Back to Spot Magazine

Re-Vision: Anne Wilkes Tucker Reflects on the Curatorial Endeavor

This article was conducted summer 2015, just before Anne’s retirement.

Allison Pappas: Preparing for this interview, I’ve been thinking about the idea of “re-vision .” With your retirement this summer, there will be any number of occasions—and in fact they’ve already begun—where you’ll be called upon to look back over your career and reflect on the work that you have done, as well as hint at what comes next. But it strikes me that this looking back is not new for you. In a basic sense, this is the work of the curator. Looking back at work from prior moments in history, looking back again at the work of artists you have seen in earlier stages of their career or yours, looking back at work you have done to determine what you need to do next, whether filling gaps in a collection or shedding light on understudied subjects.

As a curator, it is common to engage with both individual artists and organizations such as HCP at various moments throughout the course of one’s career. This summer HCP is having their 33rd Annual Juried Membership Exhibition. You juried the 1st, 25th, and 30th Annual Exhibitions. What do you remember of those early years of HCP and what the membership was like then, and how did that change as you came back to the membership exhibition later?

Anne Wilkes Tucker: When I curated the very first HCP Members show in 1982, neither the organization nor I had enough name recognition to draw people from outside the local area. It was also a fairly small show, 11 artists. Quite a number of them are people whose work the museum eventually acquired, which is something that continued over time. Even when I wasn’t the juror, we often acquired work out of the juried shows because the shows brought that work to our attention.

By the time I juried the 25th (in 2007) and 30th (2012) shows, there were definitely people who did not live in the local area, like Alejandro Cartagena, entering the competition. They were much larger, more diverse shows. Some photographers probably entered because we had already acquired their work and entering was a way for me to see what they were doing now and to follow their careers, which is great. We acquired people out of those shows, like Martin Gremm and Aaron Blum.

Juried shows serve multiple purposes. They serve the purpose of the juror getting to see the work. They serve the purpose of getting the work out of somebody’s studio and putting it on the wall with the context of other photographs, where it will look different to them. And finally, they serve to introduce the photographers to an audience that they would not have otherwise, to get new feedback. So the member shows have always been an important part of HCP, because it is a membership organization, and therefore under even greater responsibility to serve its members.

AP: Were there artists you saw in multiple reviews across this period? I believe Will Michels was the only photographer you included in more than one show. Would it have been a conscious decision to show members whose work hadn’t been exhibited before?

AWT: Well, I was always trying to make the shows as diverse as possible. So while I don’t consciously remember eliminating somebody, there are a couple of reasons I might have cut work I already knew. One, it was not new. And in that kind of situation, especially if it has been a couple of years since I saw the portfolio and they’re still doing the same thing, that might have been a reason. Another consideration is trying to make the show diverse and therefore balancing how many photographers are doing landscapes, how many are involved in street photography, or how many are making manipulated or conceptual work in some way. I do have very diverse interests.

What people may not realize if they’ve never done that kind of review is that for both the 25th and the 30th exhibitions there were a lot of entries. The first cut is pretty easy, the second cut is a little harder, but not really. But when you get down to 100 and you’ve still got to cut it to 30… there can be an arbitrariness to somebody getting cut at that last stage. There’s always very good work, as we say, on the cutting room floor, and that’s just part of the terms of jurying, you have to take responsibility. You’re trying to encourage people, and another way of encouraging the membership, beyond putting them on the wall, is to show them work that they might not see in Houston otherwise. And so that’s another factor.

AP: Has the way that you look at work and the way that you engage with artists while looking at work changed throughout the course of your career? Did you approach things differently early on, than you do now?

AWT: Well, one thing that you have to remember that’s very different is that probably for the first show I saw actual prints, probably for the 2007 show it was still slides, and certainly for the show in 2012 it was digital, and those are different ways of viewing things and different experiences. Another thing about a show like this is that I’m not engaging with the photographer one-on-one. They’re not there for me to ask questions. At the later stages I probably read statements, but not at the early stages. I try—and you’re almost forced—to view the work over time, so that when you first see work you might cut, something that you realize a couple of days later, you still remember. I always pay attention to images that stay in my head, so then maybe I go back and reconsider them. The process is a very organic one.

I’ve always been, however, a quick decider. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I might be quicker than other people. Clint Willour and I are very similar. We’ve juried things together before and we both make up our minds quickly, because we trust our intuition.

AP: And you have from the beginning of your career.

AWT: It’s always been a factor. I’m not interested in trends; I’m not interested in what other people think. From the beginning, I have asked two questions. When I’m not with the photographer I ask them in my head; when I am with the photographer I literally ask the questions: what do they want me to think, and what do they want me to feel? And then the next question is: are their craft decisions appropriate to what they want me to think and feel? Did they choose their materials effectively toward the purpose of how I understand the work?

AP: Have there been photographers of whom your opinion has changed drastically over the years?

AWT: Oh, totally. I didn’t get Cindy Sherman. I didn’t get James Welling. In both cases I was lucky, because people whom I respected a great deal said I had to look at that work, and I paid attention. I have tremendous respect for Fredericka Hunter and her eye, and Ian Glennie, the two people that run Texas Gallery. So when Fredericka did a show of Cindy Sherman’s work I said, OK, I have to look at this. Luckily for the museum, we purchased something out of that first show. I certainly would not have, if it hadn’t been that show at Texas Gallery.

AP: Was Cindy Sherman there for the show? Were you able to engage with her about the work?

AWT: I don’t remember meeting her, and I wouldn’t have known what to ask her if I did. Now I do remember that the show had a consistency. I mean, I didn’t get the idea, but I recognized that this artist knew what she was doing and was doing it with clarity and so, you know, I ended up buying it for the museum. I blew it on Welling. Fredericka showed him, I really did not understand those early fabric pieces, and so I didn’t buy them. We ended up paying a lot more a number of years later. I mean, no one can get them all. John Baldessari, I don’t think I would have understood or gotten, but Lewis Baltz, whom I had tremendous respect for said, “Anne, you have to look at this work.” So I remained open to others saying, “take a second look.”

AP: I find it interesting to look at photographs [the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston] collected and felt to be relevant or compelling at the same time and see which became a part of the accepted history and which, for whatever reasons, are later ignored or left out.

AWT: Nobody bats a thousand. Nobody. And to say that someone’s career doesn’t seem to have taken off does not mean that it won’t.

Having been at the museum four decades, one of the things that I have come to realize is that the next generation away from me, and most certainly two generations away from me—which you are—are not going to look at pictures the same way I do. You don’t read the same books, you don’t go to the same movies, you don’t listen to the same music. You’re reading into them different information. There was a moment two years ago when we were trying to decide which Bruce Davidson to pick for an exhibition, and there were three of you standing there who were all the same age group and you all three oriented towards the same picture, which was away from a picture I was certain I was going to choose. And I ended up letting you make the decision because it was the voice of a different generation speaking. A good photographer who we all agreed was important, but you responded differently to his work.

AP: We’ve been talking about this recently. There are so many different ways that the photograph has been used over time and that it can be studied [in many different ways] as a result—visually, materially, theoretically, historically, socially. It seems that the content that is focused on (and what is ignored) says more about the period of scholarship than it necessarily does about the work that’s being studied—the interests and insecurities of a given moment draw out whatever history they deem most significant.

AWT: You know, it does. We are far enough away now that we can look back at what was called the Humanist moment in France after World War II or The Family of Man* to know that after World War II, we needed sentimental (at worst) and sentiment-filled (which is not a bad thing) pictures because there had just been enough sadness and horror. It takes several generations before you can decide. If three generations respond to the work of an artist—even if it’s different pictures within that work—then that person has legs, and probably is going to stay in the history books, although for different reasons and in different contexts. That’s the measure. The enthusiasm of one generation does not a great artist make.

AP: Throughout your career, you’ve been equally focused on working with contemporary photographers and on historical projects, going back and finding subjects that haven’t been brought fully into the light yet. Many of your books and exhibitions have represented shifts in the vision of the field – —whether The Woman’s Eye or landmark exhibitions like Czech Modernism: 1900 – – 1945The History of Japanese Photography, or WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.

AWT: It’s funny for you to refer to those shows, the Japanese show especially, as landmark. You know, it was not an obvious show to do at the time.

There are two guiding principles. One, I think I’ve been best with people who are within a few years of my own generation because, for those very reasons that we were talking about, those people and I share a cultural heritage. Giving somebody like Ray Metzker, who was older than I am, a mid-career retrospective gave him a boost in terms of people looking at his work. There are other people like Joel Sternfeld and Catherine Wagner, where I committed to their work after seeing just a few pictures, but in many ways I understand it better now. With Joel, there’s a thread of sadness, even horror, in the series American Prospects. It’s an America with a thread of decline in it, from the rusting factories, to the home sliding down a hillside, to the collapsed circus elephant on the road that. I’m not sure we saw it fully then, or understood the work as underpinning or defining that era as well as it did.

And then I know this interest also came out of my love of Robert Frank. I did American Prospectswith Joel, the American landscape show with Richard Misrach, American Classroom with Catherine Wagner, and wrote an essay for Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, because history—general history, not just photographic history—has always been a critical element in everything that I did. Looking at the United States and its culture has been a critical part of much of what I’ve done.

The other thing that drove me, though—I’ve said it many times, and I still believe it—is that what we don’t know about the history of photography is, still today, greater than what we do know. And so that was a large factor in doing the Czech show, and certainly in doing the Japanese show.

AP: Are there other projects like that that you never had time to address? What other gaps were you interested in that were never realized as exhibitions?

AWT: Well, I might still do them, so I’m not going to give you all those ideas. But certainly one of the gratifying things about the depth of the field now is that other people are beginning to see those same gaps. Matthew Witkovsky, at the Art Institute of Chicago, did a show on other countries in Eastern Europe. There are many more historians now, which is great.

AP: When you say that there’s more that we still don’t know about the history of photography than we do know, that will continue to be the case. Photography constantly reinvents itself in a way that I think all mediums do, from an artistic perspective, but because of some of the technical, defining characteristics of photography it is particularly apparent.

AWT: Well, you and I were looking at a recommended reading list for the history of photography recently, and one of the things that stood out for both of us is that there were no books about history, the role of history. It was all theoretical, it was gender-based or race-based, it was politically based, but the setting within the context of history was not there. And that’s just part of the way discourse has been going.

And I think that the best of the new generation of curators and historians will take an independent path. Will be looking, as you say, at the materiality. Which I agree with you, is something that has been noted in passing but not recognized as a driving force. But I can tell you, when a group of photographers are sitting around the table, they are talking about materials. I was in a conversation in New York recently where I was the only curator and we spent maybe half an hour just devoted to various inkjet printers and inks and papers, which was perhaps a little more of that discussion than I needed, but I was fascinated by how critical it was to them.

AP: And I think it is, at the most basic level, recognized in the history. A lot of attention is given to the dual inventions at photography’s beginning, and then to the shift with the handheld camera and how that changed the capabilities of photography to document historical events as they were happening, and the invention of color photography and what that changed, and now digital. I think the history acknowledges certain pinnacle moments of massive technological changes as spurring new types of work. But the everyday pervasiveness of that practical, material drive isn’t really explored. When you focus too narrowly on the theoretical implications, photography can become divorced from the artist.

AWT: It distresses me that artists’ intentions are no longer part of many discussions. But another factor in all of this is that I am the last generation of curators who started as photographers. Whereas all the major curators before me—Beaumont Newhall, Nathan Lyons, John Szarkowski, Van Deren Coke, Fritz Gruber, Manuel Álvarez Bravo—were practicing photographers.

AP: So it changes the way that you engage.

AWT: It totally changes the way you look at the prints, if you engage in the technical.

AP: I think a lot of my generation hasn’t been taught that, the practical or connoisseur’s understanding of a print. It’s something that can be learned on the job through years of work, but it is not assumed to be a necessary part of the education anymore.

AWT: Because the professors aren’t qualified to teach it, unless you take a course as a practicing photographer taught by a practicing photographer. But in fact, that now makes photography more like painting and sculpture and printmaking, because it has been a very long time since it was common for a curator to be a painter, a sculptor, or a printmaker.

AP: Photography was still in the hands of artists for longer because [the medium] entered museums in a serious way at a later date?

AWT: Well, there was no academic training so the only pool for curators to come from was practitioners. We didn’t have our first doctorate in the field until Carl Chiarenza in the early ‘70s. It was a while, actually, before the generation that is Maria Morris Hambourg and Peter Galassi and Sandra Phillips who all had doctorates. And now it’s become quite common. You know, it’s a big shift, having people taught within an academic institution, by the standards of the academic world, as opposed to the practitioner’s world.

AP: The interesting thing is that, learning how to curate is still the same. You’re trained, whether technically or academically, and then you’re sort of thrown into the mix and you have to learn how to develop your eye and what it is that you’re actually doing in the museum. The work of curating is still learned on the job in the same way, it’s just coming to it with a very different background, which is interesting.

AWT: Well, but you just nailed it when you mentioned the word eye. Because there are too many people who are writing about photography who have actually never held a print in their hands. And so it’s very different. You know, they’ve seen them on the wall but physically handling the work makes a difference in how you engage with it.
The other tendency that scares me is that people don’t even dig to page 5 of the internet, much less get into or beyond books. I mean primary research, literally get into the magazines and the letters and the diaries and the artifacts of the time. I’m reading Sally Mann’s new biography and it’s an amazing reconstruction from the diaries and documents that she found in the attic. You have a theory and go into the internet or wherever you’re researching to look for what supports your theory, as opposed to looking at hundreds of objects and letting them give you the patterns and theory. And content. Those are huge shifts. And so, to go back to our jurying, if you have a theory and you’re looking for the photographs that are submitted that will support your theory, then you’re going to have a very different exhibition than if you look at all the pictures and ask what it is that they’re trying to tell you. That’s a completely different way to look at art.

*The Family of Man, an exhibition organized by Edward Steichen, was composed of 503 photographs grouped thematically around subjects pertinent to all cultures, such as love, children, and death. After its initial showing at The Museum of Modern Art in 1955, the exhibition toured the world for eight years, making stops in thirty-seven countries on six continents. The photographs included in the exhibition focused on the commonalties that bind people and cultures around the world and the exhibition served as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II. The accompanying exhibition catalogue is still available in the MoMA bookstore. (www.moma.org)

Anne Wilkes Tucker is curator emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she founded the photography department in 1976. The museum’s collection now comprises 30,000 photographs made on all seven continents. She has curated more than forty exhibitions, including retrospectives of the work of Brassaï, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, George Krause, Ray K. Metzker, Chen Changfen, and Richard Misrach as well as important surveys included ones on the Czech Avant Garde, contemporary Korean Photography, a history of Japanese Photography and WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Photographs of armed conflict and its aftermath. Most of these exhibitions were accompanied by publications. She has also published many articles and lectured throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America. She has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Getty Center. She received an Alumnae Achievement Award from Randolph Macon Woman’s College, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Griffin Museum and the Houston Fine Arts Fair and in 2001. Time Magazine listed her as America’s Best Curator in an issue devoted to America’s Best.

Allison Pappas is the assistant curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Prior to coming to Houston, she held positions in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Williams College Museum of Art, and the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. Allison holds a BA from Brown University in History of Art and Architecture and Anthropology with honors, and an MA from Williams College in History of Art, focusing on the history of photography.