Virginia Heckert is Curator of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She has organized over a dozen exhibitions, including monographic shows of August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Irving Penn, and Ed Ruscha. In 2015, she organized the exhibition, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, with an accompanying book. She has also authored or co-authored: Irving Penn: Small Trades (2009), Some Aesthetic Decisions: The Photographs of Judy Fiskin (2011), and Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments (2013).

We’re delighted that Virginia is on the jury for our Portrait Awards 2021. LensCulture’s Jim Casper reached out by phone to learn more about Virginia’s thoughts on a wide range of topics, with a special focus on portraits, unconventional techniques, neutrality, and photographers who embrace the materiality of the photographic object. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jim Casper: To get started, it would be nice to know a bit about you and your background. What attracted you to photography to make it such an important part of your life?

Virginia Heckert: Well, I originally wanted to be an architect, but I started to focus on architectural history for my bachelor’s degree, and then decided to study art history for my master’s program. And that’s when a photo historian started to teach classes — so I was beginning to look at photos of architecture. I was particularly interested in New Topographics and ended up writing my master’s thesis on Bernd and Hilla Becher. That took me to Europe to meet the Bechers in Dusseldorf, and I ended up staying with them for about three months and observing everything they did, including going on some photo shoots with them, and being in the darkroom with them. I took a lot of notes of our conversations and then came back to write the thesis.

After that, I earned my Ph.D. and I started on the path to working in museums and working with photographs initially from the point of view of architectural images and images that were either more conceptually oriented or neutral in their realism and truth to the object.

Framework House, Gable Side, Rensdorfstrasse 1, Salchendorf, Germany, 1961 © Bernd and Hilla Becher. Courtesy, J. Paul Getty Museum

JC: Oh, how fortunate you were to be able to work directly with the Bechers! And the idea of “neutral” is captivating to me, too. Speaking of neutral photography, and architecture, I recently discovered the amazing interactive feature on one of the Getty’s websites about Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard photo projects.

VH: Well, now it’s really interesting that you focus on that. The Getty Research Institute (which is a sister program to the Museum, where I work) is an incredible institution in terms of the way that it opens up its archives and its collections to scholars. “12 Sunsets: Exploring Ed Ruscha’s Archive” was a particularly ambitious project that grew out of inviting scholars from different areas of art history, architectural history, film history and urban studies to think about ways to use the archive and to create various apps and interactive websites.

JC: It seems like Ruscha’s work really prefigured Google Street View in terms of its straightforward presentation that was so anonymous and neutral, as if to say “this is just what’s here.”

VH: Yes. It is funny that nobody would have ever anticipated that, but looking back, it seems so obvious. And how prescient and insightful; how could he have known? Well, of course, he didn’t, but one thing has led to another and it seems like a clear thread between the two. Ruscha was an inspiration or was, let’s say, a starting point for the New Topographics exhibition back in 1975 with this idea of neutrality.

1018 S. Atlantic Blvd., 1965 © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy, J. Paul Getty Museum

JC: You’ve worked with three of my favorite photographers from California — David Maisel and John Chiara and Chris McCaw. In many ways, I think of them as all very unconventional, and I wonder if you feel drawn in particular to unconventional photographers?

VH: That’s a good question I would not have thought of myself, but I can see how you got there.

About 8 or 10 years ago, I was doing a lot of portfolio reviews and seeing that a lot of photographers were content to show their work on the computer, in part, because they were creating the images digitally and then showing them digitally. But I really missed the object and its materiality. And I also noticed that there was a lot of experimental work being shown at art fairs — AIPAD, Photo LA, Paris Photo — where photographers were really focused on materiality and presentation and unconventional techniques that were in some ways, very reductive. What is photography at its most reduced?

And that’s where the title of the Getty exhibition I worked on in 2015 — “Light, Paper, Process” — comes from. It’s about light and paper and the process of exposing that paper with light. The exhibition included John Chiara and Chris McCaw, whose works capture the landscape, but it’s something about the way of capturing it that is so direct — putting paper negatives directly into large format cameras and exposing them and showing those negatives as the work of art. It forms a very direct, tactile, tangible connection to the photographic medium that I think we’ve gotten away from. And I was just missing it. That’s what attracted me very much to that work.

Sunburned GSP #609 (San Francisco Bay), 2012 © Chris McCaw. Courtesy, J. Paul Getty Museum

Another one of the artists in that exhibition was Allison Rossiter, and the minimal means that she uses to create images really astonished me. I think there’s something essential about bringing us back to the basics and reminding us of what photography was originally about, experimenting with these materials.

JC: Yes. And it’s so magical. I mean, when I see that work — when I’m in the same place with that work — I feel a direct connection to the event when it happened, when it came into being.

VH: I do want to just touch on that word ‘magical’ briefly because I was not the only person by any means noticing this trend. And it was also not a new trend. A return to the materiality — or the objecthood — of a photograph, not just as an image, but as an object, was taking place in the sixties and the seventies; think about Peter Bunnell’s 1970 exhibition called “Photography into Sculpture” at MoMA. But more recently ICP did an exhibition, “What is a Photograph?”, and Charlotte Cotton was working on a book called “Photography is Magic”. Now she, wisely, was interested in the hybrid nature of analog and digital photography and she found artists whose work combined the two, where they might be working with digital means but creating objects whose materiality was important. And that is magic, too.

Sierra at Edison, 2012 © John Chiara. Courtesy, J. Paul Getty Museum

JC: Yes, and I’m grateful to curators who are able to pull these ideas and examples together and introduce us to different people who are making art in old and new ways. You also curated an exhibition about Irvin Penn’s “Small Trades”, and published a book about that. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what makes Penn’s series of 250 portraits so amazing?

VH: 252 to be exact!

JC: He had such a brilliant visual strategy for that work — inviting everyday workers into a studio with natural light and a plain backdrop to be photographed just as they were, without any distracting environment. But even with that strategy, I think he brought something to that project that brings it to life so much that I don’t think anyone else could do it the way he did it. I wonder if you have any insight about that?

VH: Well, it becomes especially interesting now, because many people use this strategy. I just looked at a body of work of Bolivian Carnival attendees. And it’s like, ah, that’s very Irving Penn: it’s got the backdrop, the natural light. The subject of small trades grows out of traditions in printmaking, but is found in photography as well. Eugene Atget is often cited, but more specifically, August Sander. And again, there is that neutrality. But one thing that Penn said about photographing the Small Trades, and this became part of a larger extended project for him, which was called Worlds in a Small Room (he even photographed Harley Davidson guys in San Francisco and just really broadened out the theme, but all of them were photographed in a natural light studio where the light comes from the north), he always talked about his connectedness to the people he photographed and the respect that he had for them.

So in addition to sharing the dignity that he saw in his people, he just bathed them in such beautiful light. You notice that especially in the platinum prints, and it’s there in the gelatin silver prints, but they’re a little bit harder. The platinum prints can be very, very soft in their tonality or quite dark and charcoaly, and it’s really quite a feat that he was able to introduce so much emotion through his printing technique in those images.

Book cover, Irving Penn: Small Trades, by Virginia Heckert and Anne Lacoste

JC: Yes. And in your essay in that book, you quote him as saying that he sees those photographs as “residual images of enchantment,” and that just seems to get into the heart and soul of that guy.

VH: Yeah, you’re right. That just sums it up. The love, not only of the act of photographing, but of the subject.

You know, I wrote my PhD dissertation on Albert Renger-Patzch, who wrote an essay in 1928 called “Joy Before the Object,” in which he talks about the importance of fidelity of reproduction and realism. Is nature that bad that you have to improve upon it? No. He thought more photographers should take joy before the object, and let the object speak for itself.

And in so doing, the photographer also has a voice, which you can equate with respect for the object. Now, Renger-Patzch was not the world’s most prolific portrait photographer. And I would never call a person an object, but in his work, whether it’s a plant or an industrial building or anything, you sense that respect.

He was working at the same time as August Sander, who, also from a point of realism and truth, introduced very evidently this idea of a portrait dialogue. It’s not just, there’s your sitter and you photograph him. You have to engage with your sitter to really draw something out of them.

And I think you see that line carried through with Irving Penn. He was really able to engage with his subjects and bring something out. I think that’s what makes the neutrality of the backdrop seem so important because everything falls away and you just are looking at the person and, almost, into the soul of the person.

JC: In Penn’s portraits you’re really able to focus on what they’re wearing and their posture and just them. It’s not anything really about the environment, which is really pretty wonderful.

VH: One of the things that I’m looking forward to in reviewing the submissions to this competition, is that the website lists such a wide range of approaches: professional studio shots, detailed environmental portraits and candid, casual. I am most drawn to environmental portraits. But I think you’re right about what happens when everything is stripped away and the sitter is brought into a studio or more neutral space.

I started with this idea of neutrality and letting the object speak for itself, yet I do think with portraiture, it’s got to go one step beyond that: the photographer really has to connect with the subject.

JC: You mentioned that you go to art fairs and you also do portfolio reviews. Would you say those are the primary ways you discover new photographers and new photography?

VH: Yes, I would say those are the primary ways, as well as going to galleries and looking at art magazines: Aperture, Art in America, Art Forum, although I haven’t been looking at a lot of magazines lately and I certainly haven’t been going to any art fairs [since the pandemic started].

JC: I wonder if you have any advice for photographers who are really serious about developing a career in the arts?

VH: It’s interesting. I’m looking at the work of two photographers right now and one of them has the perfect art school background, and the other is self-taught as a photographer. So there’s not necessarily one path to arriving at the decision that you really want to make a career for yourself as a photographer in the art world. I’m interested when people include thoughts about the format and presentation of the images that they make. How is it going to exist physically in a space? How are viewers intended to experience it? How will decisions about format and scale influence the way we experience the work?

I would say sharing the work in as many opportunities as possible, and being open to responses to the work that are both enthusiastic but also maybe have some constructive criticism in them, and taking that all in and seeing how that input might help to shape the work to be better.

Again, coming back to this idea of dialogue, photographers should put their work out in the world, but also be open to the dialogue, the conversation that takes it to the next level, and then just keep at it.

It’s a very difficult time right now in terms of galleries, both getting to galleries to see work, but also I doubt that there are very many galleries that are reaching out to find new artists when they’re struggling to survive. So I think during this time, right now, it’s important to be patient. And also perhaps to use the quiet [of the pandemic] to focus on one’s immediate environment and those people who are around us and maybe to be more reflective of what it means to exist in this world.

JC: To get specific about portraits, what do you look for in a portrait? Is there something that sets a good portrait apart from an ordinary picture of somebody? Something that elevates a picture of someone into a portrait?

VH: Well, I started with this idea of neutrality and letting the object speak for itself, which comes out of the New Objectivity photography of the 1920s and thirties that I was interested in. And yet I do think with portraiture, it’s got to go one step beyond that: the photographer really has to connect with the subject.

And that may or may not mean direct eye contact. It may mean really understanding who that person is and placing that individual in the most comfortable, appropriate environment. But that’s not always the case. It may also be that a portrait is made in the studio and the sitter has the opportunity to fantasize and dream about who he or she wants to be, how they want to present themselves. I think there are many different ways to create a great portrait, but I do think that, more often than not, it’s a collaborative work, a collaborative effort. There are some photographers who just have that knack and there are others who don’t, and I think it’s something that can’t be faked or forced. I also think in some instances, having a great subject is really important, you know, somebody who can really shed all inhibitions and just be there, be real, be there for the photographer to capture.