Category Archives: Hillman Photography Initiative

What Does It Mean for a Museum To Be Truly Experimental?


Screenshot of the Hillman Photography Initiative website, launched April 2014.

Screenshot of the Hillman Photography Initiative website, launched April 2014

Ever since Carnegie Museum of Art launched the Hillman Photography Initiative earlier this year, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means for a museum to be truly experimental. When I began my research three years ago, the major premise of the Initiative was to create something totally new in the field of photography. On the other side of a successful launch, I now realize just how ambitious our goal was. But at the time, it felt more like an amorphous challenge, albeit one that had all my problem-solving neurons firing. As with any experiment, we didn’t have a clear understanding of how the Initiative would manifest or what form it would take. Now that the project is up and running, I find myself looking back at how the Initiative was realized and some of the things we’ve learned so far.

BEGINNINGS

For the initial concept phase, the goal was to be nimble and flexible, and to see what would happen when that nimbleness and flexibility confronted the complex workflow of the museum. You can read about those first two years here, in a post I wrote when we first announced the Initiative as a living laboratory for exploring the rapidly changing field of photography and its impact on the world. In it, I provide a window into the innovative process that required me to think unconventionally on a daily basis, and which led me to create a spiderlike concept map that reflected the dozens of (often opposing) paths I followed to explore the expansive world of photographic production, distribution, and consumption.

L to R: Hillman Photography initiative "agents" Alex Klein, Arthur Ou, and Marvin Heiferman meeting with CMOA staff to discuss the current state and future of photography and to begin planning for the project.

L to R: Hillman Photography initiative “agents” Alex Klein, Arthur Ou, and Marvin Heiferman meeting with CMOA staff to discuss the current state and future of photography and to begin planning for the project

When I wrote that post last year, we were preparing to embark upon an intensive four-month planning process that gathered five internationally known experts (aka “agents”) together in a far-ranging conversation about photography. The agents include Tina Kukielski (our internal CMOA agent and co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International), Marvin Heiferman (independent curator and writer), Illah Nourbakhsh (professor of robotics and director of the CREATE Lab, Carnegie Mellon University), Alex Klein (the Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber Program Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia), and Arthur Ou (assistant professor of photography at Parsons The New School for Design). We asked them to consider what the most exciting issues and questions were in field in which billions of images were shared daily and on a global basis. For teachers, what made their students sit up and listen? For curators, how did their research connect with the person on the street? For artists, how did the digital revolution affect their practice? What aspects of photography did they—the experts—discuss around the kitchen table with their partners, friends, and kids?

This Picture explores what photographic images can say and do by tracking the responses and feedback a single image can trigger and generate. The public is invited to submit responses to a carefully selected photograph each month. Image: Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Misfits, 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

This Picture explores what photographic images can say and do by tracking the responses and feedback a single image can trigger and generate. The public is invited to submit responses to a carefully selected photograph each month. Image: Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Misfits, 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

As a result of those incredibly stimulating conversations we came to the realization that the most interesting aspect of photography today is how it travels. From creation through transmission, distribution, circulation, appropriation, and (at times) even death, the photograph follows a lifecycle that can be physical or virtual (or both). The projects that emerged from these discussions—This Picture, The Invisible Photograph, The Sandbox, A People’s History of Pittsburgh, and Orphaned Images—all explore the concept of this lifecycle and speak to each other as much as they do to that central concept.

A People’s History of Pittsburgh compiles family-owned, found, and anonymous photographs from the city’s residents to create an online archive that unearths and reconstructs narratives through the lives of Pittsburghers. Image: The Baron family's Croatian tamburitza band, Braddock, PA, January 23, 1930, Submitted by Jennifer Baron.

A People’s History of Pittsburgh compiles family-owned, found, and anonymous photographs from the city’s residents to create an online archive that unearths and reconstructs narratives through the lives of Pittsburghers. Image: The Baron family’s Croatian tamburitza band, Braddock, PA, January 23, 1930, Submitted by Jennifer Baron

As the researcher who spent a year analyzing the state of the field, benchmarking other museums and photography centers, and reaching out to international experts in photography, I can confidently say that the process we followed to create the structure behind the Initiative was truly unique. And as the program manager who spent the following two years developing and implementing the process that gave our agents carte blanche to come up with the projects you see on our website today, I can just as confidently say that the Initiative’s engagement with photography’s various manifestations is similarly unique.

The Sandbox: At Play with the Photobook includes a temporary reading room and event space at the museum, with programming investigating the many ways that photobooks present and interpret images. Photographers Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar of Spaces Corners, a Pittsburgh bookshop specializing in photography books, staff the reading room.

The Sandbox: At Play with the Photobook includes a temporary reading room and event space at the museum, with programming investigating the many ways that photobooks present and interpret images. Photographers Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar of Spaces Corners, a Pittsburgh bookshop specializing in photography books, staff the reading room.

LEAP HEADFIRST (& RALLY THE TROOPS)

Since that first meeting of the agents last April, we’ve gone from a completely blank slate to an intricate set of online and onsite projects that explore complex issues. Reflecting back on the initial stages of our process, I’d say true experimentation in a museum setting requires a willingness to leap headfirst into the unknown (relevant research and benchmarking in tow, of course). It also requires some high-level buy-in to the idea that the outcome will most likely challenge some established museum processes. For example, most of our internal processes revolve around the development, approval, and implementation of exhibitions and events. Typically an exhibition is proposed by a curator and is then reviewed and approved by an internal group of departmental directors. However, the Initiative was developed and implemented outside of that normal workflow.  The point was to ask outside voices (the agents) to propose the projects that the museum would then implement and build. Maybe true experimentation happens when you ask not only how to pull off an experiment in the face of established processes, but how that experiment can change those traditional systems and expectations, challenging a museum to reexamine its own assumptions, benchmarks, and even its metrics of success.

Caveat: the process we’ve gone through to launch the Initiative has been, on one hand, in-depth, well-researched, and methodical. But that’s no surprise. Museums do those three adjectives pretty well. On the other hand, it’s been totally new, without precedent and, at times, frankly terrifying in a make-it-up-as-you-go kind of way. I’ve had to pull strings and sweet-talk colleagues into doing things that weren’t even remotely noted in their job descriptions. The months leading up to the website launch were also the craziest of my professional life. Nothing we were doing was customary, usual, or practiced. Every path we were carving to make the Initiative happen was a new one that needed its own customized road crew, made up of exceptionally generous and hard-working colleagues—I couldn’t have been luckier to have had them as partners in this endeavor.

Trapped: Andy Warhol's Amiga Experiments (Part 2 of The Invisible Photograph documentary series) investigates how a team of computer scientists, archivists, artists, and curators teamed up to unearth Warhol’s lost digital works. Image: Andy Warhol, Andy1, 1985, digital image, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; From disk 1998.3.2129.3.4

Trapped: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Experiments (Part 2 of The Invisible Photograph documentary series) investigates how a team of computer scientists, archivists, artists, and curators teamed up to unearth Warhol’s lost digital works. Image: Andy Warhol, Andy1, 1985, digital image, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; From disk 1998.3.2129.3.4

GAUGING SUCCESS

At some point during those crazy months, we realized that the process was so experimental that none of our standard benchmarking procedures would suffice as evaluation metrics. And then came the secondary epiphany: we honestly didn’t even know how to define that success, let alone measure it.

I remember the first time we convened the 15-person meeting, full of the department and division heads who had banded together to implement the Initiative, to collaboratively develop the Initiative’s metrics of success. I opened the meeting with this question: “So, how have we as a museum developed metrics of success in the past?” There was a moment of silence and then the answer: “We’ve never actually had to do that from scratch before.” Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that this program I’m managing is not only completely experimental, but the process of evaluating it is too? (This is when my problem-solving neurons got another jump start.)

So we dove in. Our director of education asked key questions like, “How does being interested in what our visitors think change the museum?” And: “Does the Initiative change the way we establish online engagement with audiences in other exhibition or collection areas?” Our web and digital media manager got us thinking when he told us he could not only track how people were navigating or clicking through the website, but where they were coming from and how long they spent on any given page. Our director of publications ruminated on whether we could use the Initiative as a model for developing standards for online writing for all museum projects, not only for content but also for tone and approach. Our marketing team discussed extending audience engagement from the typical art scene to the sciences, social sciences, and technology. From a curatorial point of view, we’re just as interested in assessing the less tangible metrics of success, such as how the Initiative shapes ideas about photography locally and internationally. How great would it be if some future program manager of another burgeoning experimental project at some hypothetical institution reached out to benchmark us?

And thus was born the “Goals and Metrics of Success” document that I find myself referring to on a regular basis. Because, like any strategic plan (or democratic constitution), you never want to be policing a dead or irrelevant document. Within days of launching the Initiative, we began gathering statistics to figure out what was going on. Were people coming to our website? Were they accessing our content? No, more: were they engaging with our content? Did we have to shift our marketing strategies? The hierarchy of content on our website? The types of demographic content we were gathering at events?

The first two installments of The Invisible Photograph documentary series (premiered online at nowseethis.org) reached a large number of viewers worldwide despite being longer-format films.

The first two installments of The Invisible Photograph documentary series (premiered online at nowseethis.org) reached a large number of viewers worldwide despite being longer-format films.

Here are some findings from our first full month of evaluation:

  • We surpassed our wildest dreams in terms of video views for Part 1 and Part 2 of The Invisible Photograph. In terms of geographical distribution, our top views outside the United States have come, in order, from the UK, Argentina, Germany, Canada, Spain, and Russia. Our videos have had truly global viewership, reaching six continents. Now, if only we could get those people in Antarctica…
  • Our two 20-minute videos had over 60,000 complete views and over 300,000 loads. This runs counter to the popular consensus that says shorter videos perform better and shows that there is significant appetite for more substantive content online. This is also double the total number of views we had of all CMOA-produced videos in 2013.
  • The Initiative’s web activity equaled the activity on all other museum sites combined, including main site, blogs, and microsites. In terms of web campaigns, nowseethis.org is on par with other high-profile web campaigns such as the 2013 Carnegie International.
  • The earned media value for the Initiative in the first month alone was approximately $4 million. To put that in perspective, in all of 2013 our earned media was $8 million, which was itself a record year for us thanks to the 2013 Carnegie International.  

From the beginning of our social media campaign on March 16, Initiative-related content more than tripled the museum’s reach of Facebook posts through user sharing and liking, with May’s This Picture having the highest level of engagement of all posts and A People’s History of Pittsburgh coming in second. We tracked a significant upward trend in people “liking” CMOA that corresponded to the launch of the Initiative, with an average increase of over 1000. On Twitter, of the top 15 posts from the museum’s account @cmoa, more than half were HPI-related. These posts saw increased reach that was sometimes three to five times greater than the average museum tweet.

A sobering statistic, however, was the relatively modest onsite attendance for the Initiative’s related programs. We think this is in large part due to the fact that, in the experimental spirit of the Initiative, we did not prioritize onsite attendance when asking the agents to propose projects. We have since realized the tension this has created with our institution’s larger mission to encourage onsite attendance. So, we’re trying to make some changes that might address this issue, such as softening the price structure to enable people to pay as much as they can, so that no one is excluded who is interested in deeply exploring our content. We’re also discovering that promoting an onsite–online connection, which is at the heart of the Initiative, is one of the harder goals to accomplish. One of the best suggestions from our last meeting, made by our associate editor, was to encourage online submissions by increasing onsite payoff. We could print submissions, post them in the gallery, and then announce the “featured submissions” on our website. We think that this onsite payoff is one of the main reasons that Oh Snap!: Your Take on Our Photographs, another experimental museum project and an important precedent for the Initiative, was such a success last year. I’ll have to keep you posted on the results of all of this self-evaluation.

GOING FORWARD

So—what have we learned? For a museum to be truly experimental it has to approach the problem in an unconventional way, challenge established processes, and take some real risks. It needs to actively evaluate and reevaluate itself to help the project stay ahead of the curve. (And most importantly, it needs the tools, knowledgeable staff, and a willingness to openly evaluate itself in the first place.) It needs to foster communication and trust among the participants. It has to ask: How does what we’ve done transform the museum? How does it shift our processes and internal working strategies? What works about the experimental method we’ve chosen and what requires some further tinkering? In the wake of articles like “Museums… So What?” by Robert Stein, deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art, or “Lessons from a Year of Pop-Up Museums,” a guest post on the Museums 2.0 blog by Nora Grant, I think it’s even more important for museums to consider alternative means of reaching offsite audiences and engaging onsite visitors.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure: the more experimental the process, the more progressive you need to be to evaluate the outcome. Because as the old saying goes, if you don’t evaluate, you’ve already failed (or something like that). For any project that’s even remotely experimental, the need for unconventional thinking never ends, not after process development, not after implementation, and not even after evaluation. But, I would argue, therein lies the fun. And I think your problem-solving neurons would agree.

This is an expanded version of a post published on July 8, 2014, on the blog of the Center for the Future of Museums.

 

The 2-Minute Film Festival is Back, and Exploring New Frontiers


Source: Imaginary Foundation

Carl Sagan in his Spaceship of the Imagination for Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980); Source: Imaginary Foundation

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying National Geographic’s remake of Carl Sagan’s classic PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980), which debuted in March of this year. The new version, called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, demonstrates the persistent fascination of outer space, that unfathomably immense expanse within which we float “like a moat of dust in the morning sky.” One of my favorite parts about show is that it zooms all the way out to the limits of the visible universe and then all the way back in to earthly bodies at the microscopic level, creating a sublime sense of interconnection and wonder, of the universe around and within us. Apparently I’m not the only one geeking out over Cosmos: the video for Symphony of Science’s song “A Glorious Dawn” featuring Sagan and Stephen Hawking has been viewed almost 9 million times.

So all this is to say: I am super excited that the theme for this year’s 2-Minute Film Festival is….OUTER SPACE! The theme celebrates the upcoming premiere of Extraterrestrial: The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, part of the Hillman Photography Initiative’s Invisible Photograph documentary series. Don’t fret if you haven’t got the time or means to construct a Spaceship of the Imagination like Carl Sagan’s. The theme is open to interpretation so that, like Cosmos, the festival can represent a broad spectrum of human endeavor and understanding, ranging from the big questions to the minutiae of everyday life.

Submissions are due by June 20, so get cracking! The entry form can be found here, and includes detailed instructions on how to send us your video. Like last year we’ll be conferring a Judge’s Choice Award and a People’s Choice Award; online voting for the People’s Choice will begin in early July, after all entries are received. Details to come. Prizes may or may not include a corduroy jacket like my hero Carl’s.

And of course, hope to see you at the 2MFF event on July 10!

Revisit all of the selections from last year’s 2-Minute Film Festival.

Beijing Silvermine Project


Beijing-Silvermine-Thomas-Sauvin-08

The Beijing Silvermine Project makes a strong case for the necessity to materialize photographic images as physical, tangible objects that exist in the world. Initiated by the French collector and editor Thomas Sauvin, this massive archive currently contains over half a million analog photographic negatives made by Beijing’s inhabitants, shot between 1985 and 2005. Salvaged from recycling plants in the periphery of the city, these discarded objects—35 mm analog color negatives blemished by time—have been renewed with a very different kind of life. The time frame itself is also a telling subtext: There’s the reforming and opening up of the economy and a marked shift towards a leisure class on the one hand, and the changing nature of the photographic medium from silver-based processes to the digital on the other hand.

That the trove of images is a poignant and truthful record of the collective experience of Beijing’s citizens is the obvious response. But what the project also insistently reminds us is that the physicalized photograph circulates in ways that are more unpredictable and surprising than their digital counterparts. The Beijing Silvermine photographs are more like vagabond drifters, accruing traces of experience throughout their passages, and through time and space. As the first law of thermodynamics states, physical things can be altered but not entirely destroyed. Had Sauvin not intervened on behalf of these photographic objects they would have been processed through chemical treatments so that the remnant silver nitrate could be extracted and used elsewhere.

Beijing-Silvermine-Thomas-Sauvin-01

Instead, these rescued images—including events such as births, weddings, and travel snapshots, to the more wondrously formal and accidental blurs and chance compositions—provide a collective lens to view an existent, self-contained universe peopled by a specific populace in a precise place that not only encapsulates life, but also all the varying forces that shape it.

Beijing-Silvermine-Thomas-Sauvin-13

Beijing-Silvermine-Thomas-Sauvin-15

Arthur Ou is assistant professor at Parsons The New School, and is one of the agents for the Hillman Photography Initiative. More info about the Initiative and this year’s upcoming programming will be announced very soon. All images in this post are courtesy of the Beijing Silvermine Project.

In Her Own Words


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(L): Barbara Kasten, Construct VII-A, Polaroid, 8 x 10 inches, 1981. Courtesy of the artist. (R): Barbara Kasten, SCENE 140, Archival Pigment Print, 43.75 x 53.75 inches, 2012. Courtesy of the artist

Curation can be a kind of storytelling—it is a chance to narrate or reframe an artist’s practice, but it is also a conversation. For the past two years I have been spending time with the artist Barbara Kasten as we work together to mount her first museum survey. The show, opening at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in February 2015, will bring her most recent large-scale photographs together with her well-known images of studio constructions and architectural interventions, as well as her seldom-seen experiments in other mediums.

I initially became interested in revisiting Kasten’s work about six years ago when there was a renewed excitement around photographic abstraction. As a younger generation of artists began to find inspiration in the works she had produced over thirty years ago, I wanted to learn more about the ideas and processes that had informed her practice and was prompted to invite her to speak at the museum where I was working at the time. Now that I know her better, I increasingly understand her photography within a wider and more complex context. Working in her archive I learned about her forays into fiber and set design, and I became familiar with her own intergenerational explorations, namely a 1990 documentary, produced through a collaboration with art historian Deborah Irmas, High Heels and Ground Glass, which presents interviews with five women photographers working in different areas of photographic practice who at the time were in their seventies and eighties.

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(L): Florence Henri, Abstract Composition, gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x 6 13/16 in., 1929. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; (R): Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri, gelatin silver print, 14 5/8 x 10 15/16 in., 1927. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As a young artist looking for role models within the European avant-garde, Kasten became intrigued by the photographs of mirrored surfaces and nonrepresentational imagery by Florence Henri, an artist whose work helped usher in the era of the New Vision, in which the camera portrayed the abstraction of modern day life via startling perspectives and refracted viewpoints. Although by the late 1970s the history of modern photography was becoming increasingly codified, she found that there was a lack of substantive information about the women she admired and wanted to learn about their approaches to photography and how being a woman in a male-dominated field had impacted them. Realizing that many of these photographers who had played a role in the heyday of the early 20th century might still be alive and able to tell their stories, she applied to the National Endowment for the Arts with the aim of acquiring funding to videotape them.

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(L): Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin, Paris, C-print,1938. Courtesy of www.gisele-freund.com; (R): Eiko Yamazawa, What I am doing No, 24, Cibachrome, 1982

Upon learning of her NEA award in 1980, Kasten immediately wrote to Henri to inquire whether she could meet her in person. She explained, “As an artist and instructor of photography, I have felt the need and desire to identify my own roots in the art of photography and also present this to the students I teach. Although women have recently been gaining recognition for the importance of their roles in the history of photography, I would like to facilitate the acknowledgement even further(from a letter from Barbara Kasten to Florence Henri dated April 8, 1980; Courtesy of Barbara Kasten’s archive)By the time Kasten met with Henri in Paris, she was too ill to be recorded, but the experience was encouraging enough for Kasten to return to the States and begin reaching out to other photographers in an effort to document their stories. Working with Irmas she set out to interview women that represented different areas of the field: from Louise Dahl Wolf‘s iconic fashion spreads in Harper’s Bazaar and Maurine Loomis’s headshots of glamorous Hollywood stars, to Lisette Model‘s fresh images of New York street life, Gisèle Freund‘s portraits of iconic European intellectuals, and Eiko Yamazawa‘s colorful abstractions. In their homes and studios from Los Angeles to Osaka, each artist reflected on her individual philosophy about photography and offered insights into her autobiography and how World War II had brought both opportunity and devastation.

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Barbara Kasten, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Deborah Irmas during the filming of High Heels and Ground Glass. Courtesy of Barbara Kasten

Of course, this was all done in an era before mainstream digital technology and affordable editing software had become available, and so, before Kasten and her collaborators knew it, they had embarked on a project ten years in the making. The final documentary thus provides an invaluable record of the artists and their personalities, and continues to be shown in classrooms to this day. At a moment when intergenerational dialogue is increasingly central to artistic and curatorial activity, and as the history of art is continuously being expanded and rewritten (thankfully), we can now access the numerous hours of unedited footage—acknowledged as an important document in their own right—in the Center for Creative Photography‘s archive, where they await a new generation of artists and scholars to become acquainted with these remarkable women in their own words.

A New Look at Photo Agency


Recently, I came across a New York Times article about a $1,200 domestic drone, whose writer described opening a bulky box, extracting a picture-making flying machine, puzzling through its complex instructions and, ultimately, having a great time. “Oh, my goodness, this thing is fun,” he summed up the experience. And I bet it was.

But because I track stories about photography and visual culture on a daily basis, I’m also well aware of the drone stories that don’t have such consumer-friendly and happy endings. What continually fascinates me, someone who’s worked in the photography field for decades, is that even as picture-taking and photo-sharing become increasingly democratized, impactful, and controversial, not enough dialogue about photography seems to be going on.

This may seem hard to believe. There are, one might argue, ample opportunities—in exhibitions, magazines, journals, blogs, books, courses, and conferences—to look at, question, and argue for the medium. But surprisingly, how photography actually functions in the broader cultural scheme of things—how it is employed, who and what it represents, and why it works so powerfully and well—remains underexplored.

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Installation by Erik Kessels © Gijs van den Berg (Les Recontres d’Arles Photographie)

With well over a billion photographic images being made every day, by many people and for many reasons, it is impossible to construct or support any single or seamless story about the medium. (To get a sense of the sheer volume of new images we are generating, see artist Erik Kessels’s installation of all the photographs uploaded to Flickr in a single day in 2013.) Today, photography is used more variously, often, and consequentially than most other visual media. And as photography is being redefined in the digital era, it is redefining our relationships to reality and each other. The pictures and photo-driven narratives that capture attention and go viral, such as the recent spread of and chatter around President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, only begin to hint at how deeply photographic imaging is embedded in and actively shapes everyday life and culture at large.

The fact that photography’s definitions have always been fluid—and its practice and audience broad—has made the medium particularly problematic for art museums. Photography, as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake noted in an 1857 article she wrote for the London Quarterly Review, “is made for the present age in which the desire for art resides in a small minority, but craving, or rather the necessity for cheap, prompt, and correct facts in the public at large. Photography is the purveyor of such knowledge to the world. She is sworn witness of…facts which are neither the province of art nor of description, but of that new form of communications.”

Since its introduction in the 19th century, the artfulness of photography has been cyclically argued for and argued over. Carnegie Museum of Art was, in fact, among the earliest of American museums to pioneer the display of art photography with Photo Secession, the historic 1904 exhibition of pictorial imagery that was organized by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.

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Cover and interior page of Photo-Secession, a Collection of American Pictorial Photographs as arranged by the Photo-Secession and exhibited under the auspices of the Camera Club of Pittsburg, at the Art Galleries of the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1904), a large quarto book with seven photogravures, Second Century Acquisition Fund. The page on the right shows Steichen’s Rodin—The Thinker from 1902.

Throughout the 20th century, more art museums in the United States began to recognize and support the medium, or at least their quite intentionally rarified version of it, by focusing largely on the photographs made as art. But what about all the rest of them? The much-heralded photography boom of the 1970s made it seem as if the medium, a century and a half after its introduction, had come of age. But even that transformational moment failed to calm down the nervousness that perpetually hovers around photography.

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Covers of William Eggleston’s Guide (Harper’s Books) and Pictures for Artists Space (read the original essay by Douglas Crimp at X-TRA Online)

With the democratization of digital imaging in the 21st century, and as photography is in the process of being radically reimagined, cultural institutions and art museums in particular find themselves in a curious position. They can move forward on the photographic paths they’ve staked out for themselves or bob in the wake of exhibition and collecting models developed elsewhere. Or—and this is where things get interesting—museums can, in this time of flux, rethink their relationship to and broaden their inquiry into a medium that is re-engineering itself and in the process re-shaping our need for and expectations of representation itself.

FBI Agent, 1939

FBI Agent, 1939

It is Carnegie Museum of Art’s decision to take the latter course that made me jump at the chance to become one of the first round of “agents” to steer the early programming and course of the Hillman Photography Initiative. The word agent (I’ve got to admit) at first sounded like a strange way to describe what we were or might do. As it turns out, it’s pretty accurate. If photography is increasingly understood to be a powerful agent of cultural and social change, then why not sign on to investigate and advocate for that?

Initiative, too, is an interesting word, one that suggests ambition, reassessment, a desire to forge ahead to make new things happen. That’s what makes working on the Initiative a unique opportunity for the first small group of us—artists, curators, writers, and a technologist—who’ve been invited to bounce ideas around and create a year’s worth of innovative programming. And once we’ve done that, another group of agents will be recruited to rethink photographic imaging and priorities their way.

At a time when the field of photography is being radically transformed, and as many museums choose to wait things out or host decorous and defensive discussions about what’s happened to photography, the Initiative and the Carnegie Museum have more boldly staked out an active leadership position in the field. What an honor to be a part of that. And, what a relief.