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MoMA’s New Chief Photo Curator Turns to Studio Photography for First Show

© 2014 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Man Ray. Laboratory of the Future. 1935. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Johnson Sweeney.
© 2014 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Man Ray. Laboratory of the Future. 1935. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Johnson Sweeney.

February 07, 2014

Interview by Conor Risch

The first exhibition organized by new Museum of Modern Art Chief Curator of Photography Quentin Bajac opens this weekend in the museum’s Edward Steichen Photography Galleries. “A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio,” features 19th century, modern and contemporary photographs made by photographers and by artists who have used photography in their practices. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition includes work by Man Ray, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, Seydou Keïta, Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper, Lucas Samaras, Julia Margaret Cameron, Cindy Sherman, Walead Beshty, Uta Barth and many others. It also features several film and video pieces.

“The exhibition considers the various roles played by the photographer’s studio as an autonomous space,” reads the introduction to the show. “Depending on the time period, context, and the individual motivations (commercial, artistic, scientific) and sensibilities of the photographer, the studio may be a stage, a laboratory, or a playground.”

Last week PDN spoke with the former Centre Pompidou and Museé d’Orsay photography curator in his MoMA office. He discussed his decision to spotlight studio photography in his first exhibition at the museum, how current photography trends can be understood by looking at photography at the turn of the 20th century, and his plans for photography at MoMA—including the future of the “physical space of the museum.” Bajac’s interview with PDN has been edited.

PDN: Why did you choose to begin your exhibition work at MoMA with a show about studio photography?

Quentin Bajac: Looking at what was happening, especially in the United States today and in New York, a lot of photographers from a younger generation are interested in studio practices. In the ‘90s there was still that strong current of objective, descriptive documentary photography. I think that today there’s a strong current of experimental photography that is interested in the materiality of the image, that is going back sometimes to analogue processes, to experiments in darkrooms, [that is] interested in advertising and fashion in very different ways.

I think it’s really interesting to try to explain the past from what’s happening today. I didn’t know if I would be able to tell that story with MoMA’s collection. I discovered by opening the boxes and looking at the collection online that there were great bodies of work that I didn’t know, and that there was also a possibility that you could write another history of photography that was not only about that documentary, descriptive photography that was for a long time associated with MoMA. There are, in the collection, some works that could take you elsewhere, and that could write another history of photography that would be a history [of photography] done indoors and not outdoors…. There’s a very strong tradition of studio photography in the United States, in the 20th century, and I think that tradition is today being reconsidered by a younger generation.

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