A Prescient Medium: Interview with Photography Curator Charlotte Cotton

Natalie Bookchin, My Meds, from the Testament series, 2009. © Natalie Bookchin.

More than any other medium, photography touches all of our lives. The near ubiquity of cameras in the 21st century has revolutionized the way we see and represent ourselves. Everything is subject to documentation and recording by cameras--a baby's first smile, a plate of food, a politician's gaffe, an interaction with the police--made both banal and monumental by the interaction of the lens, the media, the social network.

The International Center of Photography (ICP), founded in 1974 by photojournalist Robert Capa's brother Cornell, was one of the first organizations to recognize the importance of photography in visual culture. On June 23, 2016, ICP opened its new museum on the Bowery, in New York, with an exhibition that examines photography as a medium of self-representation and surveillance, Public, Private, Secret. With her extensive understanding of both photography's origins and its cutting edge as contemporary art, ICP's current curator-in-residence, Charlotte Cotton, is perfectly poised to investigate the changes in photography and society, and with this exhibition, she turns the camera on the audience.

In the following interview, MutualArt speaks with Cotton about two current exhibitions she has curated in New York: Public, Private, Secret, at ICP, and Photography is Magic, at Aperture Foundation, based on her widely acclaimed book of the same name.

John Houck, Portrait Landscape (video still), 2015. © John Houck, courtesy of the artist.

Natalie Hegert: As the curator-in-residence of ICP, you're at the forefront of the institution's rebrand and reinvention with the exhibition Public, Private, Secret. You've taken this opportunity to show--vividly, and sometimes unsettlingly--how photography has become intertwined in our everyday lives, while also drawing on the richness of the ICP's collection. How did you begin to conceptualize and envision this exhibition, with relation to the ICP's own history and the history of photography?

Charlotte Cotton: At the heart of ICP is its commitment to exploring and highlighting the social impact of photography and visual culture. 250 Bowery's program explicitly takes on and creates a forum for discussion about the social issues that are strongly shaping our idea of image-making. The ICP has always been what you might call a 'street level' cultural organization - with its activities focused on the social, political and psychological conditions that our image world prompts and the stake that we all have in marking photography's trajectory. The ICP is also an organization with more than one modality. It does have a public program of exhibitions, events and publications (and this is the focus of 250 Bowery) but one that is markedly shaped by its pedagogical dialogs happening in the ICP School and its remarkable Community Education program. All of these factors impacted on the curatorial model that I use at 250 Bowery. That is, perhaps, especially evident in the front space (which is about one third of the square footage) which functions as a cultural 'commons' - you can literally walk off the street into a welcoming, public and informative space and be part of the timely conversations that we are hosting at ICP's 250 Bowery. The way that I envisioned Public, Private, Secret has been as a program rather than as an exhibition with supplementary events. Much of my curatorial practice over the past few years has been about flattening the hierarchy that museums traditionally use with exhibition-making as the top of its public-facing pyramid.  Public, Private, Secret is an exhibition, conversations, commissioned writing, interviews, workshops and presentations - hopefully with each proposal and question realized in the best and most inviting form. This means that the exhibition is acutely focused on being physically present in this version of Public, Private, Secret.

International Center of Photography, 2016. Photo: © Saul Metnick.

NH: In the exhibition there is a lot of intermixing of works--along with works by famous artists, like Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin, there are historical works, snapshots, streaming videos, and more. Are you hoping the audience will discard some preconceptions about photography, and photography exhibitions, after visiting this show?

CC: The state of our personal privacy is a major social issue, with the 'boundaried' and 'boundary-less' separations of our public and private selves brought into sharp relief. I knew from the outset that I wanted this exhibition to be an experience that you have to take very personally, and each viewer, for their own reasons, would find themselves represented - both bodily and in terms of image-making behaviors - in the exhibition.  There are two main strategies at play. Firstly, in collaboration with the spatial designers - Common Room - we [with co-curators Pauline Vermare and Marina Chao] decided to use mirrored, two-way mirrored and transparent materials for some of the walls in the exhibition. We aimed to place the viewer's body at the center of the exhibition and to create the effect of everyone sensing how personally implicated we are in the use and abuse of our bodies as a sort of 'meta-data' that we exploit, and is used without our conscious permission. There are eight CCTV cameras installed at 250 Bowery, and that image data is projected onto two screens in the front space 24 hours a day - algorithmically altered and shifting between recognizable footage and abstract patterns and subtly commenting on human-read and machine-read image data. The second overt strategy is seen in the lower level gallery in the way that I have constellated photographs and videos together and, as you say, intermixing found and authored imagery. Taking overarching themes on each wall, I wanted to create contingent meaning between what I called 'historical precedents' (photographs, mainly drawn from ICP's collection, made in the 19th and 20th centuries), contemporary artists' work (key works from the 21st century) and curated streams of real-time media streams. Together, these types of material explore the dominant militating pressures on our sense of privacy, including celebrity culture, state surveillance, corporate data-mining, and good old fashioned voyeurism. In the center of the gallery are free-standing walls that speak to the hopes and profundity of 'being seen' and the agency of self-representation. We, of course, prepared ourselves to have some consternated reactions from exhibition visitors about the pecking orders of photography-as-culture being put aside and also the very active version of viewership that the exhibition invites. But I think that the exhibition has, in the main, been received by visitors, including ICP members, in the spirit that it was made - namely, that we all have deep and subjective visual intelligence and your personal attitude, behaviors and knowledge is your guide through this exploration of privacy. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1979, International Center of Photography, Gift of Photographers + Friends United Against AIDS, 1998. © Cindy Sherman, courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.

NH: Your book, Photography is Magic, informed the summer open-call exhibition currently at Aperture Foundation. It must be interesting to be able to interact with a large community of photographers who are in some way responding to your book. Did the open-call format of the exhibition lead to any new discoveries for you?  

CC: Oh yes! I had my fingers crossed since summer 2015 that Aperture would consider making the Summer Open 2016 Photography is Magic themed. There are numerous artists represented in the exhibition who I have already apologized to for simply not knowing about their work while I was compiling the book. And many told me about their reaction to seeing the book and how glad they were that Aperture is host to a quasi-second version of the project. The exhibition allowed me to go a little deeper and wider into the ideas that had prompted the book - and to receive back from a self-elected community these other versions of photographic magic. The bar was set incredibly high once I saw that Ellen Carey had submitted work and there is an amazing cross-generational and cross-continental conversation currently happening in Aperture's gallery! The opening night was so validating for me as I saw participating artists (and thirty-four of the fifty-two artists were there that night) meeting each other for the first time, and clearly having a lot to discuss and feeling that their work is in good company. 

Tabitha Soren, Untitled 023224, 2016. © Tabitha Soren.

NH: Maybe more than other mediums, photography suffers from a traditionalist contingent, particularly in how it defines what constitutes 'art'. As a curator, how do you deal with the old guard?

CC: I hope that my curatorial work offers something of a bridge for any photo-lovers who want to get excited about the future of photography - both in terms of the reanimation of photography's histories in light of our contemporary image world, and also in relation to emergent photographic practices. I've said this before but my curatorial practice is very much focused on doing things for people who like to put something in their mouth to see what it tastes like. There are many people in photography's 'old guard' who are full of curiosity, capable of being delighted by something new, and showing a vested interest in the future appreciation of photography. And for those 'old guards' who want to stick their finger in the dam, I think they avoid me as a somewhat abject figure and I definitely swerve from having to face this as much as I can. I'm not interested in rattling any cages but I am utterly committed to putting down in exhibition, event and written form other versions of why photography is still a prescient medium. Anecdotally, I heard from a mutual friend that one of the New York photo-establishment was very taken by the texts in Public, Private, Secret and assumed that ICP's director [Mark Lubell] had written them. My response was to belly laugh and tell our friend that the old guard might just have to accept the concept and text was written by a woman. I've gotten pretty used to critics of my curatorial approach venting about how I could not possibly understand the thesis or politics of my own work and I have learnt to hold my nerve.

Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay, Interview, 2015. © Deepanjan Mukhopadhyay.

NH: You've had a whirlwind last couple of years with the book, the opening of the ICP, and lots of traveling. What's on the horizon for Charlotte Cotton?

CC: I'm moving back to Los Angeles! I am hoping for a new, relatively private, phase of my working life. I will judge 2016 as a good year if you find me on New Year's Eve with friends, my goddaughter and a gorgeous pug puppy of my own. But I have very little idea where I will be or what is on the horizon in terms of curatorial projects beyond this year. In August, I know that I will be participating in a live programming and archiving project at the Woman's Building in East LA with the wonderful Metabolic Studio. I am really looking forward to the learning curve and getting to know and fully appreciate the women and men whose practices and social commitment still stand as a testimony to what is possible when creative people with common aims come together.

Christian McDonald, Portrait of Charlotte Cotton. 

Public, Private, Secret at the International Center of Photography is on view from June 23, 2016 - January 8, 2017.

2016 Aperture Summer Open: Photography Is Magic runs from July 14 - August 11, 2016 at Aperture Foundation.

--Natalie Hegert