Simon Baker in conversation with Niclas Östlind on Baker's work as Tate’s first curator of photography.
Niclas Östlind: You’ve held one of the key positions in photography since 2009. What did you do before you started working at Tate?
Simon Baker: Tate is the first museum I’ve worked at, and prior to that I was associate professor of Art History at the University of Nottingham. I taught history of art and photography. During that time, I started working on exhibitions as a freelance curator. I did one at Hayward Gallery in London and one at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh. I slowly became more interested in curating than in academic writing.
NÖ: You hold a PhD; what was your thesis about?
SB: It was about Surrealism and French revolutionary politics. It wasn’t really about photography, but the Surrealist publications have, as everybody knows today, incredible photography in them by famous photographers like Man Ray and Brassaï, but also found photographs and vernacular material. I was very interested in not only how photography could play a role in an avant-garde context, but also the equal level the Surrealists found between photography, painting and sculpture. For them, photography wasn’t a secondary medium. It was actually the most important medium and that was very inspiring.
NÖ: What did Tate look like when you started?
SB: Obviously, it’s the UK’s national museum and in fact consists of four museums. It had done fantastic photo exhibitions, like the beautiful Robert Frank show, Jeff Wall and ‘Cruel & Tender’. Tate had a reputation for showing photography, but had never really built a collection, and it was limited to photographs that were part of Conceptual art. There was a fairly good collection of the Düsseldorf School, but mostly it was people working with photography and not necessarily photographers.
NÖ: That’s rather delayed, since many museums started collecting photography in the 1970s.
SB: I know and there’s a reason for that. It was a famous scandal in the British Photography world. Keith Arnatt – who we now have a great collection of – wrote an amazing essay called ‘Sausages and Food’ in 1982, describing the problems with Tate’s collecting policy. The director of Tate at the time, Alan Bowness, said that Tate collected photography by artists, and not art by photographers. It was a distinction they made between an artist using a camera, and photographers trying to be artists. They defended the policy by saying that the V&A had the national collection of photography, and that photography historically had been an applied art. They didn’t think it necessary to have traditional forms of photography in Tate’s collection, since other institutions already collected these. What Arnatt also wrote was that when he was a Conceptual artist, Tate collected his work, but when he started doing landscape photographs they stopped. His question was how they could make that strange distinction. What he wanted to point out was that artistic practice had gone beyond that distinction. We often refer to that essay to show what’s changed at Tate since then.
NÖ: What were you asked to do when you started as curator?
SB: To collect photography in the broadest way possible, not only focusing on a few Conceptual artists using cameras. The second thing was to show that photography has always been inside the history of art, and that the histories should never have become separated. My suggestion when I started, which was accepted by everybody, was that Tate should try to reintegrate photography: not build a separate gallery, not try to make a revisionist alternative history, but simply put photography back into the collection where it arguably always should have been. It was about finding the moments where photography was central to the arts, but also opening up the galleries and, for example, showing a whole room with Bruce Davidson next to a room with Andy Warhol, in order to make connections between two people who worked in New York at the same time. We try very hard not to exceptionalise photography, but to make it a natural part of the collection. I personally strongly believe in this strategy. In London, you can see photography on its own at the V&A, which has a permanent room describing the history of the medium through its collection, and you can go to the Photographer’s Gallery if you want to see a photography exhibition. Tate is the only place where you can see photography alongside painting, sculpture, installations, film and video. That’s our unique role.
NÖ: What are the most important changes you’ve been able to make?
SB: In objective terms, we’ve acquired a great number of photographs that weren’t in the collection before. It’s a question of the photography team persuading the rest of our colleagues that major photographic works are important. In terms of financial resources, we have a patrons committee to support the acquisition of photography, but the other acquisition committees, like the Asian-Pacific, the Russian-Eastern Europe, the African, and the Tate Americas Foundation have also bought photography. We’ve been successful in convincing all of them that photography is important. The biggest difference now is that it’s not only myself and my immediate colleagues, but also many other people suggesting rooms of photography for our displays. Now you see photography everywhere in the museum, and photography isn’t an exception anymore – that’s a massive change in an organisation like Tate.
NÖ: It seems that you’ve truly broadened the geographical perspectives.
SB: Tate’s programme in general has expanded not only in terms of media, but also in terms of geography, to take on the whole world rather than only Europe and North America. It also includes many more women artist than before. That’s the agenda for the new building, and during the last ten years the curators have been learning about different regions, trying to disturb the centre–periphery logic that’s been present in so many museums up until now.
NÖ: When you started at Tate, you were the first photography curator the institution had ever had. What does the photography department look like today?
SB: It doesn’t look massively different. I’m lucky to be working with a brilliant and very knowledgeable assistant curator, Shoair Mavlian. She started in in 2010, I think, and we work together all the time. In the last couple of years, she too has been allocated an assistant. To put that in context, we’re working with all the four Tate museums, so it’s still a rather small team. But Tate actually doesn’t believe in departments and we work with all the other curators and are part of the general team. There’s no photography, or other media-specific, department.
NÖ: In a way, you weren’t a classical photography expert when you got the position at Tate. What have you learnt working there?
SB: When I started, I was vaguely knowledgeable about the 1920s and 30s. It was the period I’d mostly worked on. I had to quickly become a generalist to be able to deal with photography up to the present day. But at that time, it was still possible to read all the general photo history books in a couple of weeks. You couldn’t do that if it was painting. As a result, my personal interest is very broad. At Tate we decided on certain things we’d concentrate on, particularly post-war Japan. That was a decision made on the basis of what was in other collections in Britain and Europe. We looked for areas that had been the least collected and would be best for us to focus on in relation to both their affordability and accessibility. There was no point in us trying to build a huge collection of modernist photography when Centre Pompidou probably has the greatest collection in the world, with tens of thousands of prints from that period. We found photography in the post-war era that was overlooked. It’s a very strategic choice and not based on personal taste. We have a very good relation with other museums, like V&A, and they lend us works that we might want for an exhibition – and we of course do the same for them – so why repeat what they already have? Another important aspect is that we’re trying to collect in proportion to what we want to show. We wouldn’t acquire 4,000 prints by one photographer and show ten. We’d buy fifty and show fifty.
NÖ: How would you describe the exhibition programme?
SB: It’s been important to show photography as a very diverse, open and expanding medium. The first exhibition I worked on was the William Klein and Daido Moriyama show, and in that show you had films, screen prints, photobooks, paintings, slideshows and installations. It was a way for me, and for Tate, of saying that this is what we believe photography to be – a varied and creative medium. We were really not interested in doing a show with 600 small black and white prints evenly spaced. All of the shows we’ve done since then have followed this logic. For us, photography is a diverse medium and it has all kind of modes of delivery to the world, from the small vintage print to the printed page to giant installations. It’s also a way of getting out of the rather small and protective ‘photo ghetto’.
NÖ: What do you mean by that?
SB: In the 1970s and 80s, there were a number of really good photo exhibitions in Britain, but they never generated an increase in the general popularity of photography. Photography wasn’t shown or collected that much in national museums either. The situation created a frustration among a generation of photographers who feel they were let down. Their careers took off, but then not much happened. In Paris, for example, there are both huge national museums with massive photography collections, and several smaller institutions showing photography. So if you were a photographer in Paris you could have a number of shows in various places. Here in Britain it was very different. The culture here hasn’t served photography well. The result was that photographers felt overlooked and they had their own survival strategies. One was publishing, and we have an amazing tradition of printed matter and photobooks in Britain. It can almost be seen as a reflection of the lack of opportunities for exhibiting, even if that is getting much better. Tate should play an important part in that development and it can do so by offering large-scale photo exhibitions.
NÖ: Considering the changes in contemporary photography – technological and how it’s used and distributed – what are the biggest challenges for an institution like Tate, and how are you dealing with them?
SB: Our first big challenge is that we did start very late. Therefore, we are to a certain extent forced to look backwards to make up for what hasn’t been done. We find ourselves constantly raising money to buy works by eminent photographers, because we have to do it now – before it’s too late. Another challenge is also to engage meaningfully with contemporary practice. In the thematic group shows we’re including younger artists and we also host Off Print in the Turbine Hall. It’s a self-publishing or independent publishing book fair, but we also offer tables for individual artists and students. The photobook is a very dynamic field and it’s been a major way of both monitoring and engaging with younger artist’s works. Hosting Off Print is a way for us to be part of the emerging scene, and we’re very enthusiastic about it. The second major challenge, which we haven’t really managed yet, is the digital, online and less object-based practices. Museums need objects, but we’re also increasingly engaging in other modes of delivery. That’s the challenge for the future, not only for Tate, but also for many large institutions.
NÖ: What do you think are the most interesting things in the younger scene today?
SB: There are many different strands of practice and not just one dominant trend. In the last few years there’s been a strong interaction between photography and sculpture, and bringing photography in relation to three-dimensional spaces in new ways. In Japan, there’s a very interesting group of younger women artists making extremely sophisticated works on gender and identity that we’re following up. What the photobook world tells us is that there’s incredibly pluralistic activity and that these photographers have created their own networks and spaces of display and circulation. That’s where I’m looking: to what’s being published more than what’s exhibited.
NÖ: How would you describe the theoretical landscape today, and what are the most relevant questions from your perspective?
SB: Honestly, I have very little engagement with the theory of photography. Having been an academic I understand the concept of it and the necessity of engaging in theory, but it’s not something that takes up much of my time. And it almost can’t. Curators are no longer able to be researchers in the way they used to be in the past. We’re dealing with an enormous variety of different activities. We’re dealing with a global context of photography and we need to be generalists. What we’re asked to do by the museums is to summarise what’s going on and explain that to our audience in an interesting and accessible way.