number of prints that will go into the Museum collection.

And are there studio visits and check-ins along the way, or do they come to you with a more or less finished body of work? There are lots of check-ins along the way, lots of e-mails, phone calls and visits. I have met with Mark a couple of times, because Mark is the furthest along in his project, and we are planning to show that work in early 2018. Mark has been photographing in and around the airport here in Atlanta. It’s signature Steinmetz, but with a subject that he hasn’t really explored in-depth before. I’m really excited about it. There are a good variety of pictures that he’s making. Obviously, there are those pictures that he makes of people that only he seems to be able to do, to capture something distinct about people in public spaces. As a passenger, he’s also done some aerial photography out of airplane windows. Those photographs are also beautiful and stunning. All of the pictures are very engrossing, and I’m thrilled to be able to work with him.

Mark Steinmetz and Alex Harris, I recall, are artists who utilize the photo book often. Is a new book something we can look forward to with any of the “Picturing the South” commissions? Mark and I have talked a little bit with Chris Pichler, who runs Nazraeli Press, about doing a book to go along with the exhibition. He’s interested, but we haven’t made any firm commitments. Books are tricky in an institutional context. They’re expensive, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting things through. They have to sell for them to be really viable, so at the moment I’m not quite sure what the opportunities are for producing books. I’d love to do something with each of them, but it’s a matter of time and resources. I am looking ahead to the twenty-fifth anniversary of “Picturing the South,” which is four years away. It’s a ways into the future, but it’s a good occasion to take stock of what this project has been so far. So I’m hoping we can produce a book for that and gather all of the various projects together in one place.

How do you split your time between acquiring for the collection versus curating exhibitions? Are those usually completely separate, or do they go hand in hand more often than not? They often go hand in hand. Sometimes there will be an acquisition that comes out of an exhibition and sometimes there’ll be an acquisition that will initiate an exhibition. For example, through October 2017 we are showing three bodies of work by Paul Graham, collectively called “The Whiteness of the Whale.” It’s all work that he’s made here in the United States: “A Shimmer of Possibility,” “American Night,” and “The Present.” It’s a traveling show that was organized by Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, and we are bringing it to Atlanta. We don’t have any of Paul’s work in the collection, and he is a major figure in contemporary photography. He’s done fantastic things to move documentary photography into a more conceptual realm and still make pictures that are very much of and about the world. He infuses the medium with a different kind of intelligence that makes you think about what you’re looking at in a very precise way. He also has photographed quite a bit in the South, and that’s a major focus of our collection. We will be acquiring two pieces from the exhibition for the permanent collection.

On the other side, we recently received a gift of 150 photographs by about fifteen or so different photographers from a collector in Los Angeles. Forty of those pictures are by Evelyn Hofer, a German-born photographer who spent most of her life in the States. She worked as an editorial photographer, and she collaborated with several writers on books about various cities around the world. She is an unsung talent, just an amazing artist who has not gotten a lot of recognition, particularly here in the United States. We’re going to put together a show based on that part of the collection.

Do you have shows as a backup plan at all times, so that if something were to fall through you’d have an exhibition ready to go? Not exactly [laughing]. I mean, I have a wish list of shows I’d like to work on.

In terms of your schedule right now, how far out are you planned, and what are you working on on a day-to-day basis? For firm projects, we’ve just done a small show of photographs by Jack Leigh, a Savannah-based photographer, that was in our collections gallery through June 2017.

How would you define a small show for the High Museum? Thirty pieces that are framed no larger than 20 x 24″—that’s a small show for us. Then the Paul Graham show takes up about 5,000 square feet of gallery space. That’s not the amount of space required for a major headline exhibition, but it’s still a substantial special exhibition. Then there’s the Mark Steinmetz project in early 2018. So we’re about a year out with firm plans for exhibitions. The other thing that we’re working on is a plan to reinstall the permanent collection across the Museum. We’re still in the early stages of that, but that’s something that I’m planning for, because that means developing either a series of exhibitions or a strategy for showing the various parts of the collection in a thoughtful, coherent way. I just came from an exhibitions meeting where I pitched four more projects. One of them was that “Picturing the South” idea, which is all the way out into 2021. Some of them are smaller projects that could be realized anywhere between six months to a year; others are more mid-range projects. The Evelyn Hofer project I mentioned is going to take some research and some archival digging to really flesh out, so that’s something that’s probably going to be two to three years in the works.

So, you’ve been here seven months and are getting to the point where your ideas are being heard and implemented. Yeah, but you know I hit the ground running. The very first thing I worked on was a big Thomas Struth show called “Nature and Politics,” and I actually started working on that a month before I moved to Atlanta. When I was still in Chicago, I was writing labels for that show while I was packing up my house. That was something that came very quickly; the idea for that project was fairly well-agreed upon. It was one body of work by a single photographer, but I got to influence the checklist, and then I got to write all of the didactic materials, so I did get to frame that exhibition with my own perspective and ideas. It wasn’t a show I originated, but I did get to put my mark on it. I was here two and a half months when that show opened. Things happen quickly here. The other thing that tends to happen in this field is that stuff pops up. There are certain things you have to plan many years out, and there are other situations where you want to be nimble. Occasionally you come across a new body of work and think, “That’s just incredible. How can we find a way to get that on our walls?” So, you have to allow for some degree of flexibility.

Speaking of new work, where do you go to find it? Are you still doing portfolio reviews and studio visits? Yes, I do portfolio reviews such as Filter Photo Festival in Chicago or Atlanta Celebrates Photography. I was just invited to do Review Santa Fe later this year. So that’s a great way to find new work and artists, especially artists who are not in your immediate area. I love doing studio visits and try to set them up as often as I have time. When I travel, I try to meet with artists in whatever city I’ll be in. I look at a lot of work on the Internet. I’ll check websites, read blogs—the same ways that everyone encounters new work. Because I love books so much, I really try to stay on top of what people are publishing, and if something seems like it would make sense as an exhibition, then I’ll try to find a way to make that happen. People also submit things to me at the Museum. People e-mail their work or say, “I’m visiting from out of town; I’d love to bring my portfolio and show you what I’m working on.” It’s great. I love it when I have an opportunity to get away from my desk to go look at work and have a conversation about photography, about what people are doing and how they think about the medium and their process. That’s one of the things I love most about the job, and so when I have those opportunities, I try to pounce on them. As a curator, you’d be surprised at how little time you actually spend looking at and really digging into the artwork, because there are so many other things that you are dealing with, so those moments are precious.

I’d like to return to the subject of collecting for the High Museum. It sounds like you were saying that if you acquire work in a specific way, the collection can begin to shape its own show as it grows. The collection here has been built in a very intentional and distinct way. One of the things that really defines this collection is that we’re not necessarily comprehensive within the medium of photography, but we have pockets of strength and depth. We tend to focus on a particular area, or a particular artist and invest deeply. That allows us to put together a very thoughtful presentation when we’re ready to put it up on the wall. For example, we have this great strength in Southern photographs. You can take that idea and ask: What is the South? How do photographers look at the South and articulate an idea of the South? What is the South’s contribution to the history of photography? You can pull different things out of those ideas, and we have the work in the collection to do something like that. We’re not going to be able to do a show entirely from the collection that tells the whole history of photography. We don’t have a lot of work from the nineteenth century. It’s just a hole in the collection, but we have so many other strengths that let us fill a different place within the landscape of American museums. The Met, the Art Institute, the Getty—they’ve got the encyclopedic, comprehensive ground covered. What we’re trying to do is make sure that these other areas that may be overlooked are addressed. Take William Christenberry, for example. When I was at the Art Institute, they had just acquired some of his work, and they had maybe five prints. At the High, we have 140. It’s one of the largest institutional collections of Christenberry’s work. That means we could do an in-depth show just of Christenberry entirely from the collection. Or, we could take that Christenberry work and place it in different contexts, or pull on different threads to have different conversations, just through the work of one artist. We have the depth to really do that.

Something else the High is really known for is our Civil Rights collection. We have the largest collection of vintage photographs from the American Civil Rights Movement. It’s a resource that people request to see all the time, but we can’t have it on view as much as we would like to for conservation reasons. It’s been shown in-depth, and I am trying to find a new way to reinvigorate that collection. I’ve been trying to acquire work by contemporary artists that looks back at that historical moment and connects it to the present. I think we run the risk of always positioning those photographs in the past and confining those issues of racial inequality, and the struggle to rectify those problems, as issues that were resolved fifty years ago, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it’s important that we recontextualize that collection within the moment we’re living in now. A lot of artists are making work that addresses those issues in today’s society. I’m trying to find connections across those periods of time and develop something out of that. There isn’t really a show there yet, but that’s a way of building the collection that could very likely turn into an exhibition.

The large Civil Rights collection and work that leans toward social documentary/social justice—is that something that drew you here to the High Museum? It was definitely something that I was excited about. Many of the projects that I had worked on previously, and even the work I had made as a young photographer, were mostly documentary. That’s continued to be my interest curatorially. So to come to a place that has a very strong history of showing that work, and of supporting artists who make that work, was a huge enticement to work here.

Do you feel that photography, and its’ role in journalism, is a medium that bears more of the burden of addressing social issues, in comparison to other mediums? Absolutely, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a burden. Much of the photography that I’m drawn to tends to be of and about the world as it is. I’m very interested in “reality,” or the interpretation of the real world, as being the raw material for photographers. Maybe it’s an old school or outmoded notion, but I think the world we live in is an endlessly fascinating place, and I never grow tired of seeing work that makes me think about the world in a different way or shows me something I haven’t seen before. Photographs have such fidelity to the way we see and immediacy in how they render the world, that I think the medium is uniquely suited to address pressing issues of social and political relevance. Even in the face of everything we know about digital manipulation, or the subjectivity of the photographer, or the limits of documentary methods, photographic images have an ability to connect you with something and communicate both information and emotion. Despite how jaded we’ve become when we talk about photographs, I think there’s still something striking and unique that you can do with a photograph that you can’t do in the same way with another kind of picture.

Interview and photograph by Jack Deese