Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum is one of the great centers of culture on the West Coast. With a collection ranging from Neolithic antiquities to contemporary photographs, the museum traces the arc of human creativity from its roots to today. One of its many strengths is its Department of Photographs, which was established in 1984. Alongside its rich 20th-century and contemporary holdings, the collection is particularly strong in works dating from the time of photography’s invention in England and France in the late 1830s and early 1840s.

What does the birth of the medium have to tell us about photography today? Quite a lot, according to assistant curator Mazie Harris. In this generous interview, Harris looks back at photography’s origins to offer fresh insight for today’s practitioners. Thanks to her wide and historically-grounded perspective, we are thrilled Harris has agreed to serve as a juror for this year’s LensCulture Exposure Awards. Read on to learn more from this learned, passionate expert—

LensCulture: I read that you studied 19th-century photography while pursuing your PhD at Brown. How did you first become interested in photography, and why did you decide to focus your research on this time period in particular?

Mazie Harris: When I began thinking about an area of focus while pursuing my master’s degree in art history, I was drawn to study photography because it’s so much a part of everyday life. I like that it’s a medium that feels familiar, yet can still manage to catch and hold our attention.

Though I love studying modern and contemporary photography, once I began working on my doctorate, I found myself interested in learning more about the medium’s early development. In the mid-19th century, photography was still a new idea, and there was no set sense of what the medium could or should be, so there was a great deal of experimentation.

Nagina Mosque, by Dr. John Murray, Agra Fort, India, 1857-1860. Waxed paper negative, 36.8 × 45.9 cm (14 1/2 × 18 1/16 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In a way it was a bit like today, with a wide variety of techniques being practiced. It’s not only fascinating but also inspiring to learn about how photographers—whether past or present—are able to make works that are technically adept as well as visually engaging.

LC: Our magazine primarily publishes contemporary work. What do you think current photography practitioners can gain from early masters of the medium?

MH: Early photographic techniques required incredible commitment. Photographers had to lug around heavy equipment and often needed to set up darkrooms to work in the field. Though today’s gear is (usually) considerably less bulky, many contemporary photographers whose work I admire have that same drive and perseverance.

Scene at Niagara Falls, by Platt D. Babbitt, about 1855. Daguerreotype The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

LC: You’re currently an assistant curator of photography at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. When it comes to putting together an exhibition of photographs (like In Focus: Electric! from last year), what is the curation process like? How do you come up with an idea for a show?

MH: Some of our exhibitions are drawn entirely from the permanent collection and are meant to survey the history of the medium by way of a single theme. In the past we’ve done rotations on photographs of animals or photographs of trees, for example. It’s a great way to compare how historic and contemporary practitioners approach the same subject in inventive ways.

I’m especially interested in how photographs can bring attention to things we might otherwise overlook. Electricity is such a basic part of our lives today that I was happy for the opportunity to bring together works that encouraged reflection on its ubiquity through the exhibition In Focus: Electric!

For loan exhibitions we think more broadly about images or artists that we feel deserve attention, or that will be of interest to local and international visitors. It’s no small feat to fight Los Angeles traffic to make it to the museum, so we strive to pull together installations that feature masterfully crafted and thoughtfully conceived bodies of work.

Portrait of Three Women, by an unknown artist, about 1849. Daguerreotype, 6.7 × 8.4 cm (2 5/8 × 3 5/16 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

LC: As someone with a deep knowledge of early photography, how do you see the medium (particularly its utility/use) evolving in the present day? How do you think the “language” has changed in the past 150 years?

MH: I’m regularly struck by connections between past and present. For class visits, I usually pull out a range of photographs made in the earliest years of the medium. We have a great daguerreotype of Niagara Falls and an intricate paper negative made in India; a case that holds two fantastic livestock portraits; a poignant post-mortem; men, women and children all dressed up for the photographer in their finest outfits; a pornographic image; a gold-mining shot; an album of mug shot cartes-de-visites.

Postmortem Portrait of a Baby, by an unknown artist, 1856 - 1860. Daguerreotype, hand-colored The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

You can see that photography immediately began to be used for a range of uses: to encourage tourism and document travel, for advertising, memorialization, public self-fashioning, porn, reportage, surveillance. It’s incredible that the medium continues to inform almost every aspect of our lives. I’m in awe that despite the large number of photographs in circulation these days, photographers continue to find ways to make distinctive and engaging work that offers new and different perspectives of our world.

LC: Following on that—where do you see it going next?

MH: While I’m still a fan of paper processes, I suspect photographers will continue to push the materiality of photography in new directions.

George E. Swain alias Sargeant, Horse Thief, by an unknown artist, June 1886. Albumen silver print, 9.5 × 6.7 cm (3 3/4 × 2 5/8 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

LC: If you could offer one succinct piece of advice to early career photographers, what would it be? Something related to passion, production, presentation?

MH: Sometimes artists expend a great deal of energy on explanatory texts that accompany their work, but none of that matters if the objects themselves aren’t visually engaging. Words are often helpful and necessary supplements to photographs, but a visually arresting picture is crucial in our time of image overload.

LC: As a juror, is there anything you’d like to communicate to photographers who enter our Exposure Awards? Any pieces of advice for creating a compelling submission?

MH: Don’t neglect to think carefully about sequencing! Thoughtfully coordinated juxtapositions can really help to hook a viewer. It’s a great pleasure and privilege to review work, and I look forward to seeing both individual photographs and to responding to relationships between images.

—Mazie Harris, interviewed by Coralie Kraft

The LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018 are now open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our distinguished jury panel, including Harris, editors from The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Foam, and many more.