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Britt Salvesen – Q&A

by Sabine Mirlesse

Pairing contemporary artists for exhibition can often be a challenging task. Whom a curator chooses for the duet maps out options of approach to a subject for an audience’s perusal. By choosing more than one artist to exhibit, and not more than two, a spectrum is drawn rather than an inventory or index delivered, thus asking viewers to engage more actively in creating their own analysis of a subject.

Britt Salvesen, still new to her role as curator of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography and the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), kindly agreed to talk to me about her background as a curator and how it prepared her for her current position. We discussed her recent and provocative exhibition The Sun and Other Stars: Katy Grannan and Charlie White,now on view in Los Angeles.

Sabine Mirlesse: What initially drew you to working as a curator and with contemporary photography?

Britt Salvesen: My academic research was on nineteenth-century photography, and my first decade of museum work also focused largely on the nineteenth century.  While working from 2004 to 2009 as a curator at the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona, I was more engaged with the materials and masters of twentieth-century photography. At LACMA, I am working with contemporary artists to a great extent. I admire how well-versed they are in the history of photography and how they manage to redefine the medium in practice. There are some fascinating through-lines from the invention of photography to the present day.

SM: What are some through-lines that you find especially relevant?

BS: If you consider the traditional genre of portraiture, it remains as relevant and powerful now as it was to the inventors of photography in 1839. You can start with Julia Margaret Cameron, trace her influence to Robert Mapplethorpe, and then arrive at Mona Kuhn. Or look at the experimental approach of Moholy-Nagy in relation to current abstract work by James Welling, Walead Beshty, Liz Deschenes, and others. Photographers make pictures that reflect their ideas about the world and about existing pictures.

SM: How did your current project, The Sun and Other Stars, initially come about? 

BS: I had been aware of Charlie White’s and Katy Grannan’s work for several years, although I hadn’t thought of them as sharing an approach to photography. With their recent bodies of work, which do engage with similar subject matter, I realized that the pairing could be provocative. I approached them individually and, since they were already acquainted with each other and admired each other’s work, they both responded positively.

SM: In what way did you hope the pairing would be provocative? Do you feel it has been successful?

BS: Katy operates in the tradition of street photography––using a 4-by-5-inch camera, shooting film, encountering her subjects on the street, engaging them in conversation, and allowing them to perform for her. Charlie uses a professional casting-call agency to locate his subjects, brings them into a controlled studio setting, and imposes the uniformity of a grid background and frontal pose. Their moving-image works illustrate their differences even more dramatically: Katy’s is comprised of footage she shot of her subjects in their homes, with raw audio of their monologues, street noise, and ambient radio; Charlie’s is a slick, teen-themed cartoon drawn by commercial animators and voiced by professional actors. These two approaches––street and staged––are sometimes seen as completely incompatible. Here, they seem like two paths to a larger shared goal, which is to examine the consequences, physical and psychological, of aspiration and desire in contemporary Western society. I feel the pairing has been successful because viewers seem to arrive at this message without being one-hundred-percent sure which body of work got them there first.

SM: Name something you miss about working at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

BS: I miss the incredible depth of the CCP’s archival collection: curating from nearly complete bodies of work is a real luxury.

SM: Could you name a few questions or ideas that you’ve pursued as a curator that have taken the department in a different direction from that of your predecessor, Charlotte Cotton? 

BS: Charlotte and I share some background, having first met in the context of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and its deeply historical collections. We’ve both become much more involved in contemporary art since then. While at LACMA, Charlotte created a series of programs and dialogues that galvanized the conversation about photography here in Los Angeles and brought a wide range of creative people back to the museum for the first time in years. I have tried to build on that by presenting exhibitions, large and small, and creating a context for further conversations based on objects as well as ideas.

For example, when an exhibition is on view we try to hold events in the galleries whenever we can. This might be an artist commenting on Robert Adams’s vintage prints or a conservator showing us how William Eggleston’s dye-transfer prints are made. Museums are in the business of acquiring objects, and increasingly we have to make the case that it’s worth coming here to see the physical objects—even while we are also working to offer them as digital images on our web sites. We need to participate in the discussion about the difference between object and image.

SM: What are your plans for the future? 

BS: With the Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute, I am working on a large-scale Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. The Mapplethorpe archive, which we jointly acquired in 2008, will allow us to expand on the traditional monographic approach with a range of primary source material. Another monographic exhibition I am co-curating with Rita Gonzalez, from the contemporary art department, takes as its subject the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; our challenge here is how to represent the distinctive vision of an image-maker who collaborated with a wide range of directors, from Emilio “El Indio” Fernández to Luis Buñuel to John Huston. Finally, I’ve just proposed a survey of 3-D photography and film, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. I want to examine its mass-culture manifestations, its aesthetic ambitions, and its technological frontiers.

SM: Which exhibitions of the last decade or two are at the top of your list in terms quality and inspiration? 

BS: I’d start with two exhibitions focusing on particular periods of photo-based innovation: Matthew Witkovsky’s Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945 (2007; I saw it at the Guggenheim) and Douglas Fogle’s The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–1982 (2003; I saw it at Hammer Museum). A monographic show that made me see a canonical artist in an entirely new way was Douglas Druick and James Rondeau’s Jasper Johns: Gray (2007; Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Although it didn’t have to do with photography, it made me rethink my assumptions about the aesthetics of black-and-white. Edward Hopper and Company: Hopper’s Influence on Photography at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (2009) drew associations between images that seemed both unprecedented and inevitable. Taking on a huge and urgent subject in an intelligent and brave manner, Sandy Phillips’s Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870 (2010, SFMoMA) made a strong impression. Kevin Moore’s Starburst: Color Photography in America, 1970–1980 (2010, Cincinnati Art Museum) approaches the recent past with rigor and gusto. I could go on and on. This is an amazing time for photography.


Sabine Mirlesse is a photographer, visual artist, and a recent graduate of the MFA Photography program at Parsons in New York. Mirlesse has contributed to the The Paris Review Daily, Bomblog, and Art in America online, among others, and is currently based in Paris. 

Featured image: Charlie White, Portrait from Casting Call, 2010. Courtesy of LACMA