Interview with Julia Dolan
Making Photographs Speak at the Portland Art Museum
Up in the mezzanine of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, a motley group of seventy photographs are on display. Unlike most museum spaces, which are usually rectangular enclosures, this 2,200–square–foot gallery has several protruding support walls that divide it into smaller rooms such that browsing 2000 it is not a one clean sweep around a hall but a walk in and out of several mini exhibitions. And, as you scan the tags next to the photographs, you will soon notice that the exhibits are not arranged chronologically but seem to be grouped according to thematic and stylistic contents.
"I like the way different photographs talk to each other by juxtaposition," says Julia Dolan, the curator and the mastermind behind this exhibition, "I feel that chronological display is certainly a model that can work, but I am much more interested in seeing the way a nineteenth century photographer might approach a landscape versus a twenty-first century photographer. In a space like a gallery, you can let people think a little bit creatively, and more about the subject than about when it was taken."
70 years/70 photographs: A Snapshot of History
Dolan, the Minor White Curator of Photography at the museum, is interested in the confluence where art meets history. "Art is really not separate from history," says Dolan, "Even when its subtle, there are always ties to the present moment when an art is made, and photography is especially so because it is necessarily linked to the real world."
Making photographs since the age of ten, Dolan switched to Art History after getting a BFA in photography at the Maryland Institute and College of Art. She did her PhD at Boston University, and entered the museum world doing a number of internships, research assistantships and fellowships at various museums. Before coming to Portland, she was the Horace W Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She joined the Portland Art Museum two years ago as the photography curator, and since then she has curated over ten exhibitions.
The current exhibition, titled 70 years/70 photographs, which opened its doors on May, chronicles the history of photography at the museum featuring seventy select photographs that have entered the museum's collection since the time it began acquiring them in 19-teens to the present year. The purpose of this exhibition is partly to give an extensive view of the history of photography and partly to illustrate the museum's long time commitment to photography and its cutting edge appreciation of it as an art form.
"You have to remember that photography was really announced to the world in 1839," explains Dolan, "It hasn't been even two hundred years. Especially in 19th century, there was a large rift in the manner in which photography was seen. Some people saw it to be an art form like drawing and painting, but many people saw it as a documenting tool. Portland Art Museum started showing photography between 1910-1920, when a lot of museums would not even deign to look at photography as an art."
The early photographs entered the museum as books, portfolios or illustrations in the library. When the museum decided to form a separate photography collection in 1942, it officially began collecting photographs for its permanent collection becoming among the first museums in the country along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago to do so.
"We were spot on and even a little bit early by collecting them because many museums didn't start collecting until after World War II or well after World War II," says Dolan. Later in the 80's, when photography was finally being widely recognized as an art form, a permanent curator for photography was added, which again accelerated the rate in which the museum was acquiring photographs.
Very recently in December of 2011, an anonymous donor endowed two million dollars to the museum so that the position of the curator remains in place in perpetuity. "This has further solidified the museum's long-running understanding that photography is very important in Portland and in Portland Art Museum," says Dolan with a satisfied smile.
The position was named in honor of Minor White, who is one of the most important 20th century American photographers, and whose photographs were among the first that entered the museum's collection in 1942. Dolan explains that White started his photography career in Portland and established himself as a photographer. Several of his early works were also exhibited in the museum during that time. "We have about 150 of his photographs here so we have a nice core collection of his works," says Dolan, "It made perfect sense to name the position after him."
The 70/70 exhibition displays a few of White's photographs ranging from the early street photography he did in Portland to his later abstract works. The exhibition also shows photographs by notable American artists such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Cindy Sherman along with photographs by various artists from around the globe including some old 19th century photographs from Egypt and France.
"The gallery where the exhibition stands is dedicated to photography," says Dolan, "We have over 7,000 photographs in our collection, and what we'd like to do in that space is give our the visitors an encyclopedic view of the collection as well as of the history of photography. It's my goal every time I go in there, no matter what the theme is, is to show people certain prints that go as early as I can, so that people can make their own relationships between early and late, and see oh this is what a photograph looked like that was made 130 years ago."
Works by Lily White, a contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz and a member of the Photo-Secession, and by Myra Wiggins, a photographer, painter and pictorialist, are among the late 19th and early 20th century photographs in the museum's collection. The strongest holding at the museum is, however, that of the works by Minor White, which includes first photographs he produced for the Federal Arts project under the auspices of the Federal government. "We are really the only place where for the most part you can see these photographs," asserts Dolan, "And we also have some of his later work too; so we can show the transformation of his photography over time."
The museum also has a great collection of photographs acquired from the Blue Sky Gallery, which was founded in 1975 by Terry Toedtemeier, Chris Rauschenberg and three other photographers as a way to promote photography. The gallery has been exhibiting works by local, regional and global photographers for 37 years. In 2003 Jim Winkler, who's now the chairman of the board of trustees at the museum, started buying photographs from every exhibition at Blue Sky and donating them to the museum. "Blue Sky only shows photography. But we collect it," says Dolan. "After Jim, Chris Rauschenberg has been purchasing photographs for the collection now. So we have this wonderful Blue Sky collection, which has over 400 photographs by contemporary photographers who are both emerging 2000 and established. This unique collection shows the history of this really special photography gallery."
Last year, Bea Nettles, a prominent contemporary photographer, donated 75 of her works to the museum further enriching the collection. Through her works, she was pushing the boundaries of photography in the late 60's and early 70's. "She really did amazing things with subject matter and even going and stitching and painting on the photographs," explains Dolan, "Now looking back at her work she is very important to the history of photography. We are incredibly grateful to her for donating her works."
"The strongest aspect of the collection," says Dolan, "is the Oregon and Pacific Northwest landscape photography." Terry Toedtemeier, who was the curator of photography at the museum before Dolan, specialized in the landscape and was himself a landscape photographer. "It was Terry's passion and interest. He knew many people who worked in that vein," adds Dolan, "So we are a good place to come if you are interested in the NW landscape photography from the late 19th to the mid and later 20th century, along with these really fascinating pockets of other things here and there."
Emerging and Beyond
Toedtemeier, who had been supervising the photography collection at the museum since mid-1980's, passed away very suddenly in 2008, which created a vacuum with no one to take charge of the collection. The museum went without a photography curator until Dolan was appointed to the position in 2010.
Even in the absence of a curator since 2008, the museum continued collecting photographs, and amassed over 500 between the month after Toedtemeier passed away and the beginning of this year. Emerging, the second photography exhibition that has been on display since March, is a selection of more than 50 works showing the eclectic range of these recent gifts and purchases. The exhibit includes works by influential photographers such as Adolphe Braun, Berenice Abbott, Chris McCaw, Frederick Henry Evans, Bea Nettles, and Mark Klett.
For Dolan, putting together this exhibition of recent acquisitions was a challenging task, since she had to pick 54 photographs from 500. It was important to show both the historical range of the collection as well as the depth of the works of the individual artists. On the other hand, it was also meant to acknowledge the donors for their generous support, and at the most basic level, it had to illustrate to the viewer what photography is.
"It is an art of people, places and things," answers Dolan, "because of that indexical quality, that one to one relation with the world." In the first room right at the entrance to the exhibition, three pieces are on display: a self-portrait by Bea Nettles, a landscape that was carved out with the sun by Chris McCaw and a giant photograph of the bottom the a strawberry canister by Issac Layman, demonstrating the kernel of photography- a person, a place and a thing.
Emerging ends on June 24th, but Dolan has numerous other projects coming up. A traveling exhibition called Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of photography and video originating at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Tennessee is coming to the Portland Art Museum in February of 2013. "We are super excited about taking this exhibition," says Dolan. Weems is known for her works that deal with difficult issues like racial jokes and the scientific or proto-scientific ways that photography was used in the 19th century to categorize African Americans or non-white races.
A traveling exhibition from the British Museum called The Body Beautiful is another project Dolan will be working on. "It is about the ideal body in Greek and Roman culture and art," explains Dolan, "We are making installations from the permanent collection that complement that, focusing on how photographers have portrayed the body, whether it is the nude or the body at work or soldiers, the body at war."
"Eventually I am going to do a landscape installation," says Dolan recalling Toedtemeier's last exhibition called Wild Beauty that showed the photography of the Columbia River Gorge, "I've done portraiture; I'll be doing the body; so I think it'd be nice to think about the landscape too."
Accessing the Photographs
Out of over 7000s photographs in the museum’s collection, only a handful is out on display most of the time. However, Dolan is very positive about a rapid digitization process that is putting up the artworks from the collection including photography online freely accessible to the public through the museum's website. "I think I have over 700 photographs online, so that is about 10 percent of the photography collection," she says, "There is still a long way to go." Although the museum has to constantly deal with copyright issues, it is doing its best to get every image online.
"It's very gratifying that people can access us even when they can't come," says Dolan, "I don't remember the exact statistics but people in over 50 countries have looked us up and accessed art that we have here."
While the digitization is making it easier for people who cannot come and visit the museum access its collection, the museum also has various events to engage the local community. Julia gives public talks and tours typically 4 - 6 times a year, and every third Wednesday of each month at noon, Brown Bag Lunch Talk is held in which, regional photographers talk about their works. There are also Free Fourth Fridays, free admission to the museum on the fourth Friday of every month.
Dolan puts up new exhibitions three or four times a year. So it is worth visiting at least once every season to see new photographs, and enjoy and appreciate this art that speaks its own history.