The Cleveland Museum of Art’s photography collection boasts a wealth of photographic history. From the pioneers of the medium’s childhood to the artists shaping its future, it contains over 8000 images that span photography’s timeline, capturing the mutations and multitude of uses that make up its evolution. Naturally, since color photography only took its stronghold in the mid-1970s, the majority of this story is told in monochrome by prominent voices such as Eugène Atget, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, to name just a few.
Curator Barbara Tannenbaum has been working with the collection since 2011, organizing exhibitions by artists such as Frank Gohlke, Emmet Gowin and Hank Willis Thomas. Before joining the Cleveland Museum of Art, she curated 80 exhibitions at the Akron Art Museum as head of the curatorial area, and oversaw the growth of the photography collection from 500 works to 2,500 during her tenure.
We are delighted that Barbara will be sharing her expertise as a member of our jury of our LensCulture Black & White Photography Awards. In this interview, we speak about her curatorial journey, the enduring significance of black and white photography, and the future of the art form.
LensCulture: Can you tell me a bit about the journey that led you to the Cleveland Museum? When and how did you first become interested in photography and what was it that drew you to curation?
Barbara Tannenbaum: I have had a meandering career path—not the straight trajectory your parents and graduate school advisors hope you will take. While working on my Ph.D. dissertation in the history of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan, I ran a summer art school outside of Saugatuck, Michigan for two years, then did some university teaching. When I moved back to Chicago, I was hired to catalogue and do exhibitions with the estate of painter Seymour Rosofsky, which was how I got into curating.
When that project was wrapping up, I taught Art History at Oberlin College for two years as a leave replacement. A very determined woman, the art historian and professor Thalia Gouma-Peterson submitted my resume for a curatorial position at the Akron Art Museum, a museum of modern and contemporary art whose collection begins with works made in 1850. The Director hired me as Chief Curator. I had enjoyed teaching, but really missed dealing with real works of art. Seeing slides on the screen during my lectures wasn’t doing it for me.
Photography was one of the areas of strength in Akron’s collection, and the only area for which we could afford to crate and ship traveling shows. It’s much cheaper to do that for photos than for paintings or sculpture, so I started doing photography shows. While I had never studied photography history in school, I already had a mental museum of photography in my head and soul. I grew up in Chicago, and was very close to an uncle who was a very serious amateur photographer. He took classes at the Institute of Design with Aaron Siskind and Art Sinsabaugh, and we went to pretty much every photo show in Chicago. He also loved books, and had an extensive library of photobooks. Because of him, I had thought a lot about photography and its history, even though I never took a class in it. And I put in a lot of time studying the field, meanwhile continuing to curate in other areas of modern and contemporary art.
I spent 26 years as a member of the senior staff at the Akron Art Museum, which involved doing extensive administration as well as curating. When the Curator of Photography position opened up at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011, I was excited about the opportunity to dedicate myself exclusively to curating and to the field of photography.
LC: Can you give me an outline of your role at the Cleveland Museum of Art? What does your day-to-day look like?
BT: I am the museum’s one and only Curator of Photography. A couple of years ago, I also took on some administrative responsibility and added the title of Chair of the Department of Prints and Drawings to my portfolio. My job is varied; different days involve different duties. I travel quite a bit, seeking and researching acquisitions; I organize between three to six exhibitions per year; write catalogues and articles; and give lectures. The Cleveland Museum of Art has a joint Ph.D. program with the History of Art Department at Case Western Reserve University, so I occasionally teach and often supervise internships with their students.
LC: The museum seems to have a rich collection of black and white work, with pioneering pieces from artists such as Dorothea Lange and Helen Levitt, to Gordon Parks and Walker Evans. Can you tell me a bit about the museum’s relationship to black and white work?
BT: The museum’s photography collection was built by my predecessor, Tom Hinson, who was the museum’s first ever Curator of Photography. The institution didn’t start seriously collecting photography until 1983. Happily, it was able to devote quite a bit of money to the endeavor at the time and, also happily, photography wasn’t yet horribly expensive. Of course, the history of photography was largely black and white (well, some of it was sepia or plum purple) until the mid-1970s, so black and white work constitutes the majority of our collection. We have amazing holdings from the first few decades of photography, and then a rich survey of modern masters throughout the twentieth century.
LC: In your experience, does your audience respond differently to work in black and white than to colour?
BT: Black and white photography offers a distancing from the way we see the natural world, which is in color. I think audiences are, probably subconsciously, more aware of the abstract underpinnings of compositions when examining black and white works. Most contemporary color work is quite large, and that makes a huge difference in the way we view and experience photography.
LC: A championing of the history of experimentation afforded by working in monochrome can be seen across the museum’s collection. What kind of black and white work made by young contemporary artists is groundbreaking for you?
BT: The new directions I see artists taking have less to do with their choice of black and white or color and much more to do with their choice of subject matter and viewpoints, and how they disseminate that information to the public. I think of the For Freedoms Project, for instance. Also, a number of photographers are exploring the relationships between photography and sculpture.
LC: What do you personally get out of being a juror for major prizes and opportunities? What do you enjoy about the process of looking at new work and reviewing submissions?
BT: I serve as a juror when time allows, and try to participate in one or two reviews, like FotoFest or Filter, each year in order to discover new work. Jurying and reviews provide a panoramic sense of the field at the moment—what artists are making and what their interests are—which helps me predict what will be important over the next five or ten years. Plus, I just love looking at photographs. Curators are image junkies, just like photographers.
LC: What kind of submission catches your eye when you’re working as a juror and looking at new work?
BT: Really good work. There is such a thing as quality, and it immediately stands out.
LC: The artist statement is a notoriously tricky hurdle to tackle. How important is text in a submission for you? Do you have any advice for photographers when drafting their artist statements?
BT: The meaning and intention of some work is clear upon first viewing it, but other work doesn’t reveal itself as easily. Also, most jurying is done on the internet these days, which adds a level of removal from what the object is communicating. If statements are provided, I always read them, hoping to deepen my understanding of the context and meaning of the work.
LC: The landscape in which photography is looked at and experienced has transformed in recent years. What excites you about the way photography is changing?
BT: Billboards, television, phones, magazines…we live in an image-saturated world, and most of those images are photographic. Almost all of us have a camera with us all the time, and we use it frequently, distributing the images via Facebook, Instagram, etc. My husband and I are both addicted to Instagram. I hope that making images will raise the visual literacy of the general public and also stimulate their interest in photography as fine art.
We have a large and very enthusiastic audience for photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and perhaps that is evidence that my hopes are coming true. I do worry, however, about the current retraction of the gallery scene for both art and photography. As mid-level and smaller galleries are closing their exhibition spaces and becoming private dealers, there are fewer opportunities for emerging artists to have their work seen. That’s why juried competitions like the LensCulture Awards, Critical Mass, etc. are more important than ever. Every entry is viewed by curators and dealers, so whether you receive a prize or not, you have still won that invaluable exposure for your work.