As the Assistant Curator in the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Eve Schillo has seen a lot of photographs. With a permanent collection of over 20,000 images that span the gamut of photo history, she’s had to cultivate a broad knowledge of photographic practices.
Throughout her time at LACMA, she’s worked on an exhibition of Cuban photography after the revolution, an ongoing self-portraiture series, Pictorialist displays, and solo exhibitions of the works of Mariana Yampolsky, Sarah Charlesworth and Larry Sultan—to name just a few.
We’re excited that Schillo is one of the jurors for this year’s LensCulture Portrait Awards. Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda caught up with her to speak about her introduction to photography, her experience working with LACMA’s encyclopedic collection, and what she looks for in a good photographic portrait.
Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda: I’d like to start with your origin story with photography. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in the medium?
Eve Schillo: I’m a bit of a throwback in that I studied art history, but came to photography by way of studio classes, not photo history. Like many art historians, I thought I’d make a good artist…for a while! All kidding aside, I did have an interest in photography, but I also actively hoped it would free me from some of the literalness of the writing tasks that are a huge part of undergrad art history. So, a bit ironically, I came to photography looking for abstraction and poetry, not black and white documents. To this day, that’s where my heart is in photography.
LLHW: You’ve been at the LACMA since 2006. I’m curious what it’s been like to spend that amount of time with this museum.
ES: Oh my LACMA age—don’t make me say it out loud! It does confound people, as very few in 2020 have stayed at one institution that long. I like to say I got my unwanted MBA by staying at one institution and watching how to—and how not to—manage, budget, inspire and motivate in the non-profit sector. I’ve been able to experience 3+ directorial styles. I’m also able to think ‘big picture’ more readily with that kind of background and not sweat the small stuff—curators tend to forget we’re not saving the world!
On the photography front, I’ve been able to facilitate photography inclusions in almost every curatorial area in our encyclopedic museum. I was able to be part of the dialogue and help us move from the photo ‘ghetto’—aka, dark hallways—into the rest of the museum.
LLHW: How has the type of work you are collecting and exhibiting evolved during your tenure?
ES: I would see my above comment—thinking about photography interacting with other media and all time periods, not keeping photography in a silo. This really dovetails with what practitioners are expressing; I would say the majority identify as an artist who uses photography, not a photographer per se.
For me, photographic or lens-based media will still be the driver for an exhibition idea, but it can organically include other media. This same affect colors what I search for to add to the collection: I seek work that goes beyond the hard definitions of what is a photograph.
LLHW: As you mentioned, LACMA has an encyclopedic collection. This means that the topics of the exhibits and publications you’re involved in can be quite varied. How has the broad nature of the collection challenged or excited you as a curator?
ES: I used to be jealous of those working in a photo-exclusive institution. The reality is that I have so much more of the world—literally—to play in. It’s exactly as you say, exciting and challenging, to be on a continual learning cycle. From the beginning of my career I’ve had to think about the world of art making, while focusing on photography. Prior generations of photography curators were focused on writing and exhibiting photography’s own unique history, separate from the rest of the art world.
LLHW: You were the lead curator for This is Not a Selfie, an exhibition of self-portraiture. The exhibit included works by some artists who have made really iconic self-portraits—including Nan Goldin, Lee Friedlander, Andy Warhol and Ilse Bing—but also photographs by artists who might not initially come to mind when thinking about self-portraiture—for example, Diane Arbus and Amalia Pica. Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting together this exhibition?
ES: This Is Not a Selfie initially began as a permanent collection print-on-demand book. Following interest in the book, it became a touring exhibition. That’s not the usual path at all and I think points to the evergreen interest in self-portraiture. Once it became an exhibition, I augmented with historical context with a goal towards having early and contemporary work truly share wallspace meaningfully. I love how a 19th century image by Nadar, in all his theatricality, sits alongside a bombastic contemporary work by Jennifer Moon. How Lisa Anne Auerbach’s activist, performative work made in 2009 resonates when shown with Joseph Beuys, made in 1972. How photography is a disassembled contact sheet, as seen in the work of Ilene Segalove, or ORLAN’s light box or Amalia Pica’s wallpapered sheets of copy paper. I also made sure to have a zone for humor—one of my favorite unsung elements within photography.
LLHW: What do you see as the most important element of a striking portrait?
ES: Emotion. In which I include humor!
LLHW: You are part of the jury for LensCulture’s 2020 Portrait Awards. As a juror, what kinds of images will you be looking for?
ES: I can’t say I have a list of what I’m looking for, as really, I hope to be surprised. Also, as I don’t focus solely on portraiture, I expect there’s a lot going on that will be new to me. Bring it on!
LLHW: Conversely, what kinds of images are you hoping to see less of in the new decade?
ES: Fewer selfies! I’m kidding, that’s just unstoppable.