PGH Photo Fair is visiting some friends of the fair as we plan for 2020. If you missed them, check out the feature of Stephanie Garrison and Chris Fleischner, for regular Photo Fair updates subscribe to our monthly email newsletter.
Prior to joining the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in May 2015 as the curator of photography, Dan Leers was an independent curator in New York City, at Philadelphia Photo Art Center, the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz and an advisor to the 2013 Venice Biennale. From 2007 to 2011, he served as the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow in the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
During his tenure at MoMA, Leers organized the exhibition New Photography 2011: Moyra Davey, George Georgiou, Deana Lawson, Doug Rickard, Viviane Sassen, Zhang Dali. He graduated with a BA from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and an MA from Columbia University.
Team member Tori Meglio spoke with Dan about the PGH Photo Fair, his philosophy of building the CMoA collection, and his plans for establishing a legacy of photography in Pittsburgh.
Tori Meglio: What projects have you worked on to date at CMOA?
Dan Leers: The first project I curated at CMOA was “Strength in Numbers: Photography in Groups.” This exhibition, drawn entirely from the collection, looked at photography in groups of pictures and series of photographs. Then, in 2017, I organized “William Henry Fox Talbot and the Promise of Photography.” This show featured extremely early, very fragile, and sometimes rare photographs, that date back to the beginnings of the medium in the 1830s.
Last year I worked on an exhibition for our Forum Gallery series with all new work by Deana Lawson, one of the most interesting photographers working today.
And currently, I'm in the process of organizing a survey of the work of An-My Lê. Lê is a Vietnamese-born photographer living and working in New York. Broadly speaking, she produces landscapes of conflict. This project will be the largest survey of her work ever, and we'll be co-publishing a major catalog with Aperture in conjunction with the show. We’re also planning for the show to travel to other museums around the country.
Throughout my time at the Carnegie, I've also been working on the Hillman Photography Initiative, which is a more experimental program we undertake to think about issues in contemporary photography, often as they intersect with technology. For 2020, we’ve designed a set of programs about artificial intelligence, photography, and surveillance. These will include convening a number of different creative thinkers to talk about the intersections between those ideas as well as an exhibition with the artist Trevor Paglen, so keep an eye out for that next summer.
Tori Meglio: Please tell me more about the Museum's photography collection and its intersection with PGH Photo Fair?
Dan Leers: The photography collection here is interesting and idiosyncratic. I'm the second curator of photography, my predecessor Linda Benedict-Jones was the first, and the department didn't exist until 2008.
The museum has been buying photographs since as early as the mid-1970s, but there wasn't ever a curator paying exclusive attention to it as a collection until 2008. That means there are holdings of photography, but it is a mix of material. There's a lot of history of Pittsburgh images, some of which were donated by the Carnegie Library when they split off as a separate entity from the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. In total, the collection numbers, approximately 5,000 images and roughly three-fourths of those are pictures of Pittsburgh, both historic and contemporary, or pictures by somebody from Pittsburgh. For example, we are the largest institutional collector of photographs by Duane Michals.
My interests skew a bit more towards the contemporary. When I created the five-year collecting plan for the Carnegie in 2015 I knew we needed to diversify the collection in terms of makers, subject matter, and geography. But we can use the foundation of these pictures of Pittsburgh as a springboard to think about other, related themes. Some of those themes include industry and how industry manifests in other parts of the world. Also the idea of a city and how living and making work in a city can influence an artist's practice. I try to think expansively about photography, how it connects to other media, whether it's painting or drawing or film and transcending some of those more traditional distinctions between departments and classifications.
Because we are the newest curatorial department, we have some leg work to do in terms of building up a name for ourselves and making sure that people understand we have a world-class photography program. One of the ways we do that is by exhibiting the collection. In January 2020 we will open for the first time ever a space in our Scaife galleries dedicated to photography and works on paper where people can regularly see selections from our collection. We will feature some recent acquisitions, including some of the works that we've purchased from past Silver Eye auctions and PGH Photo Fairs.
The Department of Photography, and CMOA more generally, has to be strategic in terms of what we purchase, in terms of price, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of what fits our collecting needs and what could appeal to our audiences.
Tori Meglio: How has the Museum acquired artwork through the PGH Photo?
Dan Leers: I have a collecting plan that has helped guide everything we’ve acquired between 2015 and now. We redesign these plans every five years so that we can adjust and respond to new trends and developments in the field.
The gallerists who come to PGH Photo -- I know all of them to be reputable, honest, and also just incredibly nice people who are extremely generous with their time and knowledge. Before the Fair, I already have a sense of what their program is and what kind of work they're showing. From there it's about thinking strategically on my end. I ask myself "what kinds of things can I build excitement around for our local donors or supporters that also make sense for our collection and our audience?"
A good example of this is, in 2018, Deborah Bell brought photographs by Marcia Resnick. Marcia is an incredibly important, and I believe overlooked, figure in the rise of California conceptualism. In part, this is because she’s a woman, so her work fits nicely into my five-year plan to diversify the Museum’s collection. I’m interested in telling the stories and procuring works that have been traditionally overlooked by curators, collectors, and historians.
Regarding Marcia’s work, there were two really nice connections to our collection. First off, her connection to conceptualism. We have some great examples of California conceptualism from the '60s, '70s, and '80s by artists including John Baldessari and Allan Sekula. It was nice to be able to tell a complementary story to our existing holdings with photographs made by an artist who wasn't already in the collection. The other great thing about these works was that they were made in her New York City loft. Since we have a number of works in the collection that relate to artists in their studios–whether it's portraits of artists in their studios or works that artists made about their studios–Marcia’s pieces fit that through-line. I think the studio is a fascinating place, a site of creativity that is extremely generative for many different artists in their practices. To be able to represent that with this acquisition made it a hit from many angles. We purchased two diptychs by her with funds provided by the Arts Equity and Education Fund. This purchase was a win-win for us because we now have two new works that met a collecting goal for us and will hopefully generate excitement in the community.
Tori Meglio: Do you have any favorite photo pieces or projects that you've seen come from the Photo Fair gallerists in the past few years?
Dan Leers: We have a long-standing and fantastic partnership with PGH Photo Fair. My predecessor Linda Benedict-Jones started it and made some great purchases in the past by artists such as Malick Sidibé. I was particularly excited to learn about this history and I’ve tried to carry on that tradition because I've spent extensive time in Africa and have a personal affinity for African photography. For me, it's rewarding to be able to showcase material that is not often available to our local Pittsburgh audiences. People like Chris Fleischner, who you've already interviewed, are also really interested and have bought work by African artists. It's exciting that we've been able to cultivate this community of people who are excited about these kinds of artists and want to share their work with as many people as possible.
At the first Photo Fair I attended in 2016, I purchased two photographs from Gitterman Gallery by an artist named Will Larsen who studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago. These works were made in the 1970s with what was, essentially, a precursor to the fax machine. Larsen sent the images from one machine to another, and as they were being received he manipulated the machine. Maybe he would pull the paper a little bit or bump the device to create these aberrations. When I saw the work-- first of all, it's visually very compelling, they are beautifully black-and-white collages of appropriated images and text, but what I loved most about them was the connection to technology. Here is an example where we can draw on our history. Pittsburgh has been a site for labor and innovation since the beginning of the Industrial period. More recently, heavy industry has been replaced by a new economic driver, technology. We are known for innovations with computers and artificial intelligence. So the fact that we could bring in a work that was simultaneously incredibly beautiful and that also spoke to technical innovation, experimentation and even disruption was ideal. This is the kind of work that checks a lot of different boxes for us and makes a lot of sense to add to our collection.
Tori Meglio: How do you see photography shaping the narrative of the Museum's legacy?
Dan Leers: It's important to remember that curators are people! Often our human identity gets lost in translation and curators are lumped into the bigger machinery of the institution. As people, we have distinct personal interests and areas of experiences.
The acquisitions that I've been making and exhibitions that I've been organizing while intended for as broad an audience as possible also relate to my own personal narrative. These include contributing to overarching goals for this institution to be more inclusive, to be more engaging through art, and to present art that can be shared and experienced and loved by a lot of different people.
My ideal is for CMOA to become a destination for people wanting to see great photography. I feel incredibly fortunate that I happened to choose a medium that, through personal devices and our smartphones, is completely ubiquitous. Most everyone knows what it means to take a picture and everyone feels connected to photography in some way. Exhibitions of photography or programming around photography can be a welcoming moment for visitors who might not be so comfortable with other media or artistic styles. So for those people, I hope that we can get them in the door, get them feeling comfortable thinking about art and photography within the context of the rest of our collection. Perhaps that might lead to them exploring other elements of our exciting program and getting involved with the art world more broadly which would be the ultimate achievement.