Here Comes The Tate
Helen James talks to Emma Dexter and Frances Morris

Source - Issue 35 - Summer - 2003 - Click for Contents

Issue 35 Summer 2003
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Helen James: Could you start off by telling me a little bit about your role here at Tate Modern?

Emma Dexter: I’m a Senior Curator here at Tate Modern, I’m a contemporary art specialist and I used to run the gallery as Director of Exhibitions at the ICA for 8 years and I was previously Deputy Director there so I was at the ICA for the whole of the 90s. Before that I was at Chisenhale Gallery.

I’ve been part of a team of curators that have been based here at Tate Modern since it opened. I’ve taken part in programming discussion with our Directors, in particular the previous Director Lars Nittve and more recently with Nicholas Serota. Often in these programming discussions the question of photography would come up because we were being offered monographic exhibitions by significant photographers of 20th Century. After much debate and heart searching we turned these exhibitions down. That was because we felt that it important to see Tate Modern as a new start.

It was felt that as the Tate had never done a major photography exhibition before and that given the complicated history in relation to photography and its acquisition that in a sense the whole notion of photography needed to be addressed and announced by the institution in a more active way rather than in the more passive way of simply taking a touring exhibition. Another reason was that if we had taken any of these monographic exhibitions we felt that whatever we did would be a statement and whoever we picked for that first show would somehow be privileged before all other comers. It might look as if suddenly we were saying that so and so was the greatest photographer of the last century and we didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to have a soft launch of photography. We wanted to introduce photography to our audience which is obviously - because of the way that the Tate has operated in the past - an audience that primarily comes here to view painting and sculpture.

Helen James: Are you able to speak about the history of Tate and photography?

Emma Dexter: From ‘72 onwards the Tate started to acquire works by artists working within a conceptual art/land art framework - like Bruce McLean, Keith Arnatt, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton and that became quite a large area to operate in and obviously significant holdings were built up in that field.

In 1983 Tate acquired some Cindy Sherman’s but it was still obviously defined as artists working with photography and this is how the Tate at that time came to terms with the fact that it didn’t have a specific remit to acquire photography. It was an accident of fate in a way, how British institutions in this country divided up the responsibility for collecting photography. So the Tate started to collect photography at a particular moment, a very complex moment in art history when artists started to use photography and obviously the Tate responded to that appropriately. At the same time the art scene started to become more complicated and more hybridised after that. In the 80s and 90s the Tate responded by collecting more and more work by students of the Bechers and a lot of work where the artist or photographer is solely working with the photographic medium. The Tate’s acquisitions reflect contemporary practice and its much greater fluidity as well as the constructed image, and the performative photographic work within the mainstream of contemporary art practice. The Tate is keeping up with that. I suppose what needed to happen and what is happening now is a coming to terms with what this all means? What we are doing at the moment is looking at how we need to rationalise our relationship to photography in a much broader way, much more ambitiously.

Helen James: What type of impact did the negative criticism that a lot of people had about the Tate and photography, have on your relationship with photography?

Emma Dexter: I don’t think I can say what effect it had on the institution because it was twenty years ago. I think you might say that there have been missed opportunities in the past, due to the way the responsibility for photography was originally carved up between various national institutions and that history is the key to it. I don’t think its quite fair to single the Tate out for responsibility for that, obviously there are so many missed opportunities if one compares British visual culture and the role of photography plays in it compared to American visual culture. If we had had an institution in this country that was collecting, supporting and promoting photography alongside painting and sculpture from the 1930s on a national level who knows what that might of bought? Certainly it would have meant that photography within this country would have been a very different thing.

I think its very easy to be wise with hindsight. We live in a culture where everyone wants to have crossovers between fine art, fashion and pure documentary - breaking down barriers is very fashionable at the moment. There are certain aspects of the way the Tate is set up now that means that we can have flexibility precisely because we don’t have departments of painting and sculpture. But I think what’s really important is that you don’t get really powerful hegemonies attached to particular art forms which then operate exclusively.

If you take one step back and look at what it is about British culture that made it perceive photography in that way, only as a decorative art and not as a fine art. It’s because you didn’t have scholars banging the drum for fine art photography. On the other hand perhaps you had a much richer tradition within traditional museums, which actually meant that’s where the focus of interest lay within collecting, acquiring and protecting patrimony. Whereas, you might almost say that the vernacular was something waiting to be picked by Walker Evans within an American context because there was a vacuum there within contemporary American painting and sculpture.

Helen James: Does the show attempt to be a survey?

Emma Dexter: No, it’s not meant to be a survey, which is why we have fixed upon the title which denotes a methodology that we have used: Cruel and Tender which is taking a lead from Walker Evans. The idea is that tenderness and cruelty exists simultaneously within each image in the exhibition, and we often used this as a kind of test of whether to include an image or not. Sometimes great photographers weren’t included because in a way their practice is too empathetic, lacking coolness if you like, and at the same time we wanted to juxtapose Walker Evans with August Sander and have these two figures who exert a very powerful influence on contemporary artists today.Emma Dexter (left), Frances Morris (right) 
Emma Dexter (left), Frances Morris (right) 

Helen James: Most of the work in Cruel and Tender is by American and German photographers, could you explain why this is?

Emma Dexter: If you choose Evans and Sander as two very key figures, you would perhaps expect that their influence would be most keenly felt in America and Germany. I think fascinating stories and juxtapositions can be told - not just about these two parallel histories but also the inter-connections between them, the interests that the Bechers had in Walkers Evans and in Stephen Shore, and the role that Michael Schmidt plays in bringing new topographics to Germany in the mid 70s. Sub plots could be drawn out; hopefully, in the contextualising material, we will be able to fill in that information for visitors, about the relationship between the two traditions and the cross fertilisation between them.

Helen James: Could you explain why you chose to use the term ‘pure’ photography to describe the type of photographs in Cruel and Tender?

Emma Dexter: I used that in the press release and I think I’ve taken it away now - I think it’s another word for straight photography or reality photography. I don’t think there is a happy word at the moment. I quite liked pure photography for a while but I don’t want it to be elitist or have elitist connotations. I suppose it is a refinement on ‘straight’ photography which is a term that has been around for an awfully long time and which is a very large bracket for a very wide range of work. It’s the kind of work that is very much true to the medium with the descriptive qualities to the fore. One of the reasons that it is most appropriate to do an exhibition of this type of photography is that it is this type of photography that the Tate did not collect or display in the past, ie documentary style.

Helen James: Can you explain why the Tate has decided to show photographs that were not originally made for the gallery context, and have often had a different function elsewhere?

Emma Dexter: Realist photography can fit into a display on realism, for example. And we can clearly accommodate the conceptual use of photography without any problem but I suppose what was challenging about a lot of the work in this exhibition is that not all of this work has been completely seen within a British context. Practitioners like Garry Winogrand for example, or Robert Adams, I think until a few years ago, there may have some raised eyebrows, to find some of this material in the art gallery. There may still be this art kind of debate and ‘is this worthy of my looking at it’ kind of discussion.

Helen James: Amazing how that discussion keeps on cropping up in the art world, do you think this is possibly the reason why the photographic community are so interested in whether the Tate gallery does or doesn't show and collect photographs? Do you think this is perhaps about legitimisation?

Emma Dexter: You could say that the end result is that this is a major shift. And I think it does open up all sorts of incredible doors for the future in terms of exhibitions and display. I think once you start to be more imaginative about the history of photography, if you can respect its independence but at the same time be able to see cultural connections with areas of practice such as painting or sculpture, I think this is going to lead to a great enriching of the way that Tate can work.

Helen James: What effect will showing this type of photography have on contemporary art production?

Emma Dexter: I am very keen that this exhibit is consumed by a large audience and particularly an audience of much younger practitioners... we have about 40 or 50 Sanders, 60 + Walker Evans. The opportunity to see all this work together in one place is fantastic and I am particularly interested in encouraging a younger audience who hasn’t had the opportunity to see this work in London on this scale. I can only speculate about what the effect might be for them. I think there is already a lot of very good work being done by young photographers in this country.

Helen James: Who can show work at the Tate? Can photographic work that functioned elsewhere now be exhibited as ‘art’ at the Tate?

Emma Dexter: I think one of the most important points to make at the moment is that the doors are incredible open. In terms of exhibition practice we can be very open. Obviously certain things won’t be practical and we won’t be trying to show the history of photography but there are all sorts of opportunities for display and exhibitions and looking at aspects of photography. The Tate does not collect anything for technical reasons, only for aesthetic reasons but apart from that the crossing of boundaries is something the curators here want to do.

In fact there is a fashion photography display up on level 5 as part of the body display, which has been up for about a year using loans from the V&A collection. So there is a very wide range of different kinds of material, and I think the Tate is open to ideas.

Helen James: What do you think will be the Tate’s contribution to the rest of the photographic scene - that includes organisations such as The Photographer’s Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum and numerous commercial galleries?

Emma Dexter: I hope that through this exhibition we can contribute to developing new audiences who will then go on to visit other photography exhibitions and displays around the country. I’d like to think that it will be the Tate Modern effect repeated, before Tate Modern opened everybody feared that nobody would go and visit other galleries. If we can help to make people think about photography and to appreciate joys of photography and take a much more active role then that would be a fantastic result. I think it is perfectly possible for that to happen.

Helen James: What about the future, do you have any great strategy for photography?

Emma Dexter: We are in the process of developing more concrete plans for photography. My colleague Frances Morris, is currently developing a strategy to encompass film, video and photography in the displays and in the exhibitions programme. At the moment it’s still very speculative but it might mean an expansion in terms of acquisitions, display and exhibitions. We also need to consolidate the relationships that we have with other institutions and to build upon the aspects of photography that we have already acquired.

What we are talking about would take place over a number of years. Frances Morris and I did an exercise together - purely speculative, to explore what you might do in the displays if you could borrow, or acquire more photography. For example it might be really fascinating if you had a display about Cartes des Visites which you could juxtapose with society portraiture. I believe Tate Britain are already planning a major display on mass observation - clearly a moment when photography, painting and literature work hand in hand. You can’t adequately tell the history of recent British and Modern art without photography playing a central role in that story.

Helen James: Could you start by talking about role your at Tate Modern?

Frances Morris: Senior Curator, I head up the team that installs the collection in the building. My background prior to that was in the collections division, working on acquisitions. One of the things that I did there was that, from the early 90s, I tried to push photography. So I was involved in those acquisitions of people like John Coplans, Craigie Horsfield and Paul Graham, that generation.

Helen James: Could you tell me about the development of the collection as a collection? What are the things that govern that?

Frances Morris: A number of things: one is the notion of what constitutes important art and an overall strategy of how the collection should develop as a body of work, but then there is also the idea of what makes a good display, what acquisitions liberate an area of the collection that we can’t show otherwise.

Helen James: So what is the idea behind the collection, is it to survey?

Frances Morris: Partly... It’s a collection of British art from around 1600 to the present day and then it is also an international collection from 1900. The two sides of the collection have slightly different characters. The British collection is broadly speaking a survey collection and it tells the story in depth with its high points and, arguably also, its low points. It includes the footnotes and the anecdotes, as well as the principle chapters. The international collection is a highlight collection, with some areas covered strongly and in depth, certain artists well represented but areas of weakness and key figures not well represented - of course the reasons are complex and include market forces and the character and preferences of individual curators, as well as the nature of collecting in the UK. All these things mean that our international holdings have developed in a much more fragmented and disorderly fashion. It’s only in the last two decades that a more considered approach to the development of non British art has developed and we are now thinking strategically about where we go from here. The kind of questions we are asking include the geographical scope of the collection which is predominantly biased towards Europe and North America - is it justifiable to have a collection of western modern art in multicultural society. Resources mean that we can never hope to be truly global but we do have to make choices.

Helen James: Do you think the Tate has been singled out for criticism from the photographic press?

Frances Morris: You have to look at the historical perception of the Tate through time. It evolved out of the National Gallery. It also evolved at a time when there were already national museums in the UK dedicated to photography: the Science Museum and the V&A. We never had a Napoleon in England to sort out the division of schools between institutions. So at the V&A you have the National Collection of the Art of Photography, but you also have a Constable collection and a collection of sculpture alongside decorative arts and fashion. Ditto at the Science Museum (now at Bradford). For many years there have been agreed procedures that national museums do not duplicate each other. It is the tax payers’ money, it doesn’t make sense to build identical collections - this doesn’t add to the national resource. For better or worse, institutionally photography was always seen as the business of the other institutions. Photography isn’t the only medium within visual culture that has been affected by the historical evolution of museums in this country.

Now that development is very different from the position in other centres, for example New York where photography had a power base at MOMA right from the start. You could argue that it would have been a very enlightened directorship, to collect right from the beginning. The Tate collection was founded on a rather narrow definition of fine art practice, if you look at annual reports, they don't mention photography, film and other media that contemporary art so centrally embraces. It’s all possible now.

In a way the Tate’s approach to photography has been subject to this historical and organic evolution and has responded to artists themselves. That’s why it was in the wake of conceptual artists’ appropriation of the camera that the Tate began to acquire photographic works or works made through photographic media.

Helen James: What type of impact did the criticism in Creative Camera have on the Tate at the time and since?

Frances Morris: Those criticisms very much came out of the photographic community and it’s indicative that one can even talk about the photographic community, that there was a sense of separateness, and I’m not sure that the criticisms did strike home in a fundamental and deep rooted way sufficient to revolutionise the Tate’s stance on photography. But I think they made people at the Tate think about what they were doing and try and articulate more eloquently the Tate’s position. So much of it was a question of semantics and trying to differentiate different categories in photographic practice. I personally don’t find it very useful to return to that debate now. I think it was very much of its time.

For example: Keith Arnatt. Once Arnatt moved on from the text/image pieces we ceased to acquire his work. The Tate did have a problem with how some of those artists who came from a conceptual background moved seemingly back into photography. They didn’t know quite how to deal with that move and there was almost a generational skip when they finally took on that kind of practice. One of the interesting things now, if we are now beginning to buy the work of artists who purely use the camera, should we go back and review that previous generation of artists? The Tate is bound up in an art world that is characterised by all sorts of dynamic inter-relationships. There is the market, or markets, there are the collectors and there are the galleries and museums - not to forget the practitioners themselves. The problems you see at the Tate are reflected in those other institutional relationships. There are still photographic dealers who deal solely with photography and a generation of photographers who haven’t been able to make the transition into a more broadly based fine art market, so Tate’s position is part of a much wider problem.

Helen James: Is it fair to say that the Tate misjudged the role of photography and its place within contemporary art?

Frances Morris: It didn’t make a judgement; it put the whole thing on hold really. The Tate has always been aware of what other institutions are doing. There are some like the Hayward, the V&A, the Barbican, who have made exemplary forays into photography and done extraordinary things and therefore we have been hesitant to make that leap. One of the reasons that it seems right to make Cruel and Tender now is that with the opening of Tate Modern and the reopening of Tate Britain, photography of a more independent type has featured in the collection displays - so for the first time there is a context. At this moment in time contemporary artists themselves draw upon that kind of tradition in photography as much as they draw on a more aestheticised type of photography, fine art photography. If you see the role of a museum of fine art as one that not only presents the new but also gives young artists a history of their own practice it becomes beholden on us to address that practice.

In a way, I think the problem is withering as we begin to accept the difficulty of delineating strictly between different forms of photographic practice, the problems associated with demarcating areas for institutions. The fact that we still have institutions with different remits is an issue; it’s a reality but its one that interestingly, we are all starting to deconstruct. So we talk to the V&A, we borrow from them, they borrow from us. We talk with them; we update each other on acquisitions and on exhibition plans so we are not operating in an isolated, unconnected way. We have begun now also to discuss the future with Bradford - in some ways we can all offer our resources to each other.

What doesn’t go away is the problem that practitioners of all kinds want to be represented in the Tate collection. Because they want to see themselves in relation to their peers in their own media and in other media.

Helen James: Is it important to distinguish between practitioners who pick up the camera?

Frances Morris: The Tate is interesting in that we don’t and never have had departments divided by media description. We don’t have a department of painting. We have specialist conservators attached to media but we think across the board in terms of practice. Increasingly curators here think about photography, film, video, painting, installation in a broad brush sense. One of things that help is that displays at Tate Modern have been organised not according to media, not according to chronology but according to theme.

Helen James: What are your plans for photography in terms of a policy and a strategy?

Frances Morris: What I’ve been doing is a review of the Tate’s relationship to photography, film and video. This includes a review of our programme (of those media) in terms of temporary exhibitions and also how we have used them in displays. It is also a review of the collection itself and addresses the question of where do we go from here? Do we go anywhere from here? Do we need to think about the future of those media at Tate? A lot of the thinking and the reviewing is precisely about our relationship with other public institutions.

Helen James: Do you personally think that there is still need a need for separate photography organisations?

Frances Morris: It is an interesting question but I'm not sure I want to answer it here. It is just too big a question for me, from my side, to answer.

Helen James: How is photography funded and supported at the Tate?

Frances Morris: In the way that all other media is. Acquisitions come out of our public grant, are supported by our patrons as well as the American fund. What we are trying to do is broaden the remit of what we do rather than ghettoise a particular area of practice. At the moment there isn’t a blueprint for how we move on. What is interesting is that for the first time in many, many years the questions are being asked. The context in which we are asking them has changed and maybe that changing context is the reason we are asking them. But I think it would be fair to say that having asked those questions it’s extremely unlikely that photography will disappear from our remit or our horizons.

Helen James: Finally, what do you think the Tate will contribute to the photographic scene?

Frances Morris: It’s coming in from the cold. What the Tate can do for photography, and photography of many different kinds, is it can show it in a fine art context. This is something the V&A can’t do, Bradford can’t do and something that an institution like the Hayward which doesn’t have a fine art collection, can’t do either. So to bring photography into the mainstream, to bring it to a building where you can also see realist portrait paintings from the 1930s and 40s or contemporary film with a political agenda or cubist and fauvist painting reflecting primitive models has enormous potential. We can return photography to a debate which is not just about itself, however important that might be, but is about broader ideas and concerns within visual culture as well as the social and political context from which all visual culture emerges.

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