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This weekend, Karen Haas will be honored with the 2016 New England Beacon FOCUS Award from the Griffin Museum of Photography. “Given to a local individual whose work brings prominence to the local photographic scene”, Karen’s keen curiosity, intellectual rigor and sparkling enthusiasm have made her a true champion of the Boston photographic community. Her curation of the beguiling Imogen Cunningham exhibit (currently on view through June 17, 2017) is a shining example of why Karen is receiving the FOCUS Award.
Karen’s Boston roots run deep and, since 2001, she has been the Lane Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, overseeing more than 6,000 prints spanning the history of photography, with an emphasis on American modernists like Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Charles Sheeler. Karen’s broader interests most recently brought her research into a mysteriously unpublished Gordon Parks photo essay for LIFE magazine to fruition in “Gordon Parks: Back To Fort Scott”, exhibited at the MFA during 2015 and currently traveling to other US museums.
In honor of her FOCUS Award, I’m delighted to re-share the conversation Karen and I had in January of 2015 about her experiences as curator, inspiring ideas for upcoming photography shows and her hopes for the future of the medium.
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I grew up in Connecticut, just outside New Haven, and earned my degree in Art History from Connecticut College in New London. I knew when I graduated that I wanted to do museum work and Boston seemed to be the most obvious destination. I began as a curatorial assistant at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum virtually the next day and spent the next thirteen years happily employed there. After that, I took on various curatorial positions at a number of Boston-area museums, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Boston University Art Gallery, and the MFA, Boston. Early on, I taught at Boston University and Boston College.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
I discovered the History of Photography when I did my MA and PhD coursework at Boston University (very part-time, initially while still working at the ISGM) and studied under Carl Chiarenza, a great mentor, photographer, and pioneering teacher in this relatively new field. I started out in American Painting, but when I discovered the History of Photography, even though I’m not a photographer myself, it was an epiphany for me – it suddenly seemed crystal clear that this was what I wanted to focus on for the rest of my career. I also happened to meet and fall in love with a photographer at the exact same moment! Luckily for us, we’ve been together for over thirty years and have been able to work together – as photo curator and photographer of art works – in a number of different settings, from the Gardner Museum, to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, and now for the last decade and a half at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
As Lane Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts I am in a somewhat unusual position in that I mainly work on a group of more than 6000 primarily American modernist photographs, recently gifted to the MFA by longtime Trustee Saundra Lane. Comprised of hundreds—sometimes even thousands—of works by individual artists, including Charles Sheeler, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham, the Lane Collection is unlike any other photography compilation that I know. It creates a remarkable curatorial experience, as my colleagues and I now can research, teach, and organize exhibitions from very deep holdings by these major figures in a way that very few curators can. Delving into this amazingly rich collection has been the highlight of my career and I’m excited to say that there is still much more to be done, especially with over 2000 Westons acquired by Saundra and her late husband, William H. Lane, directly from the artist’s family during the late 1960s.
I am also very lucky that the many Lane Collection exhibitions I’ve been able to organize over the years – Charles Sheeler (2003); Ansel Adams (2005); Viva Mexico: Edward Weston and his Contemporaries (2009); Edward Weston: Leaves of Grass (2010); Bruce Davidson: East 100th Street (2013) and Enduring Vision: Photographs from the Lane Collection (2013) – often have had accompanying publications. Some exhibitions go on tour to other institutions in the U.S., Europe and Japan. When exhibitions live on through books and tours allow the work to be seen by a much larger public, it is doubly satisfying to me and fulfills a mission very important to Saundra Lane.
What do you regard as your biggest mistake as a curator and what did you learn from it? What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a curator?
I can’t put my finger on a single big mistake I’ve made, although I’ve certainly made many! I think a mistake I sometimes see among young people going into the field today is the tendency to prematurely narrow one’s interests down to a very small topic or period. This is often the result of years spent doing highly specialized PhD research, which is certainly important, but I think it’s also essential (especially if one is hoping to become a museum curator) to stay open to new things, keep an ear to the ground, and remain aware of what is being done in galleries, art schools, and institutions in other places, not just New York and Boston. Some of the most interesting non-Lane Collection exhibitions and catalogues I’ve had the pleasure of curating over the years grew out of serendipitous conversations with practicing artists or with people outside the museum field and ideas gleaned from random things I read in newspapers or other non-art publications. A great example is the Gordon Parks exhibition (January, 2015 – September, 2015), which grew out of a random phone call to the artist’s foundation in order to learn more for a book project researching our Museum’s African American photographs. Many years ago at the BU Art Gallery, I curated a show on contemporary artists working in 19th-century processes. I’m also very excited about an upcoming MFA show that centers on the contemporary fascination with the humble (and, until recently, ubiquitous) snapshot.
I recently attended a fascinating conference at MoMA that centered on the Thomas Walther collection and issues of managing 20th century modernist photography collections in the digital age. A number of the day’s speakers—photographers, conservators, and curators alike—warned that not far off in the future the vast majority of people will experience photographic images only on screens. That was certainly a wake-up call for someone like me, mainly focusing on the distinctive qualities of those mid-century gelatin silver prints made by the artists in the Lane Collection. But, rather than fear the “screen age” that lies ahead, we really need to concentrate on gathering and recording as much data about these ephemeral paper objects as we can and work to protect and conserve them for future generations. I’m actually not one to bemoan the changes in photographic technology—(perhaps because I’m not myself a photographer, I always have to remember that!)—but rather, I’m inclined to think that this is an especially exciting time we live in, when one can create photographic imagery in so many different ways.
How do you think the proliferation of electronic devices like the iPhone and the accompanying cultural inundation with snapshots like “selfies” is affecting fine art photography? Has it influenced the way you curate?
I’ve been thinking about the “selfie” phenomenon lately in light of the exhibition of snapshots we’re planning (“Unfinished Stories” July, 2015 – February, 2016), many of which are of people – some even with the word “ME” and an arrow drawn on them! We’ve just been given a very large group of snapshots from the collection of New Yorker, Peter Cohen. Trying to come up with a selection—and getting four different curators to agree on it—has led us to many great conversations about why we think the snapshot is having such a heyday right now and what it is that somehow feels so magical about them. One of the reasons, of course, is that everyone has an iPhone and camera in their pocket these days, and we are the last wave of people to have had an intimate, often talismanic, relationship to the snapshot, wallet photo, and photo album. We are fascinated by the power that these untethered, completely anonymous, pictures hold for all of us here and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how best to install them and interpret them in a museum setting so that we retain those distinctive qualities and not transform them into something very different in the process.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring?
I am especially interested in the current fascination with fantasy and fairy tales in photography, fashion, video, TV, movies, and the decorative arts. In fact, this is an idea I’ve had for an exhibition for a few years now, but it’s still in its relatively early stages. There is a lot to learn about the history of the literary fairy tale and to wonder why these mythic, moralizing and often very scary stories are finding their way into popular culture today.
What advice about an exhibition in your museum would you give to an emerging photographer today?
I’m afraid I’m not the best person to discuss the ways in which an artist might approach our museum about an exhibition, as this is not my usual role, working mostly on 20th century material as I do. As a large, encyclopedic museum with relatively little changing exhibition space for such shows, we are much more likely to include work by an artist in a group setting rather than be able to offer a single-artist exhibition to an emerging artist. I can say that we do love receiving announcements about exhibitions or website addresses so we can view work on our own and we often do portfolio reviews, art school crits, gallery visits, art fairs, etc. — all of these are great opportunities to learn about work, but I’m afraid very rarely do these contacts lead to acquisitions and almost never to one-person exhibitions.
What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
I especially like the collegial quality of the Greater Boston photo curator and history of photography group, which we simply call the “Photo Group”. We have a quite tight-knit and supportive community of curators and photo history professors that regularly gets together to visit each other’s exhibitions and share ideas—the group’s reach extends down to Providence, out to Worcester, and even up into New Hampshire and Maine. In mid-February (2015), for example, we’re all invited to the MIT Museum to walk through their new show on the picture portfolios of Places and I’ll do a tour through my Gordon Parks exhibition later in February (2015), as well. I feel very lucky to know that I’m not working in a vacuum, that I have these terrific colleagues nearby, and that, thanks to the Photo Group, we can be inspired by and collaborate with each other in an easy, casual way.
To read my review of Karen’s MFA exhibit, “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/gordon-parks-back-to-fort-scott-at-museum-of-fine-arts-boston/
To read my review of the MFA’s snapshot exhibit, “Unfinished Stories”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/unfinished-stories-at-mfa-boston/
To read my review of Karen’s current MFA exhibit, “Imogen Cunningham: In Focus”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/imogen-cunningham-retrospective-at-museum-of-fine-arts-boston/
Feature Image: “Untitled, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1950” by Gordon Parks (courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). From the exhibit “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott”, curated by Karen Haas in 2015.