An interview by Zoë Tousignant
Quentin Bajac has been the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, since 2013. In the fall of 2015, MoMA opened the exhibition Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 (November 7, 2015, to March 20, 2016) and published the third volume in the Photography at MoMA series. The interview below took place in Montreal on the day after Bajac’s keynote address, “Après la photographie?,” presented at the Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2015 colloquium.
ZT: After your address yesterday, an audience member asked you to define what your particular contribution will be as chief curator of photography at MoMA, as you follow in the footsteps of Beaumont Newhall, Edward Steichen, John Szarkowski, and Peter Galassi. You answered that you offer a pluridisciplinary vision of photography. I would like to propose that you also bring a sense of history.
QB: Yes, I do also offer a sense of history – that is, I arrive with my awareness as a historian, a curator who has worked in the historical periods of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the contemporary period, and I’ve written quite a bit about photography from its origins to the present, so I’ve always like to put things in perspective. Also, the photography department at MoMA, which is the oldest photography department in a museum of modern and contemporary art, has a historical role, and it therefore must be, if not faithful to, at least aware of its history.
I think that it’s important, this difference between fidelity and awareness. We have to be aware of our history, of what we have accomplished, but we must also have the freedom to break away from it to write our own history. I think that the MoMA model sometimes gets stuck, and we have to know that it exists and use it, but we also have to extend and enrich it. If we don’t, we risk a sort of fossilization, or ossification, of the history of photography. I am aware of these two historical perspectives, and that’s why one of the first things I did when I arrived at the museum (even though it took a little longer than planned) was to write a book about the collection.
ZT: You’re writing a guide to the collection?
QB: It’s more than a guide. I wanted something that would give us a little time, a little depth – the time to tell a story about its historical and geographic diversity, and also the diversity of approaches. In fact, there is this great tradition of “straight photography” – documentary photography – at MoMA, but if we look at the history of MoMA before John Szarkowski, Steichen had a very different vision – he was interested in the press, in European photography, in experimental photography – and Newhall also had different tastes. And then, photography at MoMA goes beyond the photography department…
Translated by Käthe Roth
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