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Interview: Anne Tucker with Susie Kalil

Anne Wilkes Tucker received undergraduate degrees from Randolph Macon Woman’s College, Lynchberg, Virginia, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, and a Graduate Degree from the Visual Studies Workshop, a division of the State University of New York. After working in various museums and universities, she joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1976 and is currently the Gus and Lyndell Wortham Curator of Photography. She founded the museum’s photography department, which now has a collection of over 25,000 photographs. She has curated over forty exhibitions, most accompanied by a publication. Recently, she collaborated with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on the exhibition and publication of Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography. She has contributed essays to numerous monographs and catalogues, and has published many articles. She has lectured throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment of the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Getty Center. In 2001, in an issue dedicated to “America’s Best,” Time magazine honored her as “America’s Best Curator.” She was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Focus Award from the Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, Massachusetts, in 2006.

Susie Kalil: HCP is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, which is a good turnaround time for most things – a time to develop a new audience. How long does it take to get a perspective on images? What has been the turning point in the past thirty years? Why was HCP organized? Is it typical of those cluster organizations in the early 1980s and were they successful? How has its relevance changed over the years?

Anne Tucker: Some museums, primarily the Museum of Modern Art, the Met, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, began to collect photographs before World War II, but really photography came into its own as an art form in the 1970s. There were galleries devoted to photography. There were auctions. A number of museums began to collect photographs, including this museum (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) in 1975. There were publications. Aperture was the granddaddy – not only were there photography publications, but the art magazines began to cover issues of photography – so that the 1970s was when photography burst forward. At that time in Houston, during the 1970s and early 80s, Rice University already had a department of photography, and the department was formed at the University of Houston. Cronin Gallery moved here; Mancini Gallery opened in 1986; FotoFest started and HCP was founded when Cronin Gallery closed. There was a direct relationship. The other big thing that happened during the 1970s was the founding of all the major artist run organizations across the country – HCP, DiverseWorks and Lawndale were all part of that movement. A city needs a place where there is rapid turnaround, where artists can see their works on the wall, new projects can get up. There’s not this three or four year delay that occurs with most museums -especially in Houston, since the number of contemporary galleries that we have is relatively small. Where does HCP come into all of this? That’s the challenge – we don’t have a strong conceptual base in this city, except maybe in the Core program. Neither Rice, nor U of H, nor TSU have produced a lot of conceptual artists – those studying with Ed (Hill) and Suzanne (Bloom) have more of a digital, conceptual base. So HCP has to respond to its community and what’s being made out there. HCP has to have educational programs to get funding, but it’s still showing people who haven’t otherwise exhibited in this city. It’s still trying to develop shows of local and regional people, national and international artists.

SK: In many ways, we’re just now making sense of the medium and that decade. What are the paradigm shifts that you’re seeing in recent work?

AT: Let’s fast-forward thirty years. The biggest change is digital. And digital has had many effects. One is that to some extent a large portion of photography has been unhinged from any obligation to reality, to the physical world. Mom and Pop know that they can change a photograph and they can do their own changing of the photograph with Photoshop in their own computers. So, whether a photograph is “manipulated” is no longer discussed by anybody but the news. It’s still an issue for the journalists. But other than even ask what manipulative production has gone on – and there could be so many stages -a photographer could take something with film, feed it into the computer, change it, maybe change it back to film and make a traditional print, or make a digital print, or make an inkjet print. We don’t even know what the stages are any more. The other thing that happened with digital is size. Whereas photographs were 11×14 or 16×20, 20×24, now young artists will start out giving you a 30×40, then 40×50 and then something larger. And so many major artists now just have photography as one of their tools. The good news and the bad news is that photography has been completely incorporated into the art world. So it no longer has a distinct divinity – it depends upon whether John Baldessari is using it or Cindy Sherman is using it or Alfredo Jaar or somebody else.

SK: It’s an interesting time in photography right now. In many ways, it’s become like painting with no distinct movements or styles. I see riffs coming from the New Topographics, the New Color Photography – some of the painting profs tell me that their grad students want the quick fix. They don’t want to absorb all of the sources and predecessors.

AT: Well, there are distinct movements and styles. There are styles that are associated with schools, especially the women students coming out of Yale. You can sort of spot what I call the Yale girls – not all, but many – especially those working in portraiture. The school coming out of CalArts is not as strong as it used to be, since John Baldessari is no longer on campus. But there is still a West Coast versus and East Coast kind of aesthetic.

SK: And how would you define that – with Baldessari, it was a conceptual based aesthetic.

AT: There is still conceptual art coming out of California. There is still a very strong landscape component in photography coming out of schools in Arizona and New Mexico. It is certainly not the Ansel Adams dramatic beautiful beauty – that’s out.

SK: Who are the students looking at then?

AT: They are looking at Mark Klett, who is very conceptual – for decades, he has re-photographed famous sites of 19th century photographers and recently began to put into his contemporary photographs the actual images of the earlier photographers. The fascination with the American West – Richard Misrach, of course – is very powerful within that tradition. The number of people photographing along the border right now – David Taylor, Victoria Sambunaris who did this series on the
railroads of the West – so there’s still a very strong landscape component. The number of artists looking back into the past and building pieces based on a kind of theory or philosophy that comes out of past times is there. So, there are styles and there are schools. You mentioned that they aren’t interested in their precedents. There’s that great Carrie Fisher quote that “instant gratification isn’t fast enough.”

SK: I’ve been hearing of a Post-Appropria¬tion group of photographers lately – but are they taking from their childhoods, or going back to the Pictures Generation?

AT: Well, you’ve got several things going on – you’ve got people who are dealing with the virtual world, like we have downstairs at the museum (MFAH) – a young man, Joel Lederer, who is literally photographing the landscapes in the digital program Second Life. He is making photographs digitally of this virtual world, of things that only exist in Second Life. There are people who are dealing with Twitter. There’s a GPS in most people’s cell phones and if somebody Tweets a photograph, they can get back to the place where that person was standing when the photograph was made. So the photographers (Nate Larsen and Marni Shindelman) are documenting the location from which the Tweet was sent and putting that message on the photographic print. A lot of the young photographers are addressing the barrier between what is a virtual world and what is a real world. The barrier is dissolving, because it isn’t a real division for them.

SK: And that’s the generational shift.

AT: An earlier generation’s reality was in television. Now their heads are in these virtual existences – whether it’s Tweeting with their friends, or getting into places like Second Life, or blogs, or anything else. There is no separation – the virtual is real to them.

SK: With the rise of digital photography, has there been a certain loss of the real or even lost illusions of the real? It seems in that shift, there are no seams, no rupture – rather, the digital is an aesthetic of smoothness and erasure.

AT: What I’m saying is that, for them, there is no either/or; there is no real versus virtual. It certainly consumes as much of their time. If people are going to be nostalgic about a place, they can be as nostalgic about the time they spent with their head in some virtual place as we could be about childhood homes. It is real to them. It is how their day is passed. So that’s where their attention is in terms of expression. Now, the number of them who are making intelligent use of that is something else.

SK: So with the pervasive use of iPhones, is everyone a photographer?

AT: Well, yes – everyone with an iPhone is a photographer, but whether we care about them or not, beyond their family and friends, is a whole other thing. Whatever craft we are using has to be intelligent and it has to be a fresh and engaging use of that craft. As usual, only a handful are doing that.

SK: Do you think there are still some photographers in lock-in mode, still attached to the darkroom? Or are we going to see black and white, gelatin silver photographs only occasionally?

AT: Those prints aren’t being made. It’s not a choice the photographers are making. They can’t get the materials – Kodak doesn’t make dye transfer anymore. And I have to go with the stream that is flowing – it’s wasted time to be sad about something that isn’t going to happen again. Some photographers bought a lot of paper just before it ceased to be made; another group bought the formula for making a particular kind of photographic paper and hired a man out of retirement to make that paper for them. Others, like Richard Misrach, after thirty, almost forty years of working with traditional materials, switched to digital because that’s where it’s going. Even Irving Penn, the great master of the platinum print, was making archival ink jet prints before he died. So it’s the way the medium is going. If you’re smart, you figure out how to use it to your means.

SK: Is the realism of images – the mercurial reality they depict – a debate that we always need to explore in this hyper-post everything 21st century? We’ve come to see the world as photography. It no longer documents our reality, so much as it creates our reality. We live for and in photo opportunities -entertainment, news, surveillance. We depend upon photographic imagery to delineate the parameters of our lives. Recently, in a talk at the MFAH with Richard Misrach, you brought up the fact that if you don’t know the event, the photograph has a different meaning.

AT: Have we come to see the world as photography? That is just too broad a question. What I was talking about is that for some the images in their head from camera/TV/virtual world/magazines have become as real as the images of the world we used to think of as “real.” Some can have feelings for fictional characters/places/ events, stronger than for actual people/ places/events. Evidence of that are the thousands of people who go to the corn field at which Field of Dreams was filmed. So they are making a pilgrimage to a real place because of fictional events. And how “real” is a teenager performing for the cell phone or the camera on the computer to be seen on Facebook. We may not see the world as photography, but we may confuse the images that come through lenses as being “the world.” It’s always been true -whether your work is straight photography, or whether it is an invented, staged or manipulated reality – if you are making references and your audience doesn’t know the references, they won’t get the work. I was talking to a professor the other day who said all of his students were eleven when the World Trade Towers attack happened. So the events of 9/11 didn’t really impact their lives when it happened – they were too young to fully grasp what had occurred. They knew their parents were upset, but the whole idea of death and destruction and the shock of it, of America being attacked, was not part of any grasp of reality. When you’re eleven, what’s the difference in seeing a plane flying into a building and that building collapsing on TV, and going to a movie and seeing the same thing. When you’re eleven, you can’t separate the two – they’re both imagery – you can’t place the significance of the fact that one of them actually existed and one was a Hollywood creation.

SK: So how do we sort through all of this when there’s no difference between the real and the virtual?

AT: You have to take it case by case, which we always have. How consistently has the artist maintained this idea? Is there a body of work here? Is it thin? Or is it rich? Have they made the right decision in terms of the craft they are using? Just like there’s been a huge difference in people in their darkroom prints, there’s a huge difference in people in their capacity to make prints digitally. And some of them make terrible prints -their ideas don’t come through because they’re whacked by this unappealing object they’ve created. I say unappealing object, but you do have to be careful – there’s a fascinating show right now at the Modern on photography and sculpture (The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, organized by Roxana Marcoci, curator of photography, MoMA). “Photographs of sculpture” used to be perceived as someone photographing a beautiful object and making a beautiful object. For instance, they photographed a Gothic cathedral and made a beautiful platinum or albumen print of it, so the photograph became a beautiful object. There are almost no beautiful objects in Roxana’s show. It is a show about conceptual approaches and really moves into the world of ideas, not so hinged to the fact that the idea has to morph outward as something that is aesthetically appealing in a traditional way. She found in history the photographs that existed but that we didn’t traditionally put in the category, because we had very specific ideas what the category was about. The categories, the paradigms, are changing. Portraiture has changed into issues of identity. Landscape has changed into issues of the environment and borders. Architecture has changed into city issues. Roxana has completely busted open the paradigm, the perception of what photographs of sculpture might be and are. That’s happening throughout the field.

SK: What exchanges are occurring between photographic images and other areas of culture? How should photography be treated now? Lewis Baltz says that photography needs to be seen in a broader social and cultural context.

AT: In that realm, there are still hundreds of people who are working photojournalists. These are very smart people who still care about the camera as a way to bring the world together in images, and they risk their lives, lose their lives photographing wars, tsunamis, and cholera so that we can know what is physically happening in the real politic of the world. Then you get artists like JR, the young man who just won the TED award – he puts giant murals across slums in Brazil, Cambodia, Kenya. You get people who are using photographs in installations in a much more dramatic way. Installation art involving photography is not new, but it’s the scale with which he’s bringing to the outside. Another thing that digital is allowing is multiplicity. A major paradigm shift in documentary is where the photographer used to be confined within the two page spread mentality. We (MFAH) will be exhibiting in two years a 30 foot mural that James Nachtwey has put together of 60 images of an operating room in Iraq. And you will walk along 30 feet of these very intense, multiple views of operations on soldiers in Iraq. It is so much more powerful than a two-page spread could possibly be. These will be juxtaposed across the room from W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor series, which was shown in Life at the height of the magazine in the 1950s. So we’re setting up this shift -both of them happen to be photographing medical events, but opening up greater possibilities now, given the technology. The Smith/Nachtwey exhibition will be on display at the same time as the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Photographs of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath. That show will take viewers through the experience of war as perceived by photographers. The sections of the show start with instigation and training, and go through battles, battlefield death, destruction of property, and all the rest. You will have an intense experience of war. I want people to come away with more respect for the photographers, who are some of the most informed, passionate, and interesting people I’ve met in a long time.

SK: With this kind of shift, how have exhibitions changed the way we look at photographs? People have always been able to receive information if it’s packaged and labeled for them, but with the shifting boundaries comes a different viewing experience.

AT: It is a different viewing experience -the big change is with so many multiple sources, we’re not all getting uniform baselines. In the era of Life magazine, there were three TV channels and a couple of dozen magazines – and now there are 300 channels? 500 channels? Plus whatever you get on the Internet – there are quick changes, where a generation will know only that which interests their generation. It’s harder and harder to assume what your audience knows. The thing about photography that is so affected by these rapid changes is the references, what you can assume people know in the references and whether or not those references are necessary for experiencing the art.

SK: What do the younger art historians or young photographers see when they look at the work of Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, or Garry Winogrand?

AT: That’s the point at which people circle out of the history when they don’t speak to the next generation and other people who might have been neglected get re¬discovered because they have something to say that speaks to people now. We simply can’t project. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can know what will be meaningful for future generations. That’s one of the things about being an older curator trying to look at contemporary art. I’m not watching the same television shows – I don’t watch television at all any more. I’m not listening to the same music. I’m not reading the same novelists, so my references that input them are totally different. Ryan McGinley – we acquired his work early only because somebody in New York who I trust called me and said this kid was going to take off. I responded to it, but I couldn’t tell you all the rap music he was listening to or anything else. It’s different.

SK: Which photographers working now will one day go down as great? And what does that mean? Maybe our idea of greatness isn’t relative any more.

AT: Well, I think greatness has to do with whether they keep working, whether they have influenced other people, whether the course of the medium has shifted because of their engagement. Richard Misrach is phenomenal because basically, since the late 70s, he never stopped working. And not only has he not stopped working, but we are still interested in the new work. Many artists have a ten year period in which their art is really right-on with the times. And then they may keep working, but their art doesn’t seem to operate on the same plane as the art in that initial ten year period. And sometimes that early work – what they do in that period and how it affects the medium – is enough. When I’m looking at young artists, somebody like Simon Norfolk or Catherine Wagner, who we bought very early – and having watched them decade after decade make art that engages us to look at something differently, to respond to it – that’s what we’re after.

SK: Is it possible to experience radical breaks in photography right now? One of the criticisms of the last Whitney Biennial was its focus on neo-academic art that rendered everything visually passionless.

AT: One of the things that I thought was fascinating is that two of the photographers in the Whitney had happened to be journalists, one of whom was Nina Berman, who I’ve been working with recently. The curators picked Nina’s work off the web and they never saw a print until she delivered her prints to the Whitney, which shocks me about their lack of understanding, their assumption that something which looks vivid on the web is going to look vivid as a print. They had no sense of the scale of her art.

SK: What does that say about the direction of photography? Where is it going? For much of its history, of course, photography was an object of modest size. Now that intimate scale has been overturned – not only from taking something off the web, but something wall-bound.

AT: Well, as I say to young photographers, they’re welcome to make all the 40×50 prints they want to, but until they prove themselves as an artist, I’m not investing in it. Because when something is in a modest-size box, I can buy it and if it doesn’t last the test of time, that’s one thing. But once something has to be hung on a vertical rack, that’s “real estate”. The bigger the art, the fewer risks we will take in acquiring it for the museum. It becomes like a large scale painting and takes a lot of commitment from the institution to maintain it. I think photographers need to be careful how many collectors and museums have room for these pictures, particularly if they’re color and supposed to be in cold storage. Along with that, you can Photoshop an image and can change whole color systems, but you better know what you’re doing. All too often, you can just spot the Photoshop – it looks and feels artificial, and to what point? Being able to do it doesn’t mean you should do it – a lot of people aren’t doing it well.

SK: In terms of underknown artists, who are you looking at right now?

AT: We’ve always tried to find people before they were famous, partly because we never had that much money to spend. We’re looking at Latin America; and, of course, with Yasu on staff (Yasufumi Nakamori, MFAH assistant curator of photography), he’ll be focusing on Asian photography in general as well as contemporary photography. I’m looking at people who have bodies of work – Lauren Greenfield has been working on the West Coast photographing kids of wealth, kids of poverty, kids with issues such as anorexia.

SK: You were talking about the women photographers out of Yale who are doing portraits. How do you see portraiture changing?

AT: One of the things about portraiture over the last two years is that it has shifted away from where the viewer is supposed to think that the subject is looking at them. They are more private moments, more introspective moments. The poster image for the Latin American show currently at the museum, by the Argentinean photographer Res with the woman looking down, for example. There are large color pictures where the people are life size but they’re not looking at us and not engaged with us. There is no emotional stake or any identifiable emotion that is a part of the image – a kind of emotional in-betweenness. In the photograph by Barbara Probst downstairs by the cafeteria, three different cameras went off simultaneously and showed three women from three different perspectives. I think her point of view is to remind us that at any one instant when a picture is taken there are at least two other instances possible that are different. Portraiture has shifted from what it used to be – there’s a lot of self-portraiture. It’s a subject they’re comfortable with and they know; it doesn’t cost them anything and they don’t have to get outside their milieu to engage with it. What they’re saying is, there is no “truth.” It’s not about some kind of definitive perception. They don’t presume – we can never really know a person. Maybe they’re saying all we can know is the visage itself