Welcome to the Hillman Photography Initiative

Divya Rao Heffley, Program Manager, Hillman Photography Initiative

After two years of research, discussion, and development, we are excited to announce the official launch of the Hillman Photography Initiative! We are proud of the innovative development process that has made the Initiative a reality, and we look forward to keeping you informed and engaged every step of the way. As a wise man once told us, the process is a key part of the project. Luckily for us, this wise man is our facilitator, Nathan Martin, the CEO and Creative Director of Deeplocal, Inc., who has helped the team from Carnegie Museum of Art create a flexible, dynamic, and self-regenerating structure that incorporates outside voices and new perspectives.

Two years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine that our journey would bring us to this point, poised to embark on a thoroughly unique process and leap into the unknown. Back then we were still talking about this as a “photography center,” words that conveyed a bricks-and-mortar approach that we would later shed in favor of the more nimble and multifaceted “photography initiative.” I was hired to explore the wide world of photography in all its manifestations—not just the kind that you frame and hang on a wall, but the kind that’s being uploaded to Flickr and Facebook countless times a second, or being made/created/generated by robots, satellites, and hidden cameras. Out of that endeavor came the “concept map,” a visualization tool designed to help gather and sort all of the information that was filling my head (and threatening to spill out of my ears).


What quickly became clear to us was that there were as many definitions of the word “photography” as there were uses for it, and that a small but resilient band of adventurers from many different fields was beginning to tackle this complex idea through lively conversation and discourse.

We took stock of these various knots of activity and found ways to join the discussion, reaching out to some movers and shakers in the field and engaging them in conversation about paradigm shifts, art-and-technology collaborations, computational photography, and the worth of art museums in the digital age. These photography professionals often came from smaller, more interdisciplinary institutions and centers, willing to think outside the box and conceptualize a photographic field that was shifting rapidly before our eyes. (Thanks again to the participants!: Charlotte Cotton, Merry Foresta, Hannah Frieser, Jeff Hoone, Alex Klein, Lesley Martin, Katharine Martinez, Laura Moya, Arthur Ou, and Nato Thompson.)

These initial discussions convinced us that there were opportunities ripe for the plucking, if only we could find a relevant and meaningful way for a museum to make an impact in the field. Enter Deeplocal and a facilitated brainstorming session that combined the CMOA team—consisting of director Lynn Zelevansky, deputy director Maureen Rolla, curator of photography Linda Benedict-Jones, and myself—with five honored guests: Dave Roger, president of Hillman Family Foundations; Terry Irwin, head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University; Jane Werner, executive director at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh; Illah R. Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University; and Arthur Ou, assistant professor at Parsons The New School for Design. Although our discussions were long and generated several tantalizing leads, we were left feeling somewhat adrift and unsure of what it all meant. The “aha” moment came a little later, when the CMOA team was sitting in Lynn’s office, trying to come to a consensus about what theme should drive the initiative going forward. Lynn said, “Well, it’s really about the question, ‘What is photography today?’ and maybe that’s what we should be talking about.” It was that simple, but at the same time fascinatingly complex.

So here we are. With the Initiative we are not setting out to answer Lynn’s question once, but many times over. And if those answers are phrased in terms of more questions, isn’t that the best result we could hope for? The more people we can pull into the discussion about photography and engage in the larger questions that are generated, the better. As scientific research shows, the open source approach often yields the most fruitful results. We’re not yet sure what those results will be, but I plan to share them with you right here, as they happen. Stay tuned!