William A. Ewing, Photographs Are the Eyes of Our Civilization — Jacques Doyon

[Winter 2022]

An interview by Jacques Doyon

Author, exhibition curator, professor, and longtime director of the Musée de l’Élysée (1996– 2010), in Lausanne, William A. Ewing began his career in Montreal; he was the founder of Optica, which he directed from 1972 to 1977. Ewing has been exploring the field of photography for some five decades. His exhibitions have been featured at such prestigious venues as the International Center of Photography (New York), Le Jeu de Paume (Paris), the Whitechapel (London), and the Museo Nacional de la Reina Sofia (Madrid). Among his books are The Body: Photographs of the Human Form (1994), ReGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow, 2005-2025 (2005), and monographs on Erwin Blumenfeld, Edward Steichen, and Ed Burtynsky. A former professor of the history of photography at the University of Geneva, Eweing has been director of curatorial projects at Thames & Hudson since 2010 and of special projects at the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography.

Jacques Doyon: In collaboration with Holly Roussell, you recently organized Civilization – Quelle époque !/ The Way We Live Now, a major exhibition of more than two hundred works by some hundred and forty photographers from five continents, offering an overview of the great issues affecting societies in the early twenty-first century. For you, the issues that are of highest priority are planetary in scope – the issues of civilization, a term that may lend itself to debate. How do you see it as pertinent for describing the current state of the world?

William A. Ewing: Claude Levi-Strauss once said that we can use a term any way we want, as long as we say precisely what we mean by it. By “civilization” we mean to refer to the social unit of greatest social complexity in any vast geographic region; there is no greater social unit. However, it is also common to speak of civilizations in the plural: Chinese, Western, Mayan, Islamic, and so on. For our project, we are speaking of planetary-wide civilization, the state of humankind in the twenty-first century. Scholars have also called it world civilization, global civilization, universal civilization, and meta-civilization. To take one clear example of what we mean by this, think of the Olympic movement. It exists in every country, every city, and there is no village on earth where a child does not dream of running faster or jumping higher than everyone else. The Olympics is not just a set of games but a vast structure that spans the globe, with expenditures worldwide in the billions. Half the world’s population watches some part of the games every four years. That is today’s planetary civilization…

[ Complete issue, in print and digital version, available here: Ciel variable 119 – AGAINST NATURE ]
[ Complete article and more images, in digital version, available here: William A. Ewing, Photographs Are the Eyes of Our Civilization — Jacques Doyon ]