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Richard McCabe wears many hats: recently published fine art photographer, Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and now, celebrity Guest Juror for the Griffin Museum of Photography’s 24th Annual Juried Exhibition! I caught up with the talented Mr. McCabe as he blew into Boston for the show’s Opening Reception. Please join me in discovering how South meets North in the photographic callings of Richard McCabe.
I find it amazing that you are juggling two roles that each seem like full-time pursuits, as Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum and as a working, recently published artist. How did you become a photographer and how did your career path veer into curating?
Thank you, it keeps me busy! I was a photographer long before I became a curator. Santa Claus brought me my first camera when I was 10 years old. I’ve always loved photography and been fascinated by it – my family’s photo albums are what got me interested in photography. My father was a really wonderful amateur photographer and so was my brother. I studied art and photography in college and after I graduated with an MFA in 1998 from Florida State University, I moved to NYC and worked in galleries, museums and taught photography as an adjunct professor at Montclair State, Pratt, and Fairfield University. Eventually, gallery and museum employment won out and through working in various curatorial departments, I managed to be at the right place when the opportunity came up at the Ogden Museum. I am a throwback to the early years when most photo curators were photographers first and then went into curating. I have a fine arts background, not an art history or arts administration background. I see and approach art and photography from an artist’s perspective – which I think can be refreshing.
What creative influences bring you the greatest joy and inspiration today?
I use a musical analogy: being a photographer is like being a musician and being a curator is like being a record producer. Maybe I get a little more kick out of making a successful photograph than I do from curating a successful exhibition. After all, I made photographs or art before I could spell art and feel like I always will. But in the end, the two passions really complement each other – I love them both.
Do you ever find that your roles as a curator and photographer conflict with each other?
Like I said before, I think they complement each other! I learn from the photographers I exhibit – theory, aesthetics and technical elements of the craft of photography – and can apply that knowledge to my own work. I guess the two could conflict but I try to keep the two practices very separate.
The South seems to have risen again, with exhibits and books like the recent William Eggleston shows in London and NYC and Sally Mann’s currently touring show “A Thousand Crossings” (now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts). What do you think has stirred this revival of interest in the region?
I say all the time that photography is the South’s greatest contribution to the global conversation about art in the 20th century. Artists such as E.J. Bellocq, Clarence John Laughlin, Eudora Welty, Ernest Withers, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Emmet Gowin, George Dureau, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, and Sally Mann really expanded the “Southernization” of photographic imagery in the 20th century – their work radiated out of the South to the world. Today photo curators have a really wonderful problem in that there is almost too much great photography being made. In the South especially, it goes back to the love of place that folks have down here and how the region has defined its people through a combination of history and the Southern storytelling tradition.
As someone who has lived in the cultural hubs of the North (NYC) and the South (New Orleans), do you sense a distinct difference in approach and sensibility between the imagery from these regions?
Photography in the South is very much about “sense of place”. Southern photographers seem to be more focused on defining the region within the context of myth, legend and reality. As far as NYC, I have not lived there in 13 years so I’m not totally up on what’s happening in photography but I suspect that, just like in the past, there is more of a dialogue with the international art scene and audience. Put another way, NYC is more extroverted, the South is more introverted.
How does your own strong identity as a Southerner and your experiences living in the urban northeast inform your curatorial choices?
I like to say the second best thing I ever did was moving to NYC, and the best thing I ever did was leaving NYC! I learned more about art in NYC in 6 months than I did from 2 years of graduate school. Living in NYC also really made me appreciate Southern Art and photography more. Some of the favorite exhibitions I saw or worked on in NYC featured Southern photography – Eggleston, Christenberry, Mann, Meatyard, Bellocq, and Michael Meads all had a huge influence on me. My main reason for leaving NYC was to be closer to my mother and my own art practice. I was not interested in NYC as subject matter for my photography, so most of the photographs I made when I lived there were on trips South to visit my Mom in Florida. Since moving to New Orleans 13 years ago I have made more art than at any other time in my life. Just last year, my book LAND STAR was published by Aint-Bad Press.
Coming up in October 2018, I am curating New Southern Photography at the Ogden Museum. It will feature work made within the last 10 years by 25 photographers and filmmakers whose work is very diverse. This is the largest photography exhibition ever organized by the Ogden and I feel it will be a wonderful reflection of the “reality on the ground“ in Southern Photography. I’m very proud of the exhibition. University of New Orleans Press is publishing a catalogue.
How do you approach the curation of a large, open call for entries like the Griffin Museum’s 24th Annual Juried Members’ Exhibition? How does it contrast with a themed exhibit like “New Southern Photography” and where do you see any crossover?
They are totally different and at the same time there is some crossover. Of course, as juror or curator, I want to exhibit the best work possible. For the Griffin 24th Annual Juried exhibition, I think there were 1000+ submissions! What I do is let the work speak to me – I look for themes, concepts and processes within the submissions that make sense or form a narrative and then I choose work based on the narratives and concepts that resonate from the work, so the show will have a cohesive feeling – some kind of curatorial vision. Rather than a cacophony where each photograph is trying to shout over the next, I try to choose artworks that speak to each other and in the end I still think it’s the best work that gets selected.
For New Southern Photography, I chose work that speaks to me and that I also feel is important to telling the story of the American South today. After selecting all 25 photographers, I saw threads within the work that were very sublime and surfaced when I started to really figure out what I had done. The work in New Southern Photography varies from straight documentary photojournalism to complete abstraction but within that, the Southern storytelling tradition remains strong. I find that the Southern touchstones of place, time, family, myth, legend and the land resonate just as strongly today as they did in the past.
How do you think emerging photographers can best promote their chances of being seen today?
Have a website. Get your work out there by applying for group exhibitions and open calls. Attend photo festivals and portfolio reviews, such as PhotoNOLA (New Orleans), Click Fest (Durham, NC) PhotoLucida (Portland, OR) and Fotofest (Houston), to name a few. Most photographers’ work I’ve discovered is through portfolio reviews, word-of-mouth and the Internet.
What current trends in photography do you find most exciting?
Photographers are really pushing the envelope by cross-pollinating media and inventing new prototypes, a kind of Postmodernist take on photography that pushes against the idea of photographic purity. They build upon traditional genres through technological and conceptual mash-ups. Examples of this can be found in the top three prizewinners of the Griffin Museum’s 24th Annual Juried Members’ Exhibition. The Richards’ Family Trust Award winner Nancy Newberry’s Smoke Bombs and Border Crossings series features a constructed narrative revolving around the myths and history of the state of Texas. The Arthur Griffin Legacy Award winner Andy Mattern’s series, Average Subject / Medium Distance features Postmodernist images that are almost anti-photographic, made through computer manipulations of “found objects” or materials usually seen in the average college darkroom. Griffin Award winner Molly Lamb’s The Fog is a dreamy, subjective visual manifestation of memories from childhood, constructed and re-imagined years later in the camera and realized in the form of a 2-dimensional photographic print.
Feature Image: Guest Juror Richard McCabe gives a gallery talk at the Opening Reception for the Griffin Museum of Photography’s 24th Annual Juried Exhibit in Winchester, MA on July 19th, 2018 (photo by Elin Spring).