Jennifer Friess, Assistant Curator of Photography at the University of Michigan Museum of Art

Mike Rippy (MR): What is your background, and how did you get involved with the museum?

Jennifer Friess (JF): I actually started as a maker—as a photographer really—in high school, spending my time in the darkroom making images, and I went to undergrad at Rochester Institute of Technology for photography thinking I was going to be a photojournalist. I minored in international relations. I wanted to be working for the Associated Press and going out to see the world. As a requirement—there’s always those “requirements” for the liberal arts degree—you had to take all of these art history classes.

I learned about Monet and Manet. I learned that there is this entire history of making images and responding to social context. I became very enamored with writing about images in addition to making. What happened at the tail end of my degree is that I began making images that referenced the history of photography and the process of making images. They became—now we use the phrase “metanarrative.” They were very self-referential in the same way Manet or Monet are, not that I’m comparing my images to theirs.

Perhaps in my undergrad head, though, I was. I became very interested in those histories and how contemporary artists and photographers respond to that history. After undergrad, I realized that I wanted to pursue graduate education or work in museum, but I just liked the idea of it; I didn’t know what that meant. Through contacts at the Rochester Institute Technology, I actually secured an internship at the George Eastman House. I grabbed onto a desk there and didn’t let go for a year.

They found this space for me, and I interned for the traveling exhibitions curator. But it was so wonderful to be in an environment where the photographs live after you make them and to find out what happens to them. I actually had the job that no one else wanted. I condition reported all of the images, and no one wanted to do that. I didn’t quite understand why, because why wouldn’t you want to spend half an hour staring at an Ansel Adams ” print?

I was, of course, completely enamored and amazed. They just kept giving me more things to condition report. I got this up-close-and-personal view of objects that you normally see on the fly, that you see framed on the wall, and there’s always this barrier between you and them. That was very formative. While there, I realized through conversations with the curators that I needed a graduate degree.

I went to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and got an art history degree, and I became just totally hooked on the research of it all and discovering things about unknown photographers or little-researched photographers. While there, I wrote my Master’s thesis on Lee Miller, a kind of interwar, World War II photographer out of Poughkeepsie. While researching at her archive in England, I did what I had done at the Eastman House. I looked very closely at a particular image, and what appeared out of this image was the face of Man Ray, one of her collaborators.

I had this epiphany moment during which, when you look really closely at something, you see all of these new things. That spurred the thought, “OK, now I really want a Ph.D.” I didn’t want a Ph.D. for the title. I wanted a Ph.D. because I wanted to immerse myself in the research, to find out what it’s like to be involved in a project and see it to fruition at that level, at that depth. So, on to the Ph.D. While pursuing my doctorate at the University of Kansas, I actually taught a lot of courses there and found I really loved teaching.

But I missed the museum work. I missed working with the objects, the actual stuff that we’re talking about. Working at a university and museum is the culmination of . . . now, it seems like this nice, clean path. It actually was not nice and clean. It was quite messy going through it all. But now it seems that I have the best of all worlds at this kind of institution.

MR: Yes, I had the same experience. It always seems like you land in the place where your meant to be at the right time.

JF: Exactly.

MR: You arrived here at the University of Michigan, at the Museum of Art. How did the position of assistant curator of photography emerge within the museum? Because, from what I understand, its not a huge part of the collection, but it seems like theres something going on where it was decided that this is a necessary position now.

JF: Yes, that’s a great question because I am the inaugural photography curator, and previously the photography collection was under the auspices of the Western Art curator. Perhaps that’s more traditional in historic collections, where the Western Art curator has a preview into the nineteenth century through to the twentieth. I think that more and more donors are keen on collecting photography, and alumni that donated to the museum gifted photos. It became a real collecting interest of the Western Art curator and of the museum at large. They actually opened the photography gallery in 2013, and so they had the gallery before the Western Art curator had managed that rotating space.

When she retired, they split her position between Western Art and Photography. Actually, the photography collection can now really hold its own; it comprises more than 3,000 of our more than 20,000 objects. In January 2018 I will have been here two years, and I have been mining the photography collection and really digging in and seeing what twentieth-century artworks we have—what photographs that we have on view or within the collection. I’m pulling out thematic shows, as well as monographic shows, that speak to what we already have. Of course, growing that collection is a very deep interest of mine.

MR: As far as growing the collection, youve said youd like them to make a survey of the collection. Are there areas in the collection right now that are strong? What are the gaps? Do you want to focus on the historical photographs, or does it seem like a lot thats been collector-given has been more twentieth-century and contemporary?

JF: It really runs the gamut. I think that we have a particular strength in nineteenth century. I am interested in the entire history. Thankfully, I feel very spoiled because, of course, the medium has only existed for about 175 years, as opposed to my colleagues who deal with centuries and millennia of art-making. I’m very comfortable in the nineteenth century, as well through the twentieth to contemporary. I’m happy to be flexible. Our nineteenth-century collection is very strong in travel photography, colonial photography, and landscape photography. There are strengths in portraiture as well. I’d like to grow some of the earlier processes especially, so that we have some examples.

MR: Would that be more because the museum is located on a university campus?

JF: There’s an opportunity to teach, to use the collection in that way. But I also see that one of those processes seems so far removed. Now we call them historic processes or alternative processes, but I really try to make connections between the daguerreotype and your cell phone, because they’re both sort of the same size. You hold them in your hand when you look at them. They’re reflective; they’re made out of metal. They carry all of the pictures of your loved ones, even though with the daguerreotype it’s a one-off. With your phone you have thousands, if not millions of pictures. I don’t see those practices as being so different than they are now. There is still this preciousness to the photographs and their importance for this temporary life.

There’s that, but there’s also their resonance with other mediums and forms as well. For example, even using Anna Atkins’ cyanotype to talk about systems of understanding is very applicable to what other units on campus are talking about in terms of how we analyze the natural world, with the more prescient themes of climate change, for instance. They have those roots in Victorian ways of thinking and of making images. We’re still dealing with them and unpacking them today, and coming to terms with them and shirking them. I think the nineteenth century is definitely a fun place to play and make students aware of. Much like historic collections as well—you’re diving into the medieval and the ancient, and making those things relevant today.

MR: As far as the public or patrons for the museum, do they have a bigger interest in photography? Do you see them as an impetus for the idea of wanting to build this collection?

JF: Absolutely. I think that photography has such a peculiar place within museum collections, and histories, and within the academy. So often photography or the history of photography—it’s in anthropology as a discipline, it’s in art history, it doesn’t have a concrete place. That has always really interested me. It makes it more complicated because there isn’t a straight path to the medium.

But in some ways, it speaks to the multivalent nature of photography. That it can be used and employed and studied by all these different disciplines from all these different angles. I hope to make that apparent to our university audiences. But also, because it is the medium that we use to represent ourselves, and by that, I mean the word “selfie” and the idea that you always have all of your pictures right in your hand. It’s the most used and obvious medium.

I think making that history more transparent and making us aware of how photography mediates our experiences in so many different ways is really crucial to do right now. By collecting contemporary artists, I’m interested in the metanarrative that they’re all referencing—the fact that it is a photograph, and that it is constructed, and that it is malleable. I think making all of that transparent for the university audience, who is already thinking about ideas and unpacking truth in all these different ways, makes things ripe for conversation.

MR: Id like to go back to the idea of photographs being objects, with their transition from being objects to visual images on the screen, and the idea of how they are made. What is missing today is that idea of How was this made? or, How was this created? because things are so immediate with digital. As a photographer, I know personally how things are made. You worked at the Rochester and you understand the process. You understand . . .

JF: Chemicals.

MR: Right. You understand all of the processes involved with making an object if it is a photograph. How do you feel about this transition? I can kind of understand from some of your responses that you fill up your focus a little bit more on how the image connects with people versus how its created. But is that getting students or the public to understand the processes of traditional photography?

JF: I think it’s important to understand the labor behind it. Maybe that’s it. It’s funny; I think of myself as someone who was fighting against digital as an undergrad—I was one of the last people in the darkrooms before they shut the darkrooms down. Everyone else was in the digital lab, and now I think, “Why wasn’t I learning Photoshop at that moment?” What I’m now more focused on is social practice—how much the process is made of change, how we photograph and what we photograph, and the importance of the image as a maker of memory.

That, I don’t feel has changed all that much. We take pictures of loved ones, and we take pictures of things that are important to us. In that way, I’m not as worried that they don’t know about this. Ansel Adams used his own system: “This right here in the image is zone three and this is zone seven.” I talk about those things, but only because, of course, the process is one of many elements that feed into understanding the meaning of a work. But it’s just one of many factors.

I think it took me awhile to get there because I was a maker and that was my training. It was so important to me. The craftsmanship of the object—it definitely comes into play, too, when you’re working with and evaluating the image. But I think that it’s just one of several things that I want to impart when talking about an image. Even in the exhibitions that I have put on, I hope to show a variety of media and not necessarily point out, “This is a black and white monochrome image made with a negative.”

All of that also comes into play, as does showing the history of processes because that also dictates, oftentimes, the function of the image. Yes, we see all of these silver prints on the wall, but in actuality, these images were seen by the public in magazines. We don’t even have the magazines on view, but that’s really what the medium was that people were interfacing with. It’s definitely something that I empathize with and that I’m very nerdy about and very interested in. But again, one of many things.

MR: This is probably a good transition into talking about the idea of how photographs are utilized. One of the things that were interested in [for this project] is the production of photobooks and of how the photobook has become this other container for photographs. There are dual tracks for photography right nowtheres the art market, with the single photograph, but then theres also this photobook publication world where you dont always have the same photographers or artists existing in the same camps. How do you feel about photobooks versus a photograph? Or how do you approach the kind of growth of the photobook industry versus trying to find that single photograph that you want to purchase? How do you bring both of those worlds into the museum?

JF: I think it’s definitely a challenge because, of course, the best way to experience a photobook is by flipping through the pages and then returning and flipping back and having that mediation. But when you’re studying photography as a practitioner of the medium . . . I remember when we were reading and looking through The Americans by Robert Frank and through Lee Friedlander’s books. It was just as much about the sequence of images as it was about the negative space between the images. That was part of the conversation. That’s somewhat challenging to reenact in the museum space because we have this responsibility to the objects, to preserve them.

In the museum, what I often find is that you can only open up to a certain page. It’s somewhat—I hate to say the word limiting—but really, you put the image under a case and that’s the one you get to see. We can, of course, turn the pages through technologies that allow you to flip digitally through a book. But so many great narratives are told through the story and through the printed page. I would argue that this debate is not new—that the history of the photograph and the printed page began on Day One.

Of course, images like William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, and even the Anna Atkins image that we know as a single image, were bound in a cyanotype book. Throughout the history of the medium, the photograph, whether in a book or a magazine, was indelibly linked to the printed page. In a way, much of what we see in the museum context came from a book, or from an album, or from an image in a printed book. It’s . . . I think it’s complicated, too.

What’s wonderful about the university setting is that we have many great libraries with rare and artist book collections in them. I often think that the books end up there, and perhaps because they’re working with that medium, libraries are better suited to have them on view. I do think that having the artist book represented in the museum is really important. But I also think that, in some ways, it can be prohibitive. Unless, of course, the artist is OK with the viewer touching the book. But then often, too, if you put it under a case, you’re talking about it as an artifact. Like it is . . .

MR: Right. An object.

JF: Yes, as opposed to something that you’re actually engaging with.

MR: Theres another difficulty that I am trying to wrap my head around. There are photographers here in the Midwest with limited accessibility because they are “regional”, but theyre still doing really great work.

More and more photographers are going to create something like a “Callahan” image, but its going to come from a photographer living in Oregon. This is a developing concept for methe idea of being a photographer and creating photographs and creating photobooks, and that its OK for the work to look like someone elses work. But thats not the goal. The goal is to tell the story thats in your area or in the place where you live. The work is about place versus innovation.

The image may look like an Ansel Adams photograph, but its not. Its somewhere else. Its in another time. It says, This is what Im trying to grasp and elaborate. And yet . . . we all know that Ansel Adams created this technique in the way he created his work. But do to the innovation he may be the only one getting represented in museums? Do you know what I mean?

JF: I think it’s interesting, too, that you’re having these conversations with more regional museums. Because in a way, there’s a proliferation now. There’s a university museum at Notre Dame, and at the University of Michigan, and in so many other places. Then there are city museums that have different kinds of resources and audiences. The DIA, the Detroit Institute of Arts, can tell a different story than the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). I think that, arguably, I feel a responsibility to this region and to Michigan. Not as in only showing work from Michigan, but also in thinking about what is on the purview of Michigan and then bringing that in.

Also, using . . . Ansel Adams is always the foil, in the rate that he comes up. I don’t envy those who have to take on the history of landscape photography, like a photographer who has to do that. But I think there’s something to be said for responding personally to what you’re seeing around you and what you’re doing. You’re not going to be able to tell every story in every narrative. Even we have other curators here, like the curator of African art and the curator of Asian art. The responsibility of having those entire regions and continents and countries all under your purview—that’s a lot of story to tell.

I think that it has to be a somewhat of a balance between bringing in new voices and also being responsible to your community. The DIA does this really well. They’re wedded to Detroit physically and in look, and find it in all of these different ways.

MR: Even more now, it seems like they really are saying, This is where we are. This is who were responsible for.

JF: Exactly. That doesn’t mean that they’re only showing Detroit artists. They are showing Detroit artists, but it’s not like they can’t tell other stories, even though they are for this community. I think our university art museum is in a wonderful position because we’re part of this university community that’s already thinking in these really innovative ways and researching. But then, too, we have Ann Arbor and we’re also part of . . . I wonder, “What does it mean to be a university museum in this region that’s so close to Detroit or that’s so close to the Great Lakes?”

Being from Cleveland and having lived in Rochester, I feel a responsibility for the Great Lakes region. There’s a Midwest story in there, there’s a Great Lakes story in there. I think all of those are important. You’re not going to be able to do it all at once for sure.

For example, the first exhibition I did here was on Ernestine Ruben; she photographed Willow Run. Detroit and this region was called the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II because we produced all of these bomber planes, literally not very far from here in Ypsilanti. For her to go back and rephotograph these buildings which her grandfather actually designed and built—I think it invigorates the local for the local audience, even though she’s now living in New York and is an artist there. There are new stories to tell about the local spaces that can reinvent them, or are worth comparing to people like Ansel Adams.

MR: You went to Filter Photo, right? Did you do portfolio review?

JF: Yes.

MR: What motivated you to do that?

JF: It was an invitation, and it was really a wonderful experience. I think that’s a great segue because there were so many regional photographers that I hadn’t yet met that were from this area, and Indiana, and Chicago. It was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s this whole Midwestern community here.” It was wonderful to see the kinds of images being done, a lot of landscape. A lot of images about identity but all coming from this region.

In a way, it feels like we’re far away from the things that are happening. But we’re not; it’s all happening here. Everything is roiling in Michigan, especially, is this hotbed of contemporary issues. At Filter Photo, it was really nice to meet a lot more people in the region and to see that broader community. We’re all amazing, brilliant people.

MR: Theres this sense, at least for me, of different types of regional photography being out there. Mainly in reference to documentary photography. Theres definitely the California-style, with its snapshot, quick capture imagery. Theres a sense of a bigger East Coast imagery, with a lot of architecture and landscape. Its bigger and more dominant, generally. Then you have the South seemingly with its own look or theme. Do you feel like there is something with the Midwest that could be comparable, so it could be said, Thats Midwestern photography.

JF: Oh my gosh. Wow. That’s a good question. I think that a lot of Midwestern photographers are responding to this postindustrial era. We call them the “Ruins of Industrialization.” I think that a lot of photographers are interested in suburbia and the remnants and ruins of that. That seems like a fairly Midwestern aesthetic. I hate to pigeonhole it, though. But I think there are themes that you can trace through the images, whether it’s in the visual style or in the subject matter.

I would argue that it’s more the subject matter, and that people are interested in the landscape, but one that isn’t a Western landscape. It’s much more . . . It has to do with the ruins and the leftovers of this much more industrially productive time. I think culturally, too, we’re still dealing with fallout from the Roosevelt heyday. It’s not necessarily just a mourning of that anymore, though. It’s a more enthusiastic, hopeful way of photographing those moments. I think the times of grieving and mourning are passing. Now it’s like, “OK, what’s the next phase? Who are we going to be next?” I think it feels like that’s what’s happening.

MR: I think you get a lot of that with the idea of Detroit and the way its turning itself around. It went through hell. Its rebranding itself.

JF: Yes. It’s somewhat of a gentrification. I know that word has its own connotations, but it’s also about this up-and-coming generation and thinking about how to be productive and active with these circumstances. We’ve gotten away from ruin porn and now it’s like, “OK, what do we do with this space? Let’s make it active.” I think someone like Ernie Ruben is one of those people who, when you look at her Willow Run images, allows you to say, “She’s breathing new life into these spaces.” That’s just an example of someone who lets you say, “Alright, there is hope and there is color and there is life. It might all be OK.”

There’s a connection, too, with being a university art museum. It’s an interesting moment here. A new director has just begun, Tina Olsen. It’s this new era, this new moment. I think it’s going to be a very exciting next couple of months and years. I think that she is really invested in what it means to be a university art museum in this region, in Michigan. Of course, we’ve got Detroit and we’ve got Flint. All of the things are happening here. We can speak to that and we can be leading that conversation.