Gaëlle Morel, guest curator for Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2009, is a member of the board of directors of the Société française de photographie and of the editorial committee of Études photographiques.
She has published Le photoreportage d’auteur. L’institution culturelle de la photographie en France depuis les années 1970 (Paris: CNRS, 2006), the edited work Les derniers tableaux. Photojournalisme et art contemporain (Paris: Archives Contemporaines, 2008) and a general book on photography with Thierry Gervais (Paris: Larousse, 2008). Since 2008, she has been living in Montreal and Toronto.
Jacques Doyon : First, I’d like to know what caught your eye about Le Mois de la photo à Montréal (MPM) from Paris, and why it occurred to you to submit your curatorial proposal, which was chosen for this year’s edition.
Gaëlle Morel : I have known Vincent Lavoie, chair of MPM’s board of directors and the guest curator for the 2003 edition, for a few years; we met as collegues while doing historical research on photography (at conferences, study days, and so on). He told me about MPM, and I was able to observe the quality and rigorousness of the successive programs by consulting the catalogues.
For family reasons, I had to move to Canada in early 2008, and the call for applications for the 2009 edition of MPM had gone out just before. I had long hoped to expand my activities as an exhibition curator, and this offered a great opportunity. I developed an idea of interest to me, involving devices, techniques, and installations – themes that have not been much studied in photographic terms.
JD : As a photography scholar, you are interested mainly in the development of the figure of authorship in photojournalism and this figure’s role in the artistic and cultural legitimization of the medium. How does this evolution seem significant for photographic practice as a whole? What are the reasons behind this evolution? And how are they conveyed on the institutional level?
GM : To give a simple, general answer, I would say that there are three fields of expression today:
1- Applied photography, in which the images have a use. This is photojournalism as practised, for example, by AFP, as well as fashion, advertising, and corporate photography.
2- Applied photography in which the photographers also have a strong creative ambition and try to produce books, be present at festivals, and have exhibitions. They define themselves as artists – both practitioners, responding to a particular use, and creators.
3- Photography that circulates exclusively in the field of contemporary art and fits within a specific market. Of course, there may be crossovers, encounters, mixtures; the borders are not that clear.
The reasons for such an evolution have to do with the gradual cultural and artistic legitimization of photography: in France, this recognition took place in the 1970s, and institutions specifically dedicated to the medium were opened, publishing houses were founded, and so on.
JD : How did this transformation of photographic practice open up a place for it in the field of French contemporary art?
GM : If we think specifically of contemporary art, French galleries and museums began to integrate photography into their programs and catalogues, photography departments were opened, and curators were hired to assemble and care for collections. The art market began to endow certain prints with value, imposing value criteria (limitation on the number of prints, and so on). The history of photography was also gradually integrated (though even today it is insufficient) into university art-history programs with the hiring of specialized professors.
JD : How did your interest in modes of presentation of photography in exhibition spaces develop? Does this evolution in art have a counterpart in photography?
GM : I think that the question of an appropriate fit between form and background is fundamental to the reading of a work. When an artist decides to use such and such a medium or to make such and such a type of installation, all of these conscious decisions influence the meaning given to the work and how it will be received.
But while installation is a theme that has been widely studied in the field of art, the question of devices and techniques has rarely been investigated for photography. I wanted to show that a photography exhibition can look different – that hanging frames in a line on a wall is a convention, but artists have long been availing themselves of other modes of exhibition.
JD : It certainly is a relevant issue, as the hanging of photography exhibitions is often conventional. However, here the specific milieu of photography seems to be a little less developed on the institutional level and is often linked to contemporary art. For instance, as we speak, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography is threatened with losing its facilities and having its mandate reduced. So, I would like to ask how you perceive the audience to which you are addressing this curatorial project. Do you think of this audience as being purely local, or as international as well? Will your project also be instructive for those familiar with contemporary art, a significant proportion of the visitors to Mois de la Photo à Montréal?
GM : MPM’s mandate is to be ecumenical and to try to draw the largest audience possible: all exhibitions have free admission, for example. There is also a detailed program that provides an understanding not only of the works but also of the programming as a whole. It’s a fascinating challenge, since we must be appealing to both neophytes and experts, in the fields of both photography and contemporary art. Of course, I would like everyone to find something interesting by discovering works that haven’t been seen in Canada or were designed specifically for MPM. On the other hand, as the first foreign guest curator of MPM, I would be truly happy if this were just the beginning and the MPM exhibitions could draw an international audience.
JD : The research field of photographic studies, which takes into account the history and tradition of photography, its various fields of application outside of art, and their connections to the development of contemporary art practices, still lacks some legitimacy. Has your stay enabled you to get an idea of the state of research and institutional development in Quebec and Canada? Can you talk a bit about the work done by the Société française de photographie and Études photographiques?
GM : It seems to me, in fact, that the field of specialization is less structured here than in France, notably at the university level, where art-history departments do not all benefit from specific study programs. On the other hand, even though there is no museum or institution exclusively devoted to management of photographic collections in Montreal, there are some galleries and artist-run centres interested in the medium that offer work by established and emerging artists. The generalist institutions, as the McCord Museum or the CCA, also show photography. But, it’s true, there is no large-scale institution based on a collection and showing the diversity of photographic practices since the nineteenth century.
In France, the Société française de photographie (SFP) is responsible for a huge, beautiful collection from the nineteenth century accessible to members of the association. It manages the rights for all of these images, lends works for exhibitions, and organizes or participates in activities (encounters with artists, conferences, and so on). Since 1996, it has published Études photographiques, a bilingual scholarly journal with contributions from experts the world over. The SFP and the journal have brought together a group of more or less established experts who work to develop research in the history of photography.
JD : If I’m not mistaken, the exhibition that you will be presenting at Mois de la Photo à Montréal is your first foray into contemporary photography. Is this the beginning of a new research area for you? Do you have other projects in mind?
GM : I’ve been working in contemporary photography for a long time, with a few incursions into work in the 1930s. I would say, rather, that for the first time I’m exploring photographers and video artists who work more specifically in contemporary art. But this goes much further: certain artists in the MPM program are not photographers themselves but concentrate on the idea of image appropriation and transformation.
I do in fact have other exhibition projects on the drawing board. The research that I did for MPM and my meetings with a number of artists made me want to continue down this path, exploring other themes. Before that, I’ll be going back to the 1930s, as I am curating a retrospective on Berenice Abbott at the Jeu de Paume in Paris for 2011.