Katherine Bussard, Curator of Photography at Princeton University


Katherine Bussard is the Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum. She took some time to talk to our latest contributor, Johanna Seasonwein.

Johanna Seasonwein (JS): What role did art play when you were young, growing up in Indianapolis?

Katherine Bussard (KB): I had my very first experience working in a museum at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in what was then called the photography department—but what they meant by that was photographs of art objects. They had file cabinet after file cabinet of glossy black and white prints of the objects in their collection and the corresponding negatives. When someone needed an image for a publication or an article in a paper, you would go to the file and see if there was a print ready, and if there wasn’t a print ready, you would take the negative and go make a print for them. That was my first deep experience with photography as a visual format.

JS: Did you start making photographs then?

KB: A little bit then, but I really made photographs consistently throughout college. During my senior year at Smith College, I took a history of photography course taught by Ralph Lieberman. I’d been dabbling in art history throughout my time at Smith, but it was that course that made me realize that I could do art history on objects when I had a more profound understanding of how they were made. I could write an accurate answer about how a flying buttress works, but I was taking it all on faith. But when I was writing about the history of photographs, there wasn’t that big a leap of faith because I knew the medium in a more intimate way.

JS: What was your path after college?

KB: That history of photography class my last year of undergrad was truly a lightbulb moment, and I thanked Ralph many times for it. Because it came rather late in my undergraduate career, I didn’t feel like I could jump right into applying to Ph.D. programs. So, I chose to get a Master’s in art history, as a way to explore this gut feeling that this area of study was something that I wanted to pursue. I went to Williams College for my Master’s, and while I was there, I did as many papers as I could on photography. My final qualifying paper was on Robert Mapplethorpe’s black male nudes and the advent of the AIDS crisis in the United States.

While I was wrapping up at Williams, I was offered a graduate internship in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. That was a truly incredible opportunity. I was given a lot of responsibility and ended up working on an exhibition from the collection that looked at photographers who had paved the way for Walker Evans. At the same time, I was the on-site coordinator for the loan of the Walker Evans & Company exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art. In that one year, I was working for both Weston Naef and Peter Galassi, both giants in the field. I loved every minute of that, and while I was there, I did my Ph.D. applications, and chose to go to the Graduate Center at CUNY.

JS: What drew you to CUNY?

KB: Precisely that CUNY has this great track record of training critics, curators, and professors, and this sense that art history could be used in ways that were really supportive of the experience I’d just had at the Getty. That was incredibly encouraging to me. I wasn’t much interested in going to a Ph.D. program where I might have to hide my love of museums, which by then was decades old.

JS: Tell me about your transition to the Art Institute of Chicago.

KB: I had just finished all my coursework at CUNY as well as the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, and I made the practical decision that living in New York after two years was becoming too expensive. My partner at the time had a job offer in Chicago, so I went to Chicago and did my exams and proposed my dissertation. I think within a month of proposing my dissertation, I had my first interview at the Art Institute of Chicago for the assistant curator of photography position. It was unbelievably good luck that the Art Institute of Chicago was looking for someone at my level at the exact moment that I was looking for work.

JS: Tell me about some of the projects that you started working on when you arrived there.

KB: There was a cancellation on the major special exhibitions calendar, and something needed to be organized quickly and on a relatively constrained budget. The photography department was asked what ideas they might have. David Travis, the head of the department at that time, asked me—I think it was within the first several months of my arrival. I identified a group of photographers who were at the forefront of a shift in the history of American photography towards more personal subject matter: Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca deCorcia, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Larry Sultan. This project was given a green light, and I got to work with these five incredible photographers and their galleries. That was my first loan exhibition, my first book, my first time working with living artists—just a ton of firsts. It was an experience that I remain phenomenally humbled by.

I completed two of my proudest acquisitions in conjunction with this project. The first was partnering with the Department of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago to buy Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and we installed that as a slide show with the accompanying music at the end of the exhibition. And then I worked very closely with Larry Sultan to identify a group of photographs from his series Pictures from Home that he felt would stand in as an abbreviated version of that project.

JS: After that experience of buying things directly tied to an exhibition, how did you determine how you wanted to expand the collection? How did you know what to look for when you were looking at the physical prints?

KB: That’s a good question and it probably has a long and complicated answer, but I think an easier way to address that is to say that one advantage that I had was that, because I was new to Chicago and new to the Art Institute, I came to that collection with a very fresh set of eyes. With my interest being generally postwar and contemporary, I was looking at a part of the collection that was arguably ripe for development. I started making a wish list of anyone from the postwar era whom I wished we had for teaching, or if I wanted to put something on view, and I’d think, oh gosh, it would be so great if we had an Adrian Piper photograph, or it would be so great if we had Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home. Eventually, it got more systematic, and certainly by the time I came to Princeton, I had a much more developed sense of how to assess the collection here and how to begin to outline the collection needs here.

In terms of your question about looking at photographs—for me, that’s a lifelong learning experience. Arguably—and this is why the answer could be very long—every photographer, or every period, or every process has its own way of being as a photographic object. So, learning how to assess a printing-out print by Eugène Atget is a totally different animal from learning how to assess a silver-dye bleach print by Nan Goldin. And what you look for in those two may vary radically. It’s hard to pin down in broad terms, but once you start getting specific, either to an era or to a particular process, or even to a particular artist, you can begin to learn these ways of looking at certain aspects of the photographic object that will clue you in to its making.

JS: You mentioned all that knowledge that you brought with you to Princeton. You’ve been there for four years. What initially drew you to making the move from a large civic museum to a smaller teaching museum?

KB: By the time I left the Art Institute, I had been there nearly a decade, and I was ready to sink my teeth into something new and big. There was an exhibition in the works at the time that I brought with me, and Princeton and the Art Institute of Chicago ended up co-organizing it. That project became The City Lost and Found. There was again this possibility of bringing a fresh set of eyes to a collection. I knew very little about the details of this collection, and the idea of stepping in after so many years of stewardship by Peter Bunnell was really exciting. Additionally, I had been teaching regularly in Chicago, but it was often something that happened outside of the curatorial job. Here at Princeton, my position fused all I had been doing—working on really big projects and the teaching that I had been doing at various art schools in Chicago. That was—and remains—a huge part of the appeal.

JS: Given the collection’s status and quality, how have you balanced the need to serve the campus community with the need to serve the larger museum community and the community of people interested in photography?

KB: When I encounter a work, say, at a gallery or an art fair, I don’t know if that divide is something that consciously comes to mind for me. I would say for the most part, the acquisitions that I’m drawn to, and immediately thought, we need this—those two communities go hand in hand. How I might articulate our need for an object as related to a broader audience, and how I anticipate its possible use by a professor on campus—those two justifications will sound different, but the immediate reaction does not parse those out. I suspect that my tendency towards work that’s highly politically, socially, or culturally engaged is part of what collapses those two and makes acquisitions ripe for activated viewing on the part of our broader audience, and also makes them really great catalysts for very focused conversations in undergraduate classes.

JS: How have you identified gaps in this collection, when it has so many strengths? Especially with Peter having been involved in the collections for so long, how have you made decisions about what to collect and how put your own imprint on this collection?

KB: That is still very much a work in progress, and I would say I’m still getting my bearings. About two years ago, I started a systematic assessment of the core collection of about 10,000 photographs. I have now looked at nearly all of them, and I have tried to assess each in terms of its importance to the history of photography, its importance to that particular artist’s career, how good a print it is, and how important is the subject matter, while also noting when there is a potential need for conservation, a new mat, or other kinds of collections care. The collection assessment finished this past spring, and all that information will inform a long-range collection strategy that I suspect will be done next year.

In the meantime, I’ve made acquisitions, and I’ve done it two ways. I’ve either filled a gap that, even if I wasn’t all the way through with the collections assessment, there was no question that something was absent. An example: we could use a lot more feminist performance art, particularly as it relates to photography. I came across a Jo Spence two years ago, and thought, that’s a no-brainer. There are other instances where I’ve built on existing strengths. We have a very strong collection of French photography from about 1850 to about 1870. We recently had the opportunity to acquire a complete album by Charles Nègre that, as far as I could discern, is the first album of socially-motivated documentary photographs. It shows photographic views of the Imperial Asylum at Vincennes, which was a convalescent hospital just outside of Paris that was built in 1855 after a decree by Napoleon III. The album demonstrates a real imperative to document the good the asylum is doing, and the commission for the album is probably 1858 or 1859, so the photographs are made after there are patients. There are scenes of injured workers being tended to, so it is quite different in terms of subject matter from our other holdings of this era. And—to go back to your question about teaching potential—the album has this resonance with questions of power of the nation-state and Napoleon III’s relationship to the working classes. These concerns connect it to a number of social questions that reach far beyond our holdings of French photography from the 1850s–70s. It connects to our holdings of works by people like Lewis Hine in the U.S. or John Thomson in London.

JS: What exhibition projects are you working on right now?

KB: I have begun research on what I hope will be a very powerful and engaging exhibition devoted to Life magazine, which was in operation as a weekly magazine from 1936 to 1972. This was a moment in history when a lot of Americans were being informed photographically about the events of the world. I think that the time is right to revisit the ways in which Life magazine shaped a photographic message about the U.S. and about its aspirations as a culture, a political power, and also reflected a deeply divided society. Some of the most amazing photographers worked for Life magazine. That’s one of the great achievements of Life magazine—it gave incredible standing to the photographers with whom it worked. You have people whose names are already known, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Ansel Adams, and Dorothea Lange—although those last two working for Life magazine is maybe a little less celebrated. But then there are photographers who deserve a lot more acclaim than they’ve been given—people like Larry Burrows, Co Rentmeester, Hansel Mieth, or Charles Moore. It’s time to think critically about how all these photographers and the editors at Life played an important role in shaping our perception of American events and American identity.

JS: What do you feel is most special about working in a teaching museum like Princeton?

KB: I’ll answer that with an example. Princeton makes possible something like the Clarence H. White exhibition, which is on view here now into January, and then it will go on the road for a year. It’s going to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, and then the Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibition is deeply indebted to the Clarence H. White Collection we have here, thanks to Peter Bunnell’s relationship with Clarence H. White, Jr. Since the turn of the last century is not a period that I am particularly expert in, the great thing about a place like Princeton is that there is someone here who is absolutely the ideal candidate to think through this material. For the past three and a half years, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Anne McCauley, who is the David H. McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art in the Department of Art and Archaeology, bring all her knowledge of this period and these artists to bear on this project. As an end result, we have a stunning exhibition and a deeply informative catalogue.

JS: It looks like this project has involved a lot of students as well.

KB: Yes, we were able to orchestrate a two-day conservation workshop in collaboration with Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. There is a great video we did about this collaboration. We ended up doing X-ray fluorescence testing on the Clarence H. White works in Princeton’s collection that were going on view in the exhibition, to make sure that we understood the photographic processes used to make the prints. In many instances, knowing that information also tells you more definitively the date around which he would have made the print. It made our own cataloguing of the Clarence H. White Collection more accurate. The collaboration with Yale was just phenomenal. Tapping into this community of great minds for something like this is profoundly rewarding.


Interview conducted by Johanna Seasonwein, Ph.D. She writes about art, culture, and museums. Find out more about Johanna at her website, http://johannaseasonwein.com.