Emma Lewis, Curator
Introducing the Selectors for the BA Phase of Graduate Photography Online 2019: we talk to Curator, Emma Lewis.
Tell us about your job? What does your core role at the Tate involve?
My role has three strands, each with a focus on photography. I work on loan-in exhibitions, which at its core involves making a series of decisions about how to tell a story about an artist, or artist's, work through the artworks we select and how we design the look and feel of the gallery space. My role also involves Tate’s collection: researching which photographic works to acquire and how to acquire them, working closely with patrons groups. Also, throughout the year, curating displays from the permanent collection which are available to the public to view free of charge. Every day is different: I might be visiting an artist’s studio or researching in an archive, experimenting with layout ideas on a floorplan or writing up a report, brainstorming with marketing and digital teams, or out in the gallery installing or giving a tour. Or all of the above in one day!
How did you make your way into the career you're now in? Did you always want to work in a field that involved photography?
I completed a BA in English Literature and Art History before going on to do an M.Litt in Modern and Contemporary Art, which is when I first encountered photography in a serious way and began to learn about its history. I knew I wanted to work with photographs from that moment. I wasn’t set on being a curator, though: I was just interested in the objects and the history and techniques they represented and wanted to work in a field that would allow me to build a specialism. I began at an auction house before going on to publishing and archive work. When a junior position at Tate came up in 2013, it tied the best parts of all of my previous jobs together.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
The things I look out for are originality, a compelling story and well thought out concept, and a considered use of technique and materials that complements the subject matter. Also, a sense of the photographer’s own eye. There’s no magic formula. Sometimes projects just jump out at you; sometimes they reward slower looking.
As regards the photographer's statement, what are the most important things for you to know about the work? When it comes to showing their work outside of University, have you any tips on how graduates should prepare their work and the supporting material that accompanies it?
The work should be tightly edited and the statement clear and concise. A good statement says what the work is about, how it was made, and why you chose to make it that way. The best are those that are clear and simple. Partly because they allow the person (who is often reading through hundreds!) to ‘get it’ right away. But also – and more importantly – because concision suggests confidence in the project and a solid idea.
In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with? Aside from specifically technical skills, what is the difference that having a demographic of emerging photography graduates makes in the world?
Aside from technical skills and understanding of materials, I hope that a photographer will emerge from a degree course with a good grasp of how to grow a project from the seed of an idea to realise it as a completed work, be it as a series, installation or photobook. I’d hope they have a solid sense of what other artists are doing – and have done in the past. And, I hope they have a sense of how to take the next steps from student to professional practice.
What are the challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this point in time?
There are many – there’s no denying it’s a tough and competitive field! But two are: how to get work seen, and how to price and edition work and navigate the issue of gallery commissions. On the first, my advice is to submit to awards and participate in portfolio reviews, mentorship schemes or similar, and go to as much as you can: exhibitions, festivals, fairs, talks. (As many of the above as budget will allow – but don’t blow that budget. Invest in your work first and foremost.) Identify photo festivals that work with emerging artists, figure out who their curators are that year, and try and get your work seen by them.
The second point is too detailed to go into here, but I will say that there are ways to arm yourself with knowledge in this area. You can attend talks and workshops and can ask practical advice from people at portfolio reviews. If your uni tutors can’t help, ask if they might connect you with a former student who has gained experience in this and can share some insight.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
First, identify what it is about curating that you’re interested in: I meet a lot of students or recent graduates who seem to be excited by the idea of curating, but actually they’re interested in physically installing the work or designing exhibition builds, which are different professions and skill sets! Curating is more about creating a narrative through display, or about building a collection. My advice would be to see and read as much as you can, and from the earliest stages of your career try to carve out your own niche by building a specialism and doing projects under your own steam: write, if that’s your thing, or get together with friends to make an exhibition. If you can be inventive and resourceful and make great things happen on a next-to-nothing budget early on, it’ll stand you in great stead.