Arthur Ollman

September 2005

Arthur Ollman is the Director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Jim Kasson interviewed Arthur when he was in Carmel to judge the Center Awards.

JK:Let’s start with a photographic biography.

AO:I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I started photographing when I was about 12 and by the time I was 13, I had figured it all out, so I dropped it. At 18 I went traveling in Europe and the Middle East. I took my camera along and overexposed all my film. I realized I had blown an opportunity and I figured I had better really learn something about photography. I began to practice and by the time I was about 20 I had put a couple of pictures in some underground poetry journals. It seemed like I had an identity, and I thought of myself as somebody who might want to be a photographer. I started looking at photography books, and I was impressed by Cartier-Bresson, Yousef Karsh and Andreas Feininger.
JK:Quite a range of styles.

AO:My menu was large at first; I didn’t grow up with an f/64 spoon in my mouth. I remember one time I took my camera out at night in Chicago, pointed it at the skyline, and opened the shutter for about eight seconds. I was fascinated that all the lights in the city had the exact same choreography. It was the middle 60’s, a time when altered perception was interesting to think about:the idea was that things were not as they seemed, that reality is more malleable than we were taught. I bought a farm on the coast of Maine and we turned it into a commune.I was photographing but all the decisions about where to spend money were made communally. If we had to choose between rebuilding the chicken coop and buying Dektol, sometimes the developer lost. The commune dissolved after five years, and I had the place to myself for awhile. I rebuilt the darkroom and photographed more, but my photography was failing to progress.The first training I got was from Nathan Lyons at the Visual Studies Workshop, in the shadow of the Eastman House. He’s one of the great teachers and influences of the time. He was a wonderful stimulant and remains a good friend 30 years later. Then I went west. I studied for a year in a non-degree program at the San Francisco Art Institute with Jack Fulton and Linda Conner. There was a new college at the time called Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. I joined that program, and got an MFA.

JK: What was your photography like?

AO:I made a series called Vital Parts: black and white, 35 millimeter, close up on people. Intensively photographing unusual aspects of bodies: a scar, somebody who is so thin that every vertebra stands out, somebody who is very fat has these voluptuous rolls of flesh, and tattoos. About that time Kodacolor 400 came out; it was a color negative film that had basically the same exposure characteristics as Tri-X. I had been shooting Tri-X and I started shooting with Kodacolor 400 at night and I loved the results: strange shiftings of colors, mercury and sodium vapor lights, neon bouncing off of the fog and coming back down. As soon as I got my MFA, I went to New York. The [Museum of] Modern [Art] and the Witkin Gallery bought photographs. I was offered a magazine spread in the reigning photography magazine, and I was also asked to have show in another hot gallery.

JK:So you were a wunderkind.

AO:I came back thinking, “New York is easy. What’s everybody making a fuss about?” For about eight years my work was in great demand and I showed all over and taught workshops. I taught at The Friend’s photography workshops down here. I taught with Ansel at Yosemite, which was great fun, and I met a lot of interesting photographers — Arnold Newman, Olivia Parker, Don Worth, and Roy DeCarava. I taught at a Community College in Hayward.

JK:How did you make the transition to running a museum?

AO:I was approached by a group of people who were starting a museum in San Diego. I knew a couple of them from having had a show down there. They asked me if I was interested in being the director.

JK:That’s a huge change isn’t it? What in your background made that logical?

AO:If there was any logic, it was that I had been one of the founders and Chairman of the Board of San Francisco Camerawork.

JK:So you had some administrative experience.

AO:I wasn’t the director, but I knew how these things were done.I told them I didn’t want to be a director of a museum, that I was an artist. I gave them a list of ten people who I thought would be appropriate. Shortly after that I decided that I should flirt with it. I went to San Diego and they showed me an extraordinary building on the Prado in Balboa Park. There were thousands of people milling around, a juggler, and a couple of musicians. It was incredible; I was used to the industrial lofts that housed so many artist spaces. After a lot of ins and outs, I was offered the job.

JK:And a blank slate?

AO:I was told that I could set the tone for the institution. I could hire the staff, set the direction, choose the exhibitions, programs, and they would raise all the money. That was partially true; I had to raise a lot of the money myself and learn how to do that right away. We opened on May 1, 1983 with 7500 square feet.

JK:Were you the chief curator as well?

AO:Yes. We didn’t have a large staff at first. Cynthia [Johnson Bianchetta] was my assistant. We started making world class exhibitions right away. We did a Gene Smith show to open the place, and we put together an Arnold Newman retrospective and sent it around the country. It went to nine museums in the US, five in Europe, and two in Japan. It put us on the map with a lot of people. That made me realize that I could send shows around the world and that people were interested in what we in the West were exporting.

JK:The West Coast had many photographers, but not many photographic museums.

AO:Prior to the 80’s there were few big voices in photography. Szarkowski was the voice of the Modern, and what he said carried huge weight in the photo world. It had been similar before with Steichen. There were a few other institutions: Eastman House, the Chicago Art Institute with a very young David Travis and Marie Zack before that, but the vast majority of the influence came out of the Modern.

Many of us young photographers said: “We really ought to decentralize. It would be better for the ecology of the field if it had many voices in many places.” Around that time the Society for Photographic Education was starting to take itself seriously. Schools started to offer photography as a degree program. Most of that was neonatal, and by building major institutions on the West Coast we were saying, “If you don’t care for Szarkowski’s ideas there are other ideas out here.” John was eloquent and he was paid to have opinions, that was his job, but we needed to provide other voices as well. The Friends of Photography was part of that. The LA Center for Photographic studies was briefly an interesting place. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collected more and began to have a strong voice, and then Van Deren Coke showed up and made it a bigger voice.

JK:This coincided with an increase in interest in photography as art.

AO: A museum would put up their first photography show and they would be astonished by how many people showed up. Publishers started putting out photography books, a six-page essay by some scholar and then 86 pictures.

JK:In the early years of the museum it was your creative vision, but now you have other curators.

AO:For a number of years we had a curator who is now in the East: Diana Gaston. She has a tremendous mind, great writer, fine curator. She gave us a great deal of energy and did some shows that I wouldn’t or couldn’t have done myself. After she left, we hired Dr. Carol McCusker. Carol is a great historian, and is particularly interested in World War II and post WWII documentary work. She’s done a lot with earlier work and in the role that women have played in photography. I’m still curating when I care to, but I’ve probably curated 140 shows at MoPA as well as elsewhere, so I don’t wake up in the morning dying to hear my curatorial voice. I’m working on a Mario Giacomelli show. He’s Italy’s most potent postwar photographer.

JK:You’ve expanded the museum.

AO:The museum grew in a lot of ways. We produced books, and traveling shows. Our membership grew; our funding base grew. We started taking our patrons to Japan, Thailand, France, and England and got them involved with other institutions around the world. We have a lecture/workshop series with world-famous photographers; almost everybody important in the last 30 years has been at our museum talking. Garry Winogrand gave his last lecture there six weeks before he died. Beaumont Newhall gave three lectures there. Duane Michaels, William Klein, Arnold Newman, Roy DeCarava, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Sally Mann… In 1998 our next door neighbors decided that they needed more room. We coveted their space, which was three times larger than our own. We persuaded the city, the mayor and the city council that we were the best tenants. That took a year, then it took another year for our neighbors to leave and another year for us to build. We had to raise about seven and a half million dollars, which isn’t much for a huge expansion because we didn’t need to construct the building. It was all interior work. We quintupled our space, going from 7500 square feet to 38,000, gave ourselves a gorgeous library, tripled our gallery space, added a movie theatre for a film program, and had a classroom put in and allowed our programs to expand with students from public and private schools, from colleges. We have about a dozen interns from all over the world; we have a retail shop. Much bigger archives, glorious storage space for our collection: 8500 pieces, from Daguerreotypes up to the present. The facility is fabulous.We’re thrilled with it; it works beautifully, and it’s one of the premier spaces in the world for photography.

JK:Have you been well supported by the city of San Diego? Has it been a financial struggle?

AO:Anybody in the non-profit world who says it hasn’t been a struggle in the last 20 years, is not being honest. The city supports us in only two ways: they give us the building at a very attractive rate, and they provide money for us from the hotel tax that is collected from all the visitors and kicked back to institutions that are perceived to draw tourists. We get about 10% of our money from that. We get another 10% from our retail shop, 10% from admissions, and 10% from lower level memberships. There’s 60% there that I still have to raise. That money has to be raised every year since we don’t have much of an endowment yet, but I’m working on that. The ecology of the photographic world is largely based on the support of passionate individuals. The institutions all need support. In every part of the US, there are institutions devoted to nourishing the photographic world. When you go into a museum and you put your six or eight dollars down, you’ve paid for 10% of your experience; the other 90% someone else paid for. If we love this field, if we feel it needs nurturing and tending, needs to grow, needs to educate another generation, then it needs to be supported. We’ve lost some institutions in recent years like Friends of Photography; that was a huge loss and a great tragedy. Other institutions have been hobbled and battered by financial problems. Sometimes it’s the market, sometimes it’s because our electric bills have shot through the roof or because health care costs for our employees are too great, or because contributions are all going to tsunami relief or New Orleans and people don’t have enough to give you or they haven’t stretched enough. These institutions are fragile, they could go away.

JK:Give me your assessment of the world of art photography today.Contrast that to what it looked like 25 years ago when you started the museum.

AO:In computers, we’ve gone from a flat pencil drawing on paper to what we can do on a design program, making it three dimensional and rotating it and so forth. That’s what’s happened with the photography world. It was more linear. Institutions, publications, and book publishing ventures were few in number; there were only a few workshops. A couple of people could say that they were photographic historians but you couldn’t fill one hand with them.

JK:And today…

AO:It’s increased in length and breadth and depth. All the elements are in place for a much bigger, more sophisticated scene, even though there are tensions that have caused it to grow imperfectly and unevenly. There are many collectors now. Many institutions have photography collections, we’ve learned how to preserve photographs better, we’ve learned how to repair the damaged ones, we’ve learned how to store them properly, and we’ve learned about lighting and how it affects photographs. We’ve learned which photographic media survive better, and we’ve expanded the menu of methodologies to make photographs. You can still make silver prints; you can still make cyanotypes, gum bichromates, and daguerreotypes, but you can also shoot digitally; you can work with video; you can paint on the things–all sorts of things are acceptable that would not have been 30 years ago. We now are starting to understand that places like New Zealand, Estonia, and India have rich photographic histories. We have collectors all over the world. There are several hundred people in the world who now are able to call themselves photography curators.

JK:The very definition of photography has changed.

AO:What is a photograph? How does it operate? How does it work on you? How do we deal with its perceived veracity? What do we now know, and how much of this does the public know? It’s a much more interesting dialog than it used to be. Furthermore the history is broader. If you look at the early History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall, 1939 Edition, the number of photographers is small. When I was coming up in photography in the early 60’s we knew France had Cartier-Bresson; we knew Mexico had Alvarez Bravo; we knew England had Bill Brandt; and beyond that we knew almost nothing about the rest of the world. Now we’ve seen African work; we’ve seen work from the Middle East; we’ve seen work from South America, from Brazil, from the Indian subcontinent, and from China. The photographic world has exploded and there are photographic institutions in all those places which have studied their own local histories. A one-volume history of photography is ludicrous at this point. My hat’s off to those who have written some of them, but it’s basically the same as having a one-volume history of painting. Furthermore, there’s been a lot of critical thinking about how photography works, what it does, how it’s changed our culture, and what it means to photograph. The whole enterprise is much more sophisticated; no one institution and no one person has a full grasp of it, and no individual speaks for the entire medium. That is very healthy.

JK: The year you started the institution was close to the year that digital photography first started to impinge upon the public consciousness, the year that National Geographic moved the pyramid. How has the advent of digital photography changed the way people relate to art and changed the art itself?

AO:The statements I can make about digital are a bit like talking of the impact of a five-year-old child on the world. It’s the first major technological sea change since negative/positive photography. Fox Talbott’s system of creating a transparent or semi-transparent substrate upon which light-sensitive chemicals are placed so they could be affected by the light in a camera has been the paradigm. We’ve gotten clearer substrates, we’ve gotten faster chemicals and we’ve gotten better acuity and better lenses and so forth, but it was all the same paradigm. This is not. One wonders if we will eventually lose the paper print. More and more imagery is being seen on screen and generations of kids are growing up who know images better on screen than they do by holding paper in their hand, and the quality of those images continues to improve rapidly.

JK: Would the photographer then lose the ability to control the final form of the image?

AO: Photographers have long made a fetish of having the prints look exactly like they want, carefully choosing the size, the paper, the film, the printing. Those decisions have been sort of the crux of the technical aspects of the medium. After you’ve decided what you want to photograph and how you’re going to do it, which to me have always been the more interesting questions, most of the attention has been focused on how you do it. Muddy Waters said, “It ain’t what you say, it’s the way how you say it.”I think it’s both, but we’re going to be shifting that decision making and we’re going to have to lose some of the control. How big is your screen as opposed to mine? Are you going to project it on the wall? How big? What color? Is your screen coming up with the same shades of gray as mine? A lot of work will be born digital, exhibited digitally, and disseminated digitally. How do you preserve that? Let’s say we decide you have made some digital imagery which is designed not for paper but for the screen and we buy that as a museum. What is the approved format? Are you going to tell me that I should only show it on a particular screen? Do I have to get the screen and store that too? Is it okay for me to store it the way I store it and show it the way I want to show it? And if subsequent technologies allow me to show it bigger and better and clearer is that okay? It could be like Sol LeWitt: you buy the formula for his pieces and you get people to carry it out. He shows you the colors, the placement, the design, the map, the dimensions of every line. Is that how it’s going to be in digital? I hope not. I don’t want to have to buy a different screen and a different computer for every digital piece I buy. There’s going to have to be some accommodation. We’re trying to invent the rules as we go along.

JK:We’ve been talking kind of how digital photography impacts museums. What do you think about the maturity of vision of people who are working in digital today?

AO:It’s changing very rapidly. Digital is ideally designed for the amateur.

JK:You’re talking about vernacular photography.

AO:There will always be rock and root photographers, there will always be people under the dark cloth, and there will always be people interested in the old processes, but vernacular art often leads the way, and this new medium is great for that.I don’t have to send the images off to the drug store. I don’t need a dark room. I can make nudes of my spouse and nobody else has to see them. Everyone’s got a camera in their cell phone, and they’ve got the ability to shoot now one or two megapixels, but very soon it’ll be seven, ten, or twelve. It’s interesting that people are now holding their cameras out in front of them.

JK: They’re looking at the LCD.

AO:It’s a different relationship to the camera itself. We always used to hold our hands up to our face, and if you do that and wiggle your index finger, everywhere in the world people know that you’re talking about photography–that’s the gesture. Twenty years from now most kids won’t recognize that gesture. You’ll do that and they’ll say, “What is he doing?”

JK: It affects the result as well.There’s a look you get from an eye level camera and a different look you get from a waist level camera.

AO:The accuracy of holding something out at arm’s level is much less, so you lose the ability to precisely frame. There was a picture in the New York Times or LA Times a few months back when the Pope died and there was a procession through St. Peter’s Square. The casket was coming through, there were big throngs of people, and many people were holding their cell phones up above their heads to make a picture. I counted 90 hands holding cameras. I don’t know whether they planned to go there and do that or it was just an instant opportunity. That’s how it’s going to be, working up close with poor lenses, great spontaneity, and mediocre aiming, giving us kind of a casual, fuzzy look at the world. Maybe the world is just a casual, fuzzy place.

JK:One of the differences between photographic art and other arts is that people have a dual experience: nearly everyone in the audience is a photographer. People’s experience as creators of photographs affects how they view photographs. Now their experience is changing.

AO:It won’t be long before we find people making great two-megapixel cell phone camera images. We’re all going to say, “That’s really good,” and the purists will say, “I don’t know. It’s all fuzzy.” You couldn’t make rock and roll without the electric guitar. But once it came, you couldn’t stop rock and roll. Now cell phone cameras are here and other tiny cameras; maybe there will be watch cameras or nose ring cameras. Once these things are out of the box, we’re going to find ways of using them. Right now, within five miles of where we’re sitting, in some house there’s a 14-year-old kid who is going to blow us away with the photographs he makes in a few years, shooting something that we all know, in a way we should have seen, but we didn’t, and this kid will have found it.

JK:It will seem obvious in retrospect.

AO:It will seem totally obvious. There will be new images, new visions, new ideas, and they will be stimulated by the new technology. The other question is, “What do you have to say with the new technologies.” It’s one thing to have the capacity to make it in a different way, but what are you going to say? Artists largely have said the same sorts of things forever. What do we want? We want to be safe, we want to be healthy, we want a good environment to work in, we want to have some control over our lives, and we want our kids to do better than we did. We want to be loved, we want to love somebody, we want to revel in the beauty of our bodies, and we want to reproduce. Artists have always wanted the same things that everyone else has wanted, and they make art about that. We’ve always said the same thing in our art, we don’t really have much choice, we’re people. We drive the same cars and get in the same traffic jams, take the same aspirins, get the same headaches as everyone else. We read the same newspapers, we worry about the world and the wars and the natural disasters, we worry about all the same stuff and we make our art accordingly. People say, “I don’t get this contemporary art. I don’t like anything that’s happening nowadays.” It might be nice if we could all live in Cartier-Bresson’s Paris, grab our bottles of wine and sit on a park bench and snuggle and be poignant, but the world moves along.

JK:Probably Cartier-Bresson’s Paris wasn’t an objective documentary.

AO:It looked that way to him. Here we are at Carmel. In the 1930’s Weston was just down the road photographing sand and peppers. At the same moment 90 miles away on the other side of the mountains Dorothea Lange was photographing migrants looking like the world was coming unglued. Bernice Abbott was in New York making pictures of astonishing building projects that made it look like America was on the march. Roman Vishniac was in Europe photographing the last days of Jewish communities before they were annihilated. It’s all reality. We sit here in a café but people in New Orleans are struggling to find anything useful in their shattered lives and we may all have it a lot luckier than some people in sub-Saharan Africa. Reality is malleable, it’s constantly shifting, it’s different if you just move 50 miles. In fact, if I moved to the other side of this table and into your head, your reality is going to be different from mine. The conditions in your head and the conditions in mine are uniquely ours, and they can only be expressed by us individually. The good artists create a reality we can all relate to in some way.

JK:There’s another thread to digital: manipulation. Do you see photography becoming more unified with the other flat visual arts?

AO:I’m sure that there will be a strain of it that absolutely does. Long before digital photography, photography was taught in art schools across the country, not as a sacred precinct of a special kind of art, but as another mark-making technology. People have been making pictures with a camera and then incorporated other kinds of art making into the work for a long time. Painting on photographs, photolithography, photo silkscreen, and Rauschenberg kind of things.

JK:Ted Orland says many of his students in digital photography classes look at a negative or digital capture as just a place to start, not as a score to play.

AO:Photoshop and all the associated technologies and methodologies have been powerful and seductive. You can’t wait to get your hands on an image and start messing with it. Remember when color photography got easy and cheap in the late 70’s? A lot of people photographed bright-colored cars, flowers, and balloons because they were so thrilled. It didn’t take long to realize that those were boring pictures and that often a restrained hand with color was far more effective. The simile with digital is that now a lot of people are making supercharged pictures with strange juxtapositions of items and objects, bizarre layering of imagery, and odd color combinations, making a picture that was plenty colorful enough into something that is over the top. Most of them are not going to make great contributions to the medium, they’re going to have to learn how to use the tools with restraint and respect, and to use them in ways that aren’t so easily dismissed as artifice.

JK:You think new traditions will develop?

AO:Absolutely.Burning and dodging is easier and much more accurate.That’s too seductive for most photographers to pass up. Yet there will always be some people who want to do it with their fingers, and they will make some great stuff too. But I’m not interested in somebody who is simply a brilliant technician. Dennis High said to me at breakfast, “You don’t go into a publisher and say, ‘I want you to publish this book. You will never see better grammar and spelling in any manuscript as long as you live.’” That’s not the point at all. These are tools. I’m waiting for people to stop being so excited about the tools.

JK:You are probably also waiting for the backlash to die down?

AO:Well, I don’t live in Carmel so I don’t hear as much of it.

JK:It’s not a pitched battle in San Diego?

AO:Many digital photographers come in with a chip on their shoulder saying, “Do you show digital?” It’s a litmus test for me. They’re surprised because they’re expecting me to say: “Get out of my studio. Don’t darken my doorstep. Leave if you use that stuff. It’s not pure.” I represent an institution that collects work from the entire history of photography. Digital photography is photography; it belongs in the museum.

JK:What does the rise of photography as the world’s dominant visual medium have to do with education?

AO: Photography is often employed against our best wishes and our needs. Kids today are inundated with visual imagery that is designed to get them to buy things that they don’t need, and/or to be dissatisfied with themselves as they are. They look in the mirror and find themselves wanting because they don’t look like the models. There’s a huge industry based on our being dissatisfied: fashion, make-up, fat farms, exercise machines and gyms. Our interests are often not served by clever people manipulating us. You and I are old enough to make our own decisions, and an ad doesn’t work all of its magic on us. That’s one of the reasons why advertisers are not excited about our age demographic; they want the 20 year olds who may not have that judgment. If you’ve ever shot fashion, which I did a bit of, you see that when the models walk in off the street in the morning, before the make-up artists and the airbrush people and the Photoshop retouchers get to work, they actually look quite different than in the ad.They actually look like people, instead of like perfection. We need to understand that better as a society. We need to be able to offer a critical education about what a photograph is, what it does, how it works, so that a young person can look at an ad and say, “Who benefits from this?” Then they can decide if they’re being manipulated. We have a program at the museum for teenagers, particularly teenagers at risk, called “Beyond Beauty.” It talks to them about all of this and trains them to see and understand how beauty is a manifestation of what’s inside, not what’s outside.

JK:Since you’ve been running the museum, what’s happened to your personal work?

AO:Failure to progress again. I still make pictures, but not with the regularity and the momentum that I did before. It’s hard to pick up a camera on Sunday and be profound all of a sudden.As we sit here talking and philosophizing about art, the great photographers are shooting. When your readers read this, the great photographers are still shooting, not reading about photography. I’m talking instead of shooting. Probably in the last 25 years I’ve done way too much talking and not enough shooting.

JK:Are you comfortable with the way you’ve made the trade-off?

AO:No. There’s always a piece of me that wishes I could shoot. I photograph the things that are close to me, like my family. I’ve made a lot of portraits of well-known photographers who’ve been in my office or when I’ve been in their homes: Kertesz, Alvarez Bravo, Newman, Roy DeCarava, Duane Michaels, and Joel Meyerowitz. I don’t show these pictures; it’s a conflict of interest for me to be pushing my work around the country. But there will be a moment when I get to do that again. I’m still shooting film because my cameras haven’t died, and I don’t really have time right now in my life to sit in front of a screen for six hours.

I get to travel a lot in my job, and when I travel I’m usually not in a lot of people’s homes, I’m usually the visitor in a city. I often walk the streets. I was in India last year for a conference and I made a lot of photographs there. The subject matter was so seductive. I didn’t often transcend the subject, so there are only a few good pictures. Within a couple days of shooting my eye seems to come back, and the gap between what I’m trying to do and what I actually do seems to shrink, but the first couple of days what comes out of my camera is like rust coming out of the pipes.

As we went to press, I received this communication from Arthur.

I have recently announced my retirement from my position at MoPA. There are a number of things that I have wanted to do in the past, that I haven’t had time for. I feel like there is still an adventure or two left in me. I also think that after 23 years, it will be good for the museum to have a change of leadership. I will stay on until we get a replacement for me. The search is just starting and a number of very attractive candidates have indicated an interest. As for me, I am looking at a few offers; teaching, administrative work, consulting with museums and with collectors, writing. One of the possibilities is that I may pick up my cameras again. I have had a lot of influences in the past years and I am certain that they will deeply affect what I see and how I see it. I am eager to see what is inside my head after all this time.