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Photography Today: Q&A with a MoMA Curator

Photography Today: Q&A with a MoMA Curator
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Sarah Meister, Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, wants to answer your questions about photography in the world today. What does the first ever photograph of a black hole suggest about the relationship between science and art? In the wake of the recent devastating fire, can photographs of Notre Dame help us reflect on the role of art in our cultural heritage? How are photos on Instagram like (and unlike) those collected by museums? Who decides which photographs are significant in the world today?

You are invited to post your questions here between May 3–10. Sarah will be responding to questions through May 17.

About the Q&A Host
Sarah Meister is a Curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the instructor for Seeing Through Photographs on Coursera. She is actively involved in MoMA’s acquisitions and exhibitions program, and her most recent publications include Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother and Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album. She is currently planning a major exhibition of Brazilian modernist photography for 2021, and co-directing a five year research initiative around the work of August Sander.

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You are invited to post your questions here between March 3–10. Sarah will be responding to questions through May 17.

I guess this was May 3 - 10 ?
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hi sarah i love your work and am a part time photographer .
in today's times most of the people are using photographs to portraying self using selfies on social media and have lost the essence of true photography .
what are your views on this issue?
-thanks
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Yes, @sandeep! My mistake. Thank you for catching that. It's been corrected. 🙂
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In 2003, there was a one-year stopover for the protection of the world's cultural heritage, due to UNESCO's initiatives to promote and preserve the intangible aspect of humanity's heritage.

A critical question put to the cultural manager of the 21st century is how to approach intangible heritage elements by museum organizations so that there is a common benefit for both local communities - groups - individuals who are performing important cultural practices, and about the evolution of museum practices as well as the current photographic exhibits at a time when the economic crisis in many countries in the world plays a decisive role in the cultural heritage of art;
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hi sarah i love your work and am a part time photographer .
in today's times most of the people are using photographs to portraying self using selfies on social media and have lost the essence of true photography .
what are your views on this issue?
-thanks

Hello Swaraj! Thanks for your kind words and excellent question. I appreciate why you might feel that our Instagram/selfie obsessed era has somehow compromised "true photography," but I am a bit more optimistic about the future of the medium. People have historically despaired at moments of technological innovation: when George Eastman introduced his Kodak camera the notion that anyone could make a photograph was terrifying to the Pictorialists, who then set about making photographs that looked like ART to differentiate themselves from the masses. And of course there were selfies ages before anyone referred to them as selfies, people just called them self-portraits. The great thing about Instagram, and the fact that (almost) everyone has a camera, is that so many more people feel connected with the medium... and a significant number of these people are enrolling in Seeing Through Photographs and thinking critically about the differences between what museums collect and the images we all make with our phones, almost every day.
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thanks sarah ,
i think you are right technology helps us bridge the gap and help us to develop us further
Hi Sarah, I just had an interesting discussion with some people about digital vs film photography.
For those of us who have lots of old photos would you recommend scanning them and creating digital libraries of them?
Also....do you think film photography is a thing of the past or is it still an important photographic expression that can last forever?Thanks.
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Hi @sarahmeister. Thank you for sharing your insights with us! I love photography and if nobody specifically asks for your thoughts on the fascinating 'photography today' questions you've shared in your intro, I'd love to hear what you have to say about any or all of them!

I'd also love to know what you think is needed to create an iconic image—a photograph that moves people emotionally and compels them to action. A few weeks ago, I came across this article: How to create an iconic image. Jonathan Bachman's 2016 photo of Ieshia Evans, standing composed as armored police rush towards her in Baton Rouge, is referenced:


(Source: Baton Rouge killing: Black Lives Matter protest photo hailed as 'legendary')

I remember seeing this photo and, like so many others, feeling a profound response. To me, this photograph epitomizes the over-policing and mistrust of black communities in the U.S. It is a heartbreaking, devastating photo and yet the consummate poise and peace exuded by Ieshia also makes it beautiful. To me, this is very much an iconic photograph.

Would you be willing to share some photographs that are iconic to you? Has your sense of what makes a photograph iconic changed over time?
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Hi Sarah, thank you very much for this opportunity! I am wondering if one can create an art object by using digital photography. I started out shooting digital until I felt I plateaued and for the past year I have been shooting analog which reignited my passion for photography. I would like to embrace digital again (high cost of shooting film being the main reason) but it does not feel authentic as a medium anymore, I don't sense the craft in it and the results seem like cold perfect reproduction of the world. Is there any way I could change my mind and see this differently? How is digital photography received in the art world?

Many thanks in advance,
Florin
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Greetings Sarah,

I guess you are already aware with work of Vilem Flusser. What are your thoughts of his views on photography? Political photography and so on.

Best regards.
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Hi Sarah, I just had an interesting discussion with some people about digital vs film photography.
For those of us who have lots of old photos would you recommend scanning them and creating digital libraries of them?
Also....do you think film photography is a thing of the past or is it still an important photographic expression that can last forever?Thanks.

Hello Judith!
This first question is easy if money is no object: yes, scanning your old photographs and having them in a digital library is a terrific way to organize and facilitate access to them... just be sure to ALSO save the originals! That said, it can be expensive and time-consuming to scan large numbers of photos (although I think there are services that do this now?) and you need to consider storing them in multiple copies (in case some files are corrupted), and migrating them as the technology evolves... so I guess it's not that simple, but it still seems like a good idea.
Film (or "analog") photograph is certainly a thing of the past. We are firmly in the digital era. That said, in the hands of a talented practitioner, it certainly still holds the potential of being used to express a personal artistic vision.
Thanks for writing.
Thank you for your responses, @sarahmeister . There always seems to be something special about being able to hold a photo album and pass it down to future generations. To hand over a thumb drive instead just didn’t feel the same..yet it seems this is a smart way of preserving those old memories.

When I think of all the great photography of the past I have such respect for the old fashioned cameras that used film. Can you tell if a photograph has been taken digitally or analogly ( hmmmm, is that a word?) Thanks again.
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Hi @sarahmeister. Thank you for sharing your insights with us! I love photography and if nobody specifically asks for your thoughts on the fascinating 'photography today' questions you've shared in your intro, I'd love to hear what you have to say about any or all of them!

I'd also love to know what you think is needed to create an iconic image—a photograph that moves people emotionally and compels them to action. A few weeks ago, I came across this article: How to create an iconic image. Jonathan Bachman's 2016 photo of Ieshia Evans, standing composed as armored police rush towards her in Baton Rouge, is referenced:


(Source: Baton Rouge killing: Black Lives Matter protest photo hailed as 'legendary')

I remember seeing this photo and, like so many others, feeling a profound response. To me, this photograph epitomizes the over-policing and mistrust of black communities in the U.S. It is a heartbreaking, devastating photo and yet the consummate poise and peace exuded by Ieshia also makes it beautiful. To me, this is very much an iconic photograph.

Would you be willing to share some photographs that are iconic to you? Has your sense of what makes a photograph iconic changed over time?


Hello Laura! I hope I will have an opportunity to answer all of the questions I mentioned in my introduction and more over the course of the next ten days or so, but for now I'll focus on your question about iconic photographs. The image you shared is indeed a powerful one, speaking to a critically important issue we face in the United States today. But whether it's an iconic one... perhaps it's too soon to tell. The BBC article you linked to is fascinating, and while it includes a number of excellent observations I feel pretty strongly that there is no formula for making an iconic image, and we ought to be conscious of the difference between a viral image and an iconic one. I happened to write a book recently about Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother (an excerpt of which is included in Seeing Through Photographs)... an iconic photo if ever there was one!
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@May @Sarina @augokissas @Juam Berom You all mentioned an interest in photography and/or art so I thought you might like to participate in this Q&A!
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@Laura thanks for ask me to participate.

I think, there are so difficult but interesting questions. So, Sarah:

As you gave us reasons in favour of today's 'vernacular' photography, Could you say that this questions that today we inquiry about photography-cellphones-webs-apps-self-etc... could be similar to that what came to light in the early 1900?

Age when the Brownie, a camera from Kodak "...sold for one dollar, helping put photography in the hands of amateurs...". As the advertising of their major campaign said: it has been "...allowed the middle class to take their own "snapshots" as well..."
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Thank you Laura for this invitation. Honored in having this opportunity. Sarah, sorry if my questions are complicated or have some vague points. I'm not absolute in anything under the sun and accept everything might be proven.

Some decades ago (no more than 4 to 5) there was the skilful task of photographer, who virtually covered a huge range of fields or almost all the photographic needs of the industry. In nowadays, the photography of expertise has been shared in so many different fields, in so strictly defined borders that unfortunately expertise comes first and virtue follows. Wedding, commercial, documentary, exist also, like sports photography in field games, or mobile sport events (in extreme sports, car sports', scientific, advertising, portraits, artistic photography are some of them. The fact that some subfields, moto racing); photo shooting models or shot items in studio for adv photo; political events or war covering photography for journalists, make the product more complicated, competitive and hard task in recognition of the outstanding one.

We perhaps can claim that the story telling images are losing ground in front of the "catch breathing" instantané? That can be interpreted in the once-upon-a-time thousand words of an image are now lesser but are written in bold lines. The message is stronger and communicate with more viewers. The only steady mood, then and now, is that only few are willing to dig for some message behind an image.

a) Taking the image production as a whole, and the end project as just the execution of an idea, what has really been changed in our days that wasn't those years?
(More professionalism, education and study of photography, the budget, etc)

b) Provided the above, and taking as granted our every day bombards with a huge variety of images (of bad or good taste), what captures you mostly, or what are your criteria in the judgment of the separate image, no matter its section? (Toward where are your feelings oriented)

c) Assuming you are the only decision maker of an exhibition with free theme, what kind of images, you would have chosen to show instead of others (like the underrated poor snapshots) and in for what purpose? (Cultivate senses, promote passion, develop cultural perception, political option, etc)

Thank you. My respect
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Hi Sarah,

Thank you for the wonderful course „Seeing through photographs”, I gained a lot of deep insights, inspiration and food for thought from it.

I am a part time photographer and I teach children aged 8-14 years photography. I am trying to ignite their creativity and increase their visual literacy with my workshops. I noticed though they are far more interested in gaming, internet browsing and chatting and film (vlogging especially), generally things that are easy to consume.

My question is: what are the triggers you would use to raise children’s interest in photography? Or to make them curios and wanting to stay and go deeper into the subject?

Many thanks!
@Monica Bumbes , I can’t help but answer this question too. As a school teacher I once had a grant from Polaroid ( similar to the instant digital photos you take now) . Students created storybooks using photos they took. They had to write a story and illustrate it with photos they took. These can be such fun...can do one on a friend in class for example, or an autobiography. You can also create a poetry book based on photos taken.
If you think about it, taking selfies is something kids love to do these days! Capitalize on that and you will have all the motivation you need. I have also had success with illustrating a story using stuffed animals as the main characters. Your younger students will love doing this, posing them, creating backdrops for them as well as props.
You can plan a photo exhibition and have the classes choose their best to enlarge, based on criteria set up ahead of time.This can happen in conjunction with a school music program or a parent night, for example, or arrange to have them hang in a local library or community center.
I hope some of these ideas will work and look forward to hearing what Sarah has to say too.
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@Judith Thank you for sharing your experience with me, I will definitely consider some of your ideas. Others I already used, such as creating and illustrating a story around stuffed animals. I am always trying to invent new games to catch their attention.

Indeed taking selfies is a strong trend among kids today and, since you mentioned it, I wonder how far we should go in this direction, to center our teaching around their interests and what are, let's say more strategic and long term triggers we should use...
@Monica Bumbes , just because you use motivational ideas such as selfies with students, doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. As a music teacher struggling to get teens to appreciate classical music we created music videos using classical rather than pop music. The students learned to love the music they worked with. Was it “cheating “ because the focus was not on appreciating the music? Perhaps, but the results created a desire to learn more. You had to carefully analyze the music if you were to illustrate it.
I see nothing wrong with centering teaching around student interests. You can always take these further and help them understand more complex ideas by doing this. Isn’t it better to reach students than “bore” them and have them turn away from a potentially valuable subject? Math is a good example. Many students dislike math, but if you could teach it in a way that they see its relevance to their lives, then you will find more success.
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@Monica Bumbes , just because you use motivational ideas such as selfies with students, doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. As a music teacher struggling to get teens to appreciate classical music we created music videos using classical rather than pop music. The students learned to love the music they worked with. Was it “cheating “ because the focus was not on appreciating the music? Perhaps, but the results created a desire to learn more. You had to carefully analyze the music if you were to illustrate it.
I see nothing wrong with centering teaching around student interests. You can always take these further and help them understand more complex ideas by doing this. Isn’t it better to reach students than “bore” them and have them turn away from a potentially valuable subject? Math is a good example. Many students dislike math, but if you could teach it in a way that they see its relevance to their lives, then you will find more success.

Dear Judith and @Monica Bumbes

My apologies for being so delinquent in responding... for some reason I wasn't finding this! It sounds as if you are both sharing terrific ideas, and I am in complete agreement that it's worthwhile to try to use things in which children are interested to help them expand the range of their interests. As you can read above, I'm a curator, not a professional educator, but in my experience teaching people to really look (children or adults) is key to helping them become more interested in what they are seeing. For instance, if you can find an old photograph (one that lived a long, active life, maybe in a newspaper or magazine archive... perhaps you could find one at a flea market or on ebay) you can let them hold it as a way of understanding the difference between an image (something you see on a screen, and that someone else, far away, can see at the same time) and a photograph, which is an object that has a fixed size and material characteristics. If it has stamps or captions on the back, what can you learn about why it was made or how it was used? If there are fingerprints or tears, what does that suggest about where it has been? If the paper is thin and glossy, or matte and mounted to board, what do each of those details tell us about whether the print was used carelessly, or valued highly?

Thank you both for your thoughtful contributions!
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Dear @sarahmeister and @Judith,

Thank you very much for your replies, they mean a lot to me. Judith, I couldn’t agree more with you and the main idea to center educational process around students’ interests. I am doing this more and more with every workshop I give. The thing is that in Romania there are neither photography classes in schools nor any dedicated museum (or at least museums’ wings) to photography (only very few temporary exhibitions). That is why I have to place myself more on the entertaining part (hoping I can transmit some valuable insights too, on very short term) than on the serious, educational one as in schools or museums where one can build on mid to long term programs or base their teaching on established, curated art photography.

“You had to carefully analyze the music if you were to illustrate it” – it’s a brilliant, strategic idea, I hope I would be able to find an equivalent in photography (to be done in 1-2 hours).

The “difference between an image and a photograph” – such a simple and meaningful idea, I will definitely do this. Going back is going forward... Introducing tactile to make them see through, also... Funny thing is I took many steps back into photography history and I am currently building basic camera obscuras of simple cardboard boxes with kids in a “What’s the deal with the contemporary art?” workshop. They love it :)

It is so great to exchange ideas on such topics! Thank you again!
Dear @Monica Bumbes and @sarahmeister, I also appreciate these thoughtful responses.

Sarah, I had wondered earlier about today’s digital photography market. There are less actual pictures as people keep most online. Your lesson is wonderful! To hold an old photo and think about its journey. My mother used to tell me about her Aunt who was a photographer, in the 1930’s. People didn’t take many photos then, each was so special, but then there were no candids and it was challenging to determine a way of life from them. My German father’s family photos were interesting in that the father figure always sat while the mother and children stood.With cellphones being so prevalent amongst the young, a boy or girlfriend photo would be kept there. Before cellphones, you would hold on to that photograph, gaze at it frequently, and it would have smudges and creases on it. Gazing upon old photographs is such an excellent lesson.

Monica,if you could tie photography in with writing, a school system might see its worth and start such a program.Students who have had a challenging time expressing themselves can learn to become more expressive using pictures they have taken.
Perhaps you can combine with a music and art department to create a show together. We used to have something called Teen Arts where the best photography as well as artwork was displayed. People loved these exhibits. It really helped us see into the world of today’s student. We gave out ribbons for the best ones according to a team of judges.

You should feel so good about what you are doing. Your lessons of going back in order to go forward is such an excellent concept. Using old cameras is also wonderful. If you can find old cameras in general, they have such an interesting history and might interest students. I wish you the very best of success.

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