Rebecca Morse is Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the western United States. Before she took up her position at LACMA, Morse was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where she organized an exhibition around the work of Florian Maier-Aichen. In recent years, Morse has curated exhibitions on artists like Larry Sultan at LACMA.

As someone with broad experience in the fine art and museum world (as well as a deep understanding of photography’s roots—she has written extensively about photography’s changing role in contemporary art), Morse has a unique and immensely valuable perspective on the world of contemporary photography. We are thrilled that she has agreed to be a member of the jury for our Portrait Awards 2018. In the interview below, Morse singles out a few of her favorite portrait photographs and muses on the nuanced experience of working with a photographer to realize an exhibition—

[Cover image: “This is you” #16 © Albarrán Cabrera]


LensCulture: Rebecca, can you tell us a bit about your path? How did you become interested in photography? How did you know you wanted to work in the field?

Rebecca Morse: Even as a teenager, I would say that I wanted to work in a museum. At the time, I only vaguely understood what that could mean; this was before the word “curator” had been adopted widely in everyday parlance and contemporary art was not the vehicle for turning around a depressed town the way it is today [for example: MASS MoCA, the Louvre-Lens, and Documenta 14 in Athens, to name just a few].

I began taking pictures around age 15 while in high school and then again later at the Corcoran School of Art. During that time, I had summer jobs working as a darkroom printer, and I studied art history and photography in college. This morphed into studying the history of photography in graduate school. My initial interest in photography was its ability to transport me to a different era and the details of living in, say, New York City in the 1880s. It was my strong interest in the past that first drew me to the medium of photography.

Walker Evans, Unemployed Workers Home, Morgantown, West Virginia, 1935, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin. Photo courtesy of LACMA

LC: Can you talk about a favorite recent exhibition you curated? How did the idea for the show come about?

RM: I have really enjoyed being a part of the presentation of Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld at LACMA. The show was originally organized by Margot Norton and Massimiliano Gioni for the New Museum in New York. The material is so incredibly timely: it is about representation, meaning—the question of how the world is presented to us through images. How does that differ from the way that we see the world through firsthand experience? The work is both sophisticated and accessible, which is a balance I am always trying to strike in my own work as a museum curator.

Sarah Charlesworth Figures, 1983, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation. Photo courtesy of LACMA

LC: When you curate an exhibition of work by a photographer who is still living and working, how closely do you work with them to realize the exhibition? What are the benefits of working directly with the artist to create a show? And…the added challenges?

RM: My early training at the Museum of Contemporary Art taught me that the artist is your best resource. When working with a living artist, I always work very closely with them to try and realize their vision as best as possible. The biggest challenges often arise from an artist’s disinterest in editing! It is my job to help an artist see that choice works installed beautifully tell a story better than every work they ever made.

Edward Weston, Rose Covarrubias, 1926, printed circa 1940, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin. Photo courtesy of LACMA

LC: You have written about photography’s changing role in contemporary art over the last forty years. Where do you see this change coming from? Is it a response to the technological development of the medium, the increasing crossover between photography and other media (sculpture/painting/performance…etc), or something else?

RM: Since the invention of the medium, artists have always used photography in their own work: think of Degas’s pastel drawings of dancers where figures are cut off, much like the framing of a photograph. Or Marlene Dumas, who makes her portrait paintings from found photographs. However, more than ever, the history of photography is less thought of as a separate history that runs parallel to the history of art, but rather an integral component in the way that artists both see and represent their own world. There are still artists whose output is solely photographic, but there are many whose interdisciplinary approach includes photography. I am open to all ways that artists use the medium.

Edgar Degas, The Dancers, 1898, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Partial, fractional and promised gift of Janice and Henri Lazarof. Photo courtesy of LACMA

LC: As someone who has studied the changing role of photography in the last 50 years, do you have a sense of where the medium will go in 50 years? How do you see its standing moving forward?

RM: It’s very hard to tell. Throughout photography’s lifetime, changes in technology have continuously pushed it into a new realm: the invention of roll film in the 1880s; the popularization of the single-lens reflex camera in the 1950s; the popularization of color photography in the 1960s; the SX-70 Polaroid Land camera in the 1970s; and of course digital photography, which led to the phone/camera device that we all carry. Who can even imagine what will be invented next?

LC: Seeing as you’re on the jury of our Portrait Awards, can you share a couple of your favorite photographic portraits? What about them do you find impactful?

RM: I love this image by Larry Fink titled Self and Molly from 1982 that is in LACMA’s collection: it’s so warm, funny, and Molly’s hands are amazing. [Rebecca also singled out “Rose Covarrubias” by Edward Weston, above, and Thomas Ruff’s “Portrait,” reproduced at the bottom of this interview].

Larry Fink Self and Molly, 1982, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection. Photo courtesy of LACMA

LC: Finally, as a juror, is there anything you’d like to communicate to photographers who enter our Portrait Awards? Any pieces of advice for creating a striking entry? Perhaps something about the statement or edit?

RM: In my opinion, portrait photography is very difficult because it is reliant on the photographer’s ability to draw out the subject. I always think that a great edit is what clarifies the work.

—Rebecca Morse, interviewed by Coralie Kraft

Thomas Ruff, Portrait, 1999, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Discretionary Fund. Photo courtesy of LACMA