The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s current exhibition “Beyond the Frame” aims to promote and develop visual literacy. This collection-based exhibition showcases the depth and breadth of the MoCP’s collection and guides visitors through key themes. Newcity spoke to exhibition organizer, curator of academic programs and collections Kristin Taylor.
Beyond the Frame is based on the concept of visual education. What does visual literacy mean to you and why is now the right time to dedicate a photo exhibition to it?
Visual competence means being able to look at pictures consciously. It is the ability to understand how the choices made by the photographer affect the narrative you ascribe to the moment, person, or place depicted.
As technologies change and our lives become more immersed in photographs, understanding how to read images becomes more important. We live in a time where we question the notion of truth. What role do images play in our understanding of the world? How automatically or skeptically do we trust images as documentation of facts? How can we mentally engage with images when we’re bombarded with them all day? I think it can surprise people to realize how much of an impact photography has had on their lives.
The exhibition is themed and traverses time periods to explore the many themes that have recurred in the history of photography, such as light, illusion, portraiture, landscape, and constructed and staged images. How were these themes determined and what photos were included in each section?
These are themes that come up again and again in our educational programs, so I thought of the themes as entry points for visitors of all backgrounds. But I also wanted the exhibition to touch on avenues in this field and the ways in which artists directly or indirectly influence each other. For example, many artists have made depictions of the country over time. Ansel Adams, well known for capturing pristine landscapes without human presence, stands in the exhibition alongside Anastasia Samoylova and Terry Evans – two artists now working to shed light on man-made damage to the Earth. It is impossible to include the many spaces in between, but visitors can at least see some of the major shifts in the history of image making.
Determining exactly which photos went into each section was more of a challenge. With over 16,000 works in the collection there are so many pieces I would have loved to have included. Lots of work that I know always resonates with students, like Barbara Probst’s work showing a moment from five different perspectives. Her work is a wonderful example of how photographs are highly selective interpretations of reality.
The photographers on display range from well-known names to art-world darlings to emerging and lesser-known artists. How did you deal with inclusion and diversity when putting the show together?
While teaching from our collection we always try to find a balance by showing students the big names alongside works that have been created in the last five years or by people they have probably never heard of. We collect and exhibit work by artists we believe in, whether they have a conventional background or an exhibition history. While we still have work to do in terms of inclusion and diversity in the collection, the exhibition reflects the breadth of this archive.
How has the MoCP’s status as a university museum impacted your curatorial approaches and decisions for Beyond the Frame?
In many ways! You can probably tell this from my answers to the other questions. I think it’s great that education is at the forefront of everything we do here. Before adding a work to the collection or planning a program or exhibition, we always ask how this object or experience can stimulate dialogue between students, artists and different communities. I think college museums are in a sweet spot in the art world. They are less concerned with bringing big-name blockbuster exhibitions to the city and more concerned with being a place of learning and community.
What did you learn about the MoCP collection while putting this show together?
I’ve been working at the MoCP for sixteen years and have always been very involved with the collection, so I know the material fairly well. But I have learned that putting together an exhibition from the collection is very different from having conversations with others about the collection. So much time is spent writing wall texts, coordinating the framing of works, and planning the physical space the objects will inhabit. You don’t get the immediate feedback or reactions you get in public programs or when working with classes. You also don’t know how people are going to interact with the material, so you just have to publish it and trust them to make sense of it. It can feel a bit like a one-sided conversation.
I know that mastering visual literacy is a lofty subject, but I truly believe in the power of art to see things in new ways and to strengthen our connections with each other. I hope this exhibition is a place to do both.
“Beyond the Frame” can be seen at MoCP, 600 South Michigan through October 30th.