Peter Galassi, the former chief curator of photography at MOMA, came to Gothenburg for an artist’s talk on the occasion of An-My Lê’s first Nordic exhibition last Saturday. Objektiv invited six people from the photo scene to ask him one question each.
Kjersti Solbakken, director of Fotogalleriet, Oslo:
As the director of a lens-based gallery, I’m curious to know more about your view of the contemporary art scene. What, in your opinion, is the critical concern of photographic practice today?
Peter Galassi: For thirty years I tried very hard to keep up with new work in photography. I enjoyed that a lot, but of course, it was also part of my job. Since I left MoMA nearly four years ago, I’ve felt a great sense of freedom from the responsibility of trying to keep up. And I no longer feel a need to formulate a comprehensive overview of the field, so I’m afraid I’m not very useful to you on this point.
But I will take stab at outlining one concern that’s on my mind regarding the contemporary scene. I think it’s very positive that photography has finally got over its inferiority complex and can now play with the big boys and girls in the grown-up art world. Today, you can make anything you want, and lens-based works (to use your term) are not by definition inferior to other kinds of art.
On the other hand, when I see a show of lens-based art these days, I sometimes have the impulse to say to the artist: ‘OK, it’s art. I get it. Great! But what about the world out there?’ Lens-based images have an extraordinary capacity to describe and engage that world, and I have a sense that the enthusiasm for making lens-based art has tended to neglect that capacity.
One example: I’m trying to learn to speak Swedish, and one chapter in one of my study books is about Kiruna in the very north of Sweden, the mining town that produces something like 90% of Europe’s iron—enough every day to make six Eiffel Towers—and which is now being forced to move because the mine is disturbing the bedrock of the town. It’s a fascinating place, which has the further complication of darkness in winter and continuous daylight in summer. Is anyone trying seriously to photograph in Kiruna?
Bjarne Bare, artist and founder of MELK, Oslo:
In Anywhere or not at all, Peter Osborne questions the use of the term ‘medium’ to categorise photography, since it serves so many purposes and is found in so many places. Osborne also asks where the photograph is, given that it’s hard to say whether it’s found in the negative, in the print, on the screen etc., pointing towards a more open ontological idea of the status and being of the photograph. I find photography rather schizophrenic as a medium, and have been even more puzzled since reading Osborne’s statement because he seems to me to be on to something that’s rarely discussed in today’s discourse on photography and how it’s evolving. Where do you believe the photograph is today, compared to a few decades ago, and will it move to different places in the future? Will something be lost on the way?
Peter Galassi: In my view, it’s never made sense to talk about the photograph, because, as you point out, photography has so many functions in the world. If you define photography as registering traces of energy to create a visual image, then its uses go all the way from the amazing methods that scientists keep developing to see what’s going on inside our bodies to the most boring photograph in an art gallery. Photography doesn’t have an essence, ontological or otherwise; it’s something that humans invented and what matters is how they use it, as with language or guns. You can use language for a bureaucratic memo or for Shakespeare’s sonnets. You can use a gun to defend yourself against an evil attacker or to kill the innocent. You can use photography to record faces for drivers’ licences or to make Sune Jonsson’s incredible scenes of the frozen coast near Umeå (one of my favorite recent discoveries). As usual, the most interesting—thrilling, unpredictable, outrageous—aspect is the human element.
The rest of your question overlaps with the next one, from Espen Gleditsh, so I’ll try to answer them together.
Espen Gleditsch, artist and teacher at Oslo Fotokunstskole:
During the seminar Real Photo History at the National Library of Norway in 2014, you gave the lecture ‘Photography 1839–1918: Process, Object, Audience, Image’. You addressed the intimate relationship between the invention of different photographic processes and the spreading of photographic images: how technical developments regarding reproduction changed not only the distribution of photographic images, but also the criteria for what the camera lens was pointed at; the selection of subject matter and how it was photographed. What are your thoughts on how these issues are relevant to photographers today?
Peter Galassi: Making, replicating, manipulating and transmitting photographs has never been easier, quicker or cheaper. This unarguable fact is beaten into our soggy heads with relentless frequency, often accompanied by glib assumptions about what the consequences have been and will be. In fact, every single aspect of our lives is being transformed by digital technology, just as they were by the steam engine, electricity and so forth—though perhaps even more radically. What we don’t know is where we stand on the curve of that transformation. I have the feeling that the only people who are certain to be wrong about the future are the people who are certain that they’re right.
And not everything is changing. For the moment, for example, each human being is still confined to one body that lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For me, the most extraordinary thing about photography—plain, ordinary photography—is that it has proved capable of expressing an individual’s unique relationship to and understanding of the world, with all the subtlety, surprise, depth and power that language can. Digital technology hasn’t done anything to change that.
Thomas H Johnsson, artist and curator for Landskrona Photofestival:
Peter, what comes to your mind first – your idea, or your choice of artist?
Peter Galassi: As Marcel Duchamp—and Ulf Linde, and Lee Friedlander—have said: I don’t believe in ideas, I believe in facts. Works of art—photographs—are facts. That’s where I start; that’s where the fun begins. I get interested in pictures, and then I follow my nose. I’ve noticed, though, that the people who create the most compelling pictures tend to be more intelligent than the rest of us, with more original minds – Mr Friedlander, for example
Ann-Christin Bertrand, curator at C/O Berlin:
What, in your eyes, would be the most appropriate way for a photographic institution to react to the profound transition that the medium of photography is going through, in order to give more space to questions related to its future, and to find new formats more adapted to what photography is becoming?
Peter Galassi: If you mean photographic institutions that aim to serve the art of photography as it is being practised right now, then my answer is simple and old-fashioned: you pay attention, you try to educate yourself about what’s happening and consider it sympathetically, and then you try to bring what you think is the best of it to your audience. If the work that you judge to be the best is best experienced hanging on the wall in a gallery, that’s one thing. If it’s best experienced in some other way, then you try to adapt to that need. The art leads, the institution follows.
Of course, all of that is much easier said than done. The art world today is truly global, which means that keeping up is harder than ever—impossible, really—and it’s a huge challenge to try to get a working sense of the very different cultures from which different work emerges. And in terms of medium, size, format and so forth, not all of the work is leading in the same direction. In some respects, the easiest of all may be the work that leads right out of the building into the cloud—until you discover that maintaining an institutional presence on the web can be just as costly and complicated as running a bricks-and-mortar building.
One thing is certain, though: the institutions don’t decide where photography is going. The best artists do. Which are the best artists? That’s the fun part.
Nina Strand, artist and editor of Objektiv:
In an interview with Aperture, Quentin Bajac spoke about MoMA’s history, calling it the ‘judgment seat of photography’. He added that: "Today, MoMA is only one of the judgment seats. Now there are other major institutions involved in photography. I think MoMA still has a kind of specificity because of its long and deep commitment to photography. We’re writing one history of photography at MoMA, while other people or institutions are writing simultaneous histories." I’m curious to hear your thoughts concerning the different photo institutions, departments or magazines today. Do we need these special arenas and what should be their mission?
Peter Galassi: First of all, I want to say how lucky I feel that Quentin Bajac took my place at MoMA. I worked very hard for the department of photography, for its programmes and collection, and it’s great to know that they’re in such good hands.
And I agree with Quentin that there are many more institutional voices in photography than there used to be—and that this is a good thing. Different points of view—dialogue, debate, even competition—contribute to the vitality of culture. Just one example: Tate, in London, didn’t deal with photography in the past, didn’t have a curator. Now they do: Simon Baker, who recently organised an exhibition about war photography that, if I understand correctly, was about photography that was made after the event. (Conflict, Time, Photography, 26 November 2014 – 15 March 2015). It’s a very simple idea, but as far as I know, no one had ever done it before, and it’s brilliant. I wish I’d been able to see the exhibition, and I’m looking forward very much to studying the catalogue. If Tate still had no photography programme, if Simon wasn’t there, this fascinating project never would have happened.
As for MoMA, I think that Quentin and his colleagues should do what they believe in—and I’m sure they agree. I do hope that the collection will continue to play a significant role in the programme; after all, that’s what makes a museum a museum. And MoMA has great collections—plural. One of the greatest strengths of the photography collection is that it’s surrounded by other great collections. For decades there’s been talk about finding new ways of integrating the display of those collections. I don’t mean a tiny photograph next to a giant painting; they can be in separate galleries adjacent to each other—and the next gallery can be full of design objects. I was eager to try this and other experiments a quarter of a century ago, and I hope I can believe the rumours that these experiments will be tried in earnest soon. Then the curators can see what works and what doesn’t, and then change things. And change them again. And again.