Philip Brookman is Senior Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. He is a writer, editor, filmmaker, and photographer. He graduated with degrees in 20th Century Art History and Fine Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Brookman has written many essays and documentaries about issues of modern photography, media, culture, family, and visual arts. His films, made with Amy Brookman, include Family Tree and First Light, produced at the Acadia Summer Art Program, Mi Otro Yo—My Other Self, about Chicano art in California, and Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Houston Public Television. Recent projects include exhibitions Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art for the Corcoran; Robert Frank: Storylines for the Tate Modern in London; and a script for a feature film with Jim Goldberg. Jim Kasson interviewed Brookman at CPA’s Sunset Center gallery.
JK: How has the way that you put together shows changed over the years?
PB: I started making exhibitions as an undergraduate in college. I had a unique opportunity at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to organize exhibitions. I was studying art history and I thought the most interesting way to learn about art history was from the artists themselves. It gave me an excuse to call up an artist and say, “I want to come see your work and talk to you about it.” Since then my process hasn’t changed a lot, but now I am working on a bigger stage and focusing on photography and media arts.
JK: Were they surprised when a college kid showed up?
PB: I think they thought it was a good thing. Many artists are suspicious of curators. The first project I did on my own was an exhibition of the work of Richard Diebenkorn. I really liked his work, and I wanted to meet him and talk to him about what he did. This was 1974.
JK: Was he famous in those days?
PB: Not like he is today, but he was well-known.
JK: What an opportunity.
PB: He loved the idea of sharing his work with the students of what was at the time a small university. As a student, I liked the idea of being able to work directly with artists. That’s still what motivates me.
JK: And after school…
PB: From Santa Cruz I moved to San Diego. I was making television documentaries with my wife, Amy. Also, I became interested in how artists relate to communities and cultures without access to the world of art, and in how communities use art as a voice for speaking about their traditions. I worked for a community cultural organization called El Centro Cultural de la Raza. I helped to build a gallery there and developed a program that became a model for giving communities access to exhibition space. Soon other museums began to imitate what we were doing at the grass-roots level.
JK: You didn’t feel like you’d been co-opted?
PB: No. I know some artists felt that way, and didn’t want to give up control over how their own work was represented, but I thought it was a natural transition. Once Chicano artists in California had shown the art world how good their art was, it seemed natural that it should then go into the major museums. We didn’t know this was going to happen. We were just trying to do something new, something that hadn’t been done. Then I went to Washington to work for another artists’ organization called the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA). What I had done in San Diego was great, and I wanted to do it on the East Coast.
JK: In the big leagues.
PB: I thought it was important to move east, to be closer to the center. I’m not in New York, so I have more freedom to fail. You’re not in this high-pressure situation where one mistake can end your career. But Washington is a bigger pond than San Diego; the city is full of museums. I was a curator and artist at WPA. The mission of an artists’ organization is to create facilities and an environment for artists to create new work. The curators, who were also artists, commissioned new work and exhibited it. In Washington I saw the same things happening as in San Diego. The big museums became interested in the artists we showed, and some of these artists moved on to show at the Hirshhorn and MOMA. We also did projects with ideas that connected to the Washington community. The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism was about the relationship between blues music and visual art. War and Memory: In the Aftermath of Vietnam was about how artists, vets and non-vets alike, have worked with the memory of the war.
JK: You’re widening and deepening the same river you discovered in San Diego.
PB: Yes, but then events conspired to change my thinking. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia organized a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs called The Perfect Moment. Under pressure from the government, the Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled their presentation of it because people saw that when that exhibition opened in Washington, it would become a surrogate target for the NEA, which had funded a small part of the exhibition. We at WPA chose to present the exhibition because we thought it was important for the public to be able to see what they were being told they shouldn’t. It wasn’t the kind of exhibition we would normally do and not an artist that I was especially interested in. Mapplethorpe was way too famous, and in the fashion realm more than contemporary art, but he was good at confronting people with issues about sexuality and homoeroticism. The exhibition was embraced by the community. Over 25,000 people came to see it in 25 days. It was like nothing that we’d ever seen before.
JK: And how did that change you?
PB: The experience transformed the way I think about exhibitions. I’d never worked exclusively with photography before, although I’m a photographer and a filmmaker. I’d never worked as a curator exclusively before. I saw how, in Washington, art was so wrapped up in politics. I saw how powerful it was; how an artist could engage people in a vital discussion about what their lives were really about. Mapplethorpe’s work was successful that way. It created a huge dialogue, on television, in the media, even in Europe.
After the Mapplethorpe show I got interested in making exhibitions that could have the same power to engage people in a broad dialogue. We knew the power of the media, especially of television. I’d known that for a long time. When I was younger, I chose to work in television, and part of the reason was that potential of showing my work to millions of people, rather than thousands who might see it on the wall of a museum.
Then I went from the WPA to work at the National Gallery of Art.
JK: From an upstart organization to the pinnacle of the establishment.
PB: I thought of it as moving to the other side of the tracks. It was literally across Pennsylvania Avenue from WPA. I was attracted to the opportunity to work in an environment where I’d have access to the resources necessary to do a serious project with a great audience. I thought of it as doing what I was already doing, but doing it on a bigger scale. The project that I went to work on was a retrospective exhibition of the work of Robert Frank, the first retrospective of a living artist at the National Gallery. I was co-curator with Sarah Greenough. I’d never had the opportunity to work for a few years on just one project, and it taught me a lot about working in museums.
JK: What was difficult about putting together a big exhibit from a creative point of view?
PB: The biggest challenge was working with the understanding that you were defining someone’s career, someone I’d known for years, and worked with often. I liked that challenge. It was for me kind of like going to graduate school. Here you’ve got to really sit down and read everything relevant, and could take the time to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. That experience led me to want to work full time in a museum, but in one where I had more freedom to do different kinds of things and where I had more control. That’s what led me to the Corcoran in 1994. It was then an institution that was open and free. I could define my own program and do it in a forward-looking way. I created a new department called Photography and Media Arts, that wouldn’t be restricted only to photography like most museum photography programs are. The Corcoran was already known as a venue for photography, so I came into an institution that already had this tradition, but that hadn’t institutionalized it within the organization. I began with exhibitions that commissioned local artists to create new work about some subject. We did collaborations with other community organizations: it might be the Latin American Youth Center in a different neighborhood, or it might be the National Gallery of Art.
JK: Was there a transitional event for you at the Corcoran?
PB: In 1995, I organized an exhibition called Raised by Wolves. It was a new project by the San Francisco photographer, Jim Goldberg, who had been working for a number of years with homeless teenagers living on the streets of San Francisco and Hollywood. I’d been working with Jim on a book of this work. The form that we’d created in the book was then translated to the exhibition. It was a story, told through photographs and dialogue, that shifted back and forth across the border between documentary art and fiction. It was a documentary but it had fictional aspects to it. Kids tell stories and you don’t know whether they’re true or not. The kids would, for the most part, write on the photographs. Jim had worked this way since the 1970s. I’d shown his work in Santa Cruz. He photographed poor people in welfare hotels and wealthy people in their homes and he asked them questions about their lives, showed them the pictures, and they wrote on the pictures. We took that simple idea and it evolved into something more complex in Raised by Wolves. It combined almost cinematically all these different stories with pictures, text, video stills, interviews, and a written diary that’s partly made up. We were trying to invent a new form. A documentary photograph doesn’t tell you the whole truth about something. It’s partly fiction. If that’s the case, then you don’t want people to think that what they’re looking at is totally true. You want them to think that they’re looking at a collage of different things, of documentary photographs, of interviews that are true, of stories that are made up, of objects that were the real objects that you see in the photographs, and video. A collage of fragments, And in all that you’ve got to find for yourself what’s true.
PB: Exactly. You have to find what’s true and in the process you somehow understand the idea of truth differently. That project opened in Switzerland, then was shown in Washington, and subsequently it traveled throughout the country.
JK: And you said it changed you.
PB: I learned that a real collaboration between a curator and an artist was possible.
JK: Tell me about another collaborative exhibition.
PB: I organized Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks for the Corcoran. I came to the idea of showing his life story though his work. When I was a teenager in the late sixties my photography teacher in high school gave me Parks’ memoir, A Choice of Weapons, the story of how he came to photography. He grew up in a world of extreme poverty and racism, and he was able to transcend that environment. I read this book at the same time that young people a little older than me were being asked to pick up weapons and fight in a war that many felt unjust. Here was an artist who talked about using photography to fight against the causes of war, which he considered to be poverty and racism. That idea was a powerful inspiration. When I was asked to consider organizing an exhibition of his work, I remembered that experience, and I went to Gordon Parks with the idea of telling his life story through his work, of trying to convey that same spark that had inspired me. It wasn’t just going to be photographs on the wall. We had to include films, poetry, video, and music. All of these things are part of his story. It was a challenge to figure out how to integrate a retrospective view of his photographs, for which he’s best known, with bits of music, and fragments of all this other stuff. I sat down and talked to him for a long time. It turned into a collaboration that we could do together. After a while, I started to think about a sequence of images that would guide people through bodies of his work, through projects that he’d done. I wrote an outline, like you’d write an outline for a book, but it was an outline that showed his life through pictures. It wasn’t organized chronologically, but I was able to figure out a way to bring people into the exhibition by seeing pictures he had made about his childhood. From that, it takes off into his entry into photojournalism, his work for the Farm Security Administration, the Office of War Information, the Standard Oil of New Jersey documentary project, and Life Magazine. We were able to show all the books he had made in display cases. We organized a film series, presenting every film he’d made in the theater at the National Gallery of Art. Often the pictures he was most interested in were not the ones that I would have selected. He would talk to me about them and tell me what was important and interesting, and what was wrong with the ones that I would have picked. I learned so much from that. Here was somebody with all this experience, and most of the time he was right. It was a great opportunity to learn from somebody who’s a master.
JK: It must take a lot of self-confidence for a curator to set up his relationship with the artist as a collaboration.
PB: One of the best ways to begin working with an artist is to get them to understand that I’m not going to tell them how to deal with their own work, that I want to learn from them. That opens up a dialogue about the work. They can tell me what they’re interested in and what they’re interested in seeing, and then I respond to that. Through this process of going back and forth, we forge a collaboration. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes an artist knows exactly what he or she wants to do.
JK: When you put together a show, whom are you trying to please?
PB: I want to do something for a broad audience. I work in a museum where the audience is quite varied, and I see the work that I do as educational. The ideas have to be clear and accessible to a wide audience. I don’t want an exhibition to be something that everyone will come in and simply recognize. I want to challenge people with new ideas, with things they’ve never seen before, with concepts that they’ve never thought of; to get people thinking, to see themselves in a new light. When your audience consists of photographers, students, government workers, Presidents, tourists, and little kids, you can’t do the same thing for all those people. The important thing is that the ideas are clear enough that most people can get it.
JK: How much of what you’re trying to explain to your audience is explicit in information on the walls or in the catalogs, or in essays, and how much is implicit in the sequencing of the images, the juxtapositions, and the selection?
PB: I like to think that you can make an exhibition where you don’t have to explain it. People can come and look at the work, and come to an understanding of that artist by simply looking at their work. Yet, given the broad audience that we have, you have to set a foundation for people so they understand the context of the work. For exhibitions of contemporary art, the work will often speak for itself.You don’t need to say a lot. For other shows, you need more complicated captions, interpretive materials, and information in catalogs.
JK: How do you feel about audio?
PB: The best thing I did with audio was for the Gordon Parks exhibition. His work is autobiographical. I wanted the audience to be able to see through his eyes and walk in his shoes. We wrote a script for an audio tour that he narrated. It wasn’t just that voice of some anonymous narrator or celebrity telling you about the work, it was the artist himself guiding people by telling stories about his life. But normally I don’t use much audio. When I go to a museum myself, I want to discover the work in my own way, and audio guides can be too linear, too programmed for me. Now museums use a lot of interactive audio, but there’s still that disembodied voice whispering in your ear.
JK: Do you think that photography has a unique ability to engage people that other art forms don’t have: a kind of immediacy, a promise of realism?
PB: Photography often represents something from the real world, something that really happened. You make a picture and it’s a picture of something that’s there, not just in the mind. Often photographers work from that, and transform an image into something that’s made up: a dream or something abstract. People also make photographs that are not from reality at all. Photography is about the reflection of light, the memory of light. It has something to do with the representation of real space in the real world. At the same time, it’s a fiction. It’s a representation of something. It’s not the real thing. In this way, it goes back and forth between what’s real and what’s fiction. People often think that photography tells the truth. They see a picture in the newspaper and they think, “That’s real, that’s what happened,” when in fact it’s always edited, it’s always cropped or manipulated in some way. Good photographers make choices to create an image that’s about something, that’s powerful, maybe a lot like a painting. It’s graphic and it conveys a message that the photographer wants you to understand. Given that tension between the real and the fictitious, photography has tremendous power to create a picture for people of our world, more so than any other medium except maybe film. It’s a made-up picture, but because of its intrinsic relationship to reality, it has tremendous power to help us understand what’s real. That’s also what people fear about photography. You fear that you’re being manipulated, that somebody’s doing the wrong thing. We can point to pictures that have had a huge impact on the world. For example, the image of the girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam was one picture that changed people’s minds about the war. Another thing about photography that’s so powerful is that it’s a reproducible medium. You can make a picture that people all around the world can see instantaneously. Going back to the late 19th century and the technical achievements that allowed people to print photographs that many different people would see really did transform how we see the world. The impact of Life magazine arriving every week in people’s mailboxes, everyone seeing the same pictures at the same time and talking about them, gave people a stake in what happens in the world. You can’t say that about MTV.
JK: How do you go about judging an exhibition like the Center Awards?
PB: It’s a lot like what I do every day, but on a bigger scale and done in less time. Every day in the mail I get tons of slides, or CD’s, books or links to websites…
JK: …And you look at them all?
PB: I do, but it’s hard to respond to it all. That’s why I like this format. I get the opportunity to look at and select from hundreds of entries. Then I can look for something that makes sense to me. There’s the added benefit of a major award attached that can really encourage artists to do something new with their work, or make new work. That’s a great responsibility.
JK: Start with the mechanics.
PB: I went through all the slides, and set aside the artists that I’m really interested in. Out of 400 artists, I picked about 75 to look at again. Then I went through each of the 75 again, with the idea of picking work for this exhibition. I picked one work by each artist, which gives more opportunity for people to have their work seen. Then I picked the exhibition entries. From that I picked the award winners.
JK: What are you looking for?
PB: I’m looking for work that speaks to me, that is honest and true, and that I haven’t seen before. Those are the same things I’m looking for when people send me work at the Corcoran, but there are very few opportunities for me to make exhibitions there. If a thousand people send me work in a year, I’ll probably only do one exhibition, and I probably had decided on that before the year started.
JK: For the Center Awards, are you looking for a body of work?
PB: I’m looking at all of an artist’s slides together and I’m looking for some coherent idea. If everything’s different, or if there’s one great image and everything else is not so good, I would question it. I’m looking for something new that someone has to say with their work, something that speaks about their life, that’s personal, and that’s about the real world. I’m looking for work that excites me, something that makes me work to figure it out. I’m not looking for pretty pictures, although I like pretty pictures. The world is just not that way, at least in my experience.
JK: Is it important how the work fits into the overall photographic universe?
PB: It’s a mistake to think in terms of an overall photographic universe. The pictures that people make in Mexico are different than those you would make in Carmel. Children see the world differently than grownups. There is no decisive moment. So I look for the influences on what I see. If somebody imitates other work I’m familiar with, then I think here’s an artist whose work is not yet fully developed, who hasn’t found his or her own voice. On the other hand, I’m looking for work that exists in a context, that speaks about aesthetic and social ideas, and that shows that the artist is informed about the world and about contemporary issues in philosophy, literature, art, or history.
JK: Things that go beyond the subject matter.
PB: Right. That’s the stuff of art.