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I first encountered Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston when she burst onto the Boston curatorial scene with her blockbuster exhibit “She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” in 2013. Since then, she has mounted a fascinating variety of shows including the deeply moving current exhibit, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross.” She brings a wealth of international experience to the increasingly important role that photography plays at the MFA. I am happy to share my recent discussion with the talented and delightful Kristen Gresh about her curatorial adventures and aspirations!
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I grew up in the Boston area and moved to Paris after college on a Fulbright Scholarship, and ended up staying abroad for over 15 years. In Paris, I got my Masters and PhD in the history of photography at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences. I also worked as curator and archivist of photography and taught history of photography at the École du Louvre (Musée du Louvre). In addition to my work in Paris, I held the position of Curator of Photographs in Cairo, Egypt at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) at The American University in Cairo in 2004 and 2005. After many wonderful years abroad, I returned to Boston 5 ½ years ago, very excited to work at the MFA, Boston where I have been working since.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
When I was in high school, I took an AP Art History course and had an assignment to go to see an exhibition and write about it. I went to see “Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years” at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA. As I wrote about specific photographs of young women, I remember deciding at that moment that I wanted to do something in life that related to photography. I didn’t yet know what, but I was intrigued and excited by the complexity of the medium and all that photography could be. From that moment in high school on, I focused my art history studies on photography whenever I could. As for inspiration, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my parents were a big influence on me, not only by bringing me to museums when I was young, but also because my mother is an art historian and my father is a writer.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
It is hard to describe what I do, as every day is very different! I am kept busy with a range of projects that are sometimes administrative and other times research-related. I propose and organize exhibitions, work on strengthening the collection through acquisitions, plan and implement programming, and sometimes travel with collectors, donors, and other photography enthusiasts. I am currently working on an exhibition for the Fall of 2018 of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide’s work.
My favorite part of my job is looking at photographs, whether in MFA storage, in an exhibition, or at a portfolio review – I love the occasion to be able to pause and study a photograph closely! This close looking sounds simple but it is so fundamental, and really informs the rest of what I do.
To succeed, every institution must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as the MFA, Boston’s special – and evolving – role in the Boston photographic community?
One of our goals at the MFA, Boston is to share multiple histories of photography with a diverse public. My 2013 exhibition “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” gave me an opportunity to introduce contemporary photography from distinct Middle Eastern cultures to a new audience. By putting art and culture before politics, we hope to create bridges of understanding.
Photography exhibitions are more and more important as we all become inundated with images online. As a result, I am really drawn to the materiality of all types of photographs, including snapshots. I co-curated “Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection” in 2015, which was an opportunity to celebrate a form of photography that differs from the photography canon. At the MFA, we continue to show new types of photography such as in our current exhibition, “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross,” for which I am the MFA curator. This exhibition is a reminder of the important relationship between photography and collective memory.
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?
It is hard to pin down a specific mistake – one thing I will say is that working with international photographers and galleries, it is important to be aware of cultural differences! I have learned the importance of triple checking information about photographs, because we once requested dimensions for a loan in inches and got the centimeter dimensions instead, which could have led to a big surprise in the gallery if we had not realized the oversight.
My advice for aspiring curators is to go to as many museums and exhibitions as you can to see objects – study the objects, observe the way they are organized and hung, read the interpretive texts, take notes – all of this will be great experience for a career as a curator.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring?
I am excited by contemporary work that relates to the very essence of photography, such as experimentation with light exposure, different papers, and alternative development processes. Photographers working this way whose work I am excited about include: Marco Breuer, Alison Rossiter, John Chiara, Matthew Brandt, and Liz Deschenes, among others. As technology enables the ubiquity of photography today, it feels particularly important to be looking to the past and remembering the fundamental aspects of the medium.
What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
One of the things that I believe makes the Boston photography scene particularly rich is the dynamic university curricula such as the MassArt program where many prominent photographers teach and inspire emerging photographers through their own courses and guest lectures. The presence of this talent and energy is important for the city, and also complements the exciting fact that multiple institutions in the Boston area are taking photography very seriously right now. Furthermore, over the past couple of years, new photography and contemporary curators have come to our area: places such as the ICA, PEM, HUAM, etc.. This really adds to the energetic scene and also allows for potential collaborations among us all. With the recent creation of an independent photography department, we at the MFA hope to play an even more seminal role in the thriving photography scene here through our collection, exhibition programming, and wide-ranging vision for photography.
“Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” will be on exhibit at the MFA, Boston through July 30th, 2017. For more information about this show, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/memory-unearthed
To read my review of “Memory Unearthed”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/memory-unearthed-lodz-ghetto-photographs-of-henryk-ross-at-mfa-boston-ma/
Feature Image: Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan tours the exhibition, “She Who Tells a Story” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with Curator Kristen Gresh. September 29, 2013. Photo by Faith Ninivaggi (courtesy of the Boston Herald).