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Photograph courtesy of Phyllis McCallum.

How a Childhood at the Museum Influenced One Artist’s Future

When Carnegie Museum of Art curator of photography Dan Leers invited me to join the Hillman Photography Initiative as an agent for the 2015–2017 cycle, I was confused. Agent? Cycle? Initiative? I imagined going undercover to expose an insidious (photographic) surveillance project headquartered in Silicon Valley, à la Jason Bourne, or finally joining a top-secret NASA team preparing the launch of the next—conceptual art-themed!—space shuttle. The truth was more prosaic: Dan described the Hillman Photography Initiative (HPI) as a think tank focused on the relationship between photography, broadly defined, and Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA). Every three years, a small group of artists and thinkers were invited to assemble several times during the course of nine months to generate and refine a photography-related theme that could inspire several seasons of public presentations and commissions.

I was intrigued, but not entirely convinced. “You know I’m not a curator,” I reminded him. The initiative is not a curatorial project, he insisted, but rather a kind of imagination engine that pushes the museum to develop new forms of programming that engage the museum’s many constituencies and help build new ones. Well, I’m also not a photographer, strictly speaking, I claimed (I work across many media; my relationship to photography is restless, contentious, and complex). He assured me that artists and thinkers are chosen precisely because of their willingness to put pressure on existing models for exhibition making. It became clear that the Initiative offered a truly unusual opportunity for me to participate in an experimental, open-ended, and artist-centered process for envisioning institutional programming.

I was interested for another reason: I have deep roots in Pittsburgh and fond childhood memories of the Carnegie Museum. Sometime in the 1940s—no one remembers exactly when—my grandfather, Roosevelt McCallum, moved from North Carolina to Braddock, Pennsylvania. His wife, Ruby Mae, followed him as far as Steubenville, Ohio, where my mother was born. Both of my grandparents had good jobs: Ruby was the first in her family to earn a college degree, which helped her secure a position as a social worker for the state of Pennsylvania, while Roosevelt worked as a truck driver for the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. Together, they earned enough to buy a house in Homewood, joining a substantial neighborhood minority of middle class African American families. The community was diverse and robustly middle class when my mother arrived in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t long before the demographics shifted: the public high school she attended with her sisters was almost entirely black.

Steffani Jemison on the porch of her grandmother's house in Homewood in approximately 1988.
Steffani Jemison on the porch of her grandmother’s house in Homewood. (Photograph courtesy of Phyllis McCallum)

My mother never stepped foot in the Carnegie Museums as a child—no field trips, no day trips, no trips to the museum at all. But as an adult, she embraced Pittsburgh’s cultural heroes and institutions, from the plays of August Wilson to the Carnegie Museums, and she made sure that my brother and I made up for the activities she missed. When we were children, she enrolled us in summer camp at the CMOA. For one of my favorite classes, students were invited to choose any work from the collection and write a story in proximity to it. I vividly remember wandering through the galleries in search of a painting that could contain the wildness inside my head: rather than positioning students as responsive, secondary, unimportant, the class suggested that children and artworks could encounter one another as creative equals. The prospect of reconnecting with the museum and the city was impossible to resist, and it wasn’t long before I found myself on a plane to Pittsburgh.

Steffani Jemison with her brother in the sculpture court at Carnegie Museum of Art in approximately 1988.
Steffani Jemison with her brother in the sculpture court at Carnegie Museum of Art, ca. 1988. (Photograph courtesy of Phyllis McCallum)

As promised, each of the four agents—artist Liz Deschenes, scholar Laura Wexler, Dan Leers, and myself—represented a distinct approach to photographic thinking. Our intensive period together began with a crash course in the geography of the Steel City. Divya Rao Heffley, senior program manager for the Initiative, expertly guided us through the ecosystem of artists, institutions, communities, and conversations within which the exhibition and public programs of the Carnegie Museums serve as a resource and vital linchpin. We toured CMOA, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Carnegie Library. We visited the Mattress Factory and the Andy Warhol Museum. We drove along rivers and across bridges, marveled at the Brooklyn-ification of East Liberty and Lawrenceville, and asked about the demographic impact of real estate development. We talked about tunnels, about smog in the Rust Belt, about sunrise and sunset at this special latitude (shared with Madrid, Naples, Istanbul, and New York City), about the ways Pittsburgh is portrayed in the media, about Uber and Instagram, and, of course, about the Steelers. These casual conversations formed the foundation of the hard work that followed: collaboratively defining a platform for this latest cycle of the Initiative.

We were guided by Bridget Monahan and Francine Gemperle from Maya, a consulting firm specializing in design and innovation. Maya’s researchers encouraged the agents to continuously generate new ideas, democratically assess their strengths and weaknesses, and find strategies for establishing consensus. By the end of our multi-day working session—packed with whiteboards, sticky notes, and endless coffee—we had narrowed our focus to several key areas: How might we explore the relationship between light and time? How might we ground such an exploration in the landscape and history of Pittsburgh? How might we bring attention to the relationship between photograph, picture, and image? What does it mean to think photographically? The goal, shared by all four agents, was to stretch the concept of the photographic to its very furthest limits, claiming as much material and theoretical space for photography as we possibly could. We wanted our platform to support diverse photographic practices while avoiding increasingly unhelpful distinctions between vernacular and fine art photography, or between analog and digital technologies. In the same way that my long-ago summer camp at the CMOA gave children permission to write in proximity to paintings, and in the context of the museum, the agents’ goal was to open up the broadest possible space for thinking in proximity to photography, and in the context of Pittsburgh.

Laura Wexler, Francine Gemperle, Liz Deschenes, and Steffani Jemison discuss themes for Cycle 2 of the Hillman Photography Initiative during a working session at MAYA Design in September 2015.
Laura Wexler, Francine Gemperle, Liz Deschenes, and Steffani Jemison discuss themes for Cycle 2 of the Hillman Photography Initiative during a working session at MAYA Design, September 2015. (Photograph by Natalia Gomez)

Artist innovation is at the heart of the Hillman Photography Initiative, and as we refined our platform, we thought especially about how specific artists would reach diverse constituencies and stakeholders, including those that may historically have been distant from the museum. To that end, it was a priority to support local artists and communities—one artist, Alisha Wormsley, is based in Homewood. We also searched for artists who might work site-specifically to reflect the unique atmospheric, geographic, and environmental conditions of Pittsburgh, like Andrea Polli.

Ultimately, all four agents worked together to shape a platform that emphasizes the physical, material conditions that make photography possible: light, time, and craft. This approach is perhaps knottier and more complex than the museum anticipated. It dismantles the discipline and history of photography, and even the etymology of the word “photograph,” and lays bare the constituent parts for examination. We allowed Roland Barthes’ poetic assertion about the connection between the first 19th-century cameras and the increasingly precise art of horology—clockmaking, the mechanical representation of time—to guide us. Barthes wrote, “For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches—and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.”

These observations, made decades ago, feel especially urgent today. It has never been clearer that photography describes the relationship between the fixed and the unstable. Photography points to the tension between the inert and the living. Photography is the friction where time and material interact. We are excited to see the public projects that form the next cycle of the initiative, a study of clocks, cycles, repetition, rotation, exposure, concealment, passage, tunnel, retreat, the shifting of seasons, the alternation of light and dark, irreversible change, inevitable change, and the processes of marking, recording, registering, and contemplating all of these.

The Hillman Photography Initiative is an incubator for investigating the rapidly shifting field of photography and its impact in the world today.