Interview: Curator Christopher Eamon Troubles the Shifting Form (and Relevance) of Photography

Steve McQueen, "7th November," 2002.

Early in its trajectory, independent curator and writer Christopher Eamon distinguished himself in the field of moving-image media and photography, and asserted its knock-kneed foothold in the greater arena of contemporary art. His unique stewardship of the famed Pamela and Richard Kramlich Collection, San Francisco – where video art is so privileged in the collection as to command the development of a medium-specific and cutting-edge architecture – helped establish Eamon’s influence in a nascent but all-important form.

Curating exhibitions that speak to its media’s history and ongoing expansion, Eamon has produced Bill Viola: The Crossing (1999); Video Acts: Single-Channel Works from the Collections of Pamela and Richard Kramlich and New Art Trust (2002-03), shown at PS1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, and ICA, London; Beyond Cinema: The Art of Projection 1963-2005 (2006), in Berlin; and Accidental Modernism (2008), in New York. He has lectured and curated at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Banff Centre, and the Power Plant, and his texts have been issued by publications such as Steidl and the Tate.

Momus editor Sky Goodden spoke with Eamon on the occasion of his most recent exhibition, Images That Speak (commissioned by Capture Photography Festival, with the assistance of Presentation House Gallery), where ten artists “speak” their deviations from the photographic medium in images that do, at times, appear foreign and utterly freed from their lens. Presented at Satellite Gallery, the festival’s leading exhibition underscores Eamon’s prominence in a relatively emerging field that continues to renew our expectations. Each of us is a photographer and yet so few of us exercise its full potential or know its mosaic history. Eamon speaks to photography’s common usage, and reflects on maintaining a medium-specific practice in a moment when such a distinction is losing relevance.

You assert a real proclamation regarding the changing landscape of photography with this exhibition. Where did the show come out of?

I was asked if I would be interested to do a photographic-based show as the lead exhibition for Capture. I already had in mind a few people or bodies of work I wanted to work with, and I thought if they happened to be photo-based – like Steve McQueen, Matt Saunders, and Susanne Kriemann – I could really develop something around this. I immediately thought of a slide piece by Steve [McQueen], because it’s a work that presaged, in a way, his filmmaking (directorial) career. Because of the nature of the story it told and the relationship of its story to its image. Then I thought of that in relationship to James Coleman, some of his early work where he simply describes, as a voiceover, a slide from 1972. So here was an idea already of a speaking image, or an image made to speak by the addition of a voice. And the working title, Images That Speak, stuck. It stuck through the following month as I got further into developing the idea, visiting with artists; I got to thinking, this show has as much to do with images that defer speech or try to prevent linguistic reading of images, as well as being literally speaking images, or text-based images. It rolled from there.

In the contemporary moment, are photographic images “speaking” in a way that they haven’t before?

In a way you could say yes, in that more than half of the works [in the show] are more camera-less or made in the darkroom, and therefore trend backward. They tend to look backward to the early modernist experiments, the surrealist experiments in particular, even Bauhaus and [László] Moholy-Nagy.

I think something that I didn’t get into in the brochure text is the overdone semiotics of the image, where interpretation is everything, and the visual is likened to a language. Even by the early ‘90s, Umberto Eco wrote the limits of interpretation, and that we were already beginning to see the cracks – at least theoretically – and the all-encompassing theory of an image that was like speech or language. And in the last ten or fifteen years you see a lot of young people working in a way that either creates an affect of experience or acknowledges that images can be a testament to something that occurred. As in Ryan Foerster’s work, who leaves his work out in the garden, inspired by Hurricane Sandy. It’s a mute image, one that’s not “read,” but one where you can perceive that something has occurred, either organically or through some tragedy or event.

This question is certainly inspired by the framework of your exhibition and its focus on photography, but also by the close attention your curatorial practice continues to afford particular media (namely film, video, and photography). I wonder, how relevant is the subject of media, now, especially when it continues to be subverted or supplanted, or stretched to encompass the catch-all framework of “interdisciplinarity”? Is it relevant to discuss contemporary art in terms of its medium anymore?

Well, it’s a pretty good question. I’m not sure it has much relevance. I worked primarily in time-based images, including film, slide, audio – anything durational – for the last 25 years, and at the early part of that time there were curators of photography in most major museums, and there were curators of media art. And those positions started to be erased or collapsed into contemporary art.

The thing is, I do think that there is at least a phase of knowing the history of a medium and working through all its potentialities in a rich, knowledgeable way that requires a specialization of a field. It requires a certain kind of “midwifing” into the institutional and contemporary artworld. I’m not sure we’re entirely done with that with respect to photography and media art. Because you see a lot of assumptions being made by [the] greater contemporary-art public about the medium, the knowledge becomes watered down, and you see a reactive dumbing-down of the medium. In this case, almost all of the works [in this show] come from people who would rather consider themselves artists – and, in fact, three of them are painters. Matt Saunders actually paints his negatives. The same with Ryan Peter.

So while I feel like these categorizations are less and less relevant, I am also interested in – and it’s why I took on this project … is because it was [a show working] within a kind of closed category and it basically gains new meaning when you work with an artist painting negatives on photo paper, for instance. Most of the works in the show are “lens-less.” So by putting them in this context, which is kind of a constraint, they actually reverberate, and undermine the assumptions of the general viewing public.

Did any of the artists bristle at being framed through a particular medium?

No. I mean, Steve McQueen wouldn’t probably think that his piece should be in a media-art show. But of course he’s a media artist – I hate that word – a time-based or video artist – using photographic means. I don’t think it’s really a question, though I can totally see it being a question for some people. I was amazed, for instance, that Susanne Kriemann, working in a darkroom, doing research in the archive regarding science and geology and radioactivity, but always working in photographic means (i.e. light and photo paper), that she was excited to be in the photo context. And when you see [her] piece, it’s like an exhibition within an exhibition, a two-room installation, as it were. I didn’t get any push-back.

I can understand those who are working in traditional photographic formats, like Stephen Waddell’s tableaux photographs, that come out of a Düsseldorf [School] enlargement or expansion of photographic [media] into painting. And there was a period where those artists would not have seen themselves as photographers. But in a way I feel like this is old news. Through Andreas Gursky, it’s already happened, and been incorporated into our understanding. Maybe it’s just [because of] me [laughs] that they were okay with working in this context. I had a rapport – that’s not really what I mean to say. I think everybody was excited to be working within the context of the others. Like, “Oh, I really admire that person’s work, or this person’s work,” and, “wow, you’re inviting me to be with those artists?” So in a way maybe it’s an artist’s-artist exhibition. Because [the issue] never came up.

To query the medium further, though, I notice in the press release there’s a distinction made between the digital and the analogue, which goes on being a divisive conversation, though I’m not sure to what extent it’s a happy one within the photographic community. Are there still power dynamics or some suggestion of superiority between those two, or has that diminished, making this a more democratic field?

Well it’s interesting because it came up on the panel with the artists. It’s more of a philosophical question, now, and less one of a hierarchy. Stephen Waddell seemed to think that the distinction was irrelevant, that the actual material of the digital is different. The question of material and material seems to linger. And Susanne [Kriemann] had said that it’s still a light that comes through – that there is still an apparatus. I think it’s become more philosophical, less that one [form] is lesser or better. Although I can tell you that the reception to very overtly digital images, like Michele Abeles’s, tends to be … sometimes I feel the audience is not taking it as seriously. But that’s a hunch. They would take it more seriously if it was a fake analogue, maybe.

Susanne did a great piece where, in [another] show, she put filters over the lights in each room, almost imperceptible, acknowledging that when people took photographs with their cellphones they’d get a rainbow through the image. That was her acknowledgement of digitality. She’s using all the information that we can’t see; that the camera can’t [communicate]. So I do think it’s an interesting field, and that the digital has great potential. There’s a lot of information that the camera throws away, normally, but because of what the camera takes in, it’s much more than we can see. I don’t think we’re done. We haven’t come to a synthesis of the poles. We’re entering a rich area.

How do you regard photography’s relatively short trajectory, and its still-recent induction into the “fine arts” or contemporary art at large? And how is its growing application through pedestrian technologies (smartphones, etc.) inflecting its status in this field?

It kind of goes back to your first question, in “where is there a need for expertise?”, because it was the curators of art photography who largely deal with [subjects like] Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans in their collections of historical photography in these big institutions – they kind of “midwifed” photography through the process and we ended up with Cindy Sherman, and that whole generation of art in New York, and its success in crossing all the boundaries. For a long time you had a parallel universe – the contemporary photographer, i.e., “the conceptual photographer.” And all this other journalistic or documentary photography … I think that schism is still really strange. But like I said, it was necessary at the beginning. And perhaps there’s some way where we could talk about Stephen Shore and a conceptual photographer where the medium is just the result of their thinking process, where it’s just one actualization of it.

I’m answering a question with a question, because could we not, perhaps, take Stephen Shore or the color conceptualists of the ‘70s in an intellectual way and not downplay that history?

I felt like we were over that dichotomy, if only in the galleries and not institutionally. But that dichotomy existed because daily pedestrian or vernacular uses were still out there, and now they’re really out there. So I wanted to show some great examples of what’s going on, and in so doing I found these weird examples of processes – like scrubbing off the emulsion and then printing it, or abrading the negative. I think this “speech” that comes out of these arcane methods is actually speaking to this [rampant] photography everywhere.

The works I’m presenting are in no way not art [laughs]. They’re verging on something else, like a painting or automatic drawing, or a film. So there are a lot of bold techniques. There’s no mistaking these for more vernacular, public [articulations]. Because we, the public, with our smartphones and our huge Mac Powerbook photo archives, are all doing straight modernist photography. And when you see the show you realize, these artists aren’t done separating themselves from that in some way.



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