On the Future of Photography Curating: An Interview with Sasha Wolf

By Paula Kupfer

Judging by the frequent essays, articles, and roundtable discussions about the future of photography, it isn’t an issue with an easy or fast resolution. With its historically interdependent relationship with technology, the medium might be forever condemned to a state of flux. That doesn’t stop the conversation from rousing passionate souls. Sasha Wolf is undoubtedly one of them, an art dealer and gallerist deeply committed to the medium. At her eponymous gallery in New York’s Lower East Side, Wolf represents and exhibits the work of emerging and mid-career contemporary photographers. When we met in early June 2015, part of the gallery was under construction, a sign perhaps of greater things to come.

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SW: We’re under construction. We’re expanding the gallery.

PK: That’s one way to think about it. The future of photography curating is about expansion.

SW: We are constantly showing a lot of different artists to new people, and then they come down and they want to see the artists that they saw at the fair. They don’t care if the show is up.

I mean... galleries are stores, and you can dress them up anyway you want, but they exist to sell things…It used to be that it was more like a salon or an atelier where there was a lot of different work. Instead, we’re sort of trying to elevate ourselves more to the level of museums, and we all know the ways in which galleries operate like museums: they introduce artists to the world...

PK: Often before museums do...

SW: Right, most of the time…But I think that it’s an ideal that’s not sustainable. I put up shows all the time that I know I can’t sell, because I think the work is great.

PK: So there’s a curatorial aspiration or intent that carries a certain currency, even if it goes counter to the business mentality.

SW: Absolutely, that’s right: to balance this sort of curatorial exhibition part of the gallery with the need to sell, with the basic demands of doing business in New York City.

PK: Do you see yourself as a curator too?

SW: Oh totally, yeah. I mean... my decisions are based on what I think is worth sharing…It’s not based on what I think I can sell.

PK: Once you’ve decided what’s worth sharing, do you also consider any trends in photography?

SW: No. I don’t care. I know what they are. I’m profoundly aware of what’s going on in the photography world, but it has no effect whatsoever on what I do.

PK: Who is setting those parameters for approval or setting the trends? Is it curators? Is it galleries? Is it artist-driven?

SW: I think—I have to be really careful here—I think that there’s a number of phenomena that go on in the art world that have contributed to the state that we’re in now, which is to say that like a lot of other mediums, we are extremely addicted to the phenomenon of new, and I think that that is a very dangerous place to be.

PK: What do you mean?

SW: The emphasis on new form is sort of all encompassing. So we really lose out on a lot of amazing, unique, authentic content, if the form looks too familiar. And I think that that’s really sad, because I think we all lose. There are a lot of people who will never see some of the greatest artists making work today, some of the most effective and some of the most unique, content-wise, because their form isn’t new. And not only is it a real loss for the viewers, it’s also a real loss for the artists to not get the support that they deserve.

PK: And by art world, do you mean the commercial art world, the galleries?

SW: The whole art world is one big monster. They’re just interdependent. So if museums are going to have shows that have new in the title, then galleries are going to feel they have to. It’s impossible to know what came first, the chicken or the egg. But they’re now in complete concert. I don’t think there’s any difference. I mean you have some galleries who just refuse to do that. I think I’m one of them, and I have colleagues who I think are too... And it doesn’t mean our program is old-timey. It just means that we’re not getting on the trend train. I call it the “tyranny of the new.” And why would I want to willingly live under that sort of structure? I don’t.

PK: So do you see it as walking in the opposite direction?

SW: Well, I feel forced to take the stand, because I feel like those of us who refuse get on board that, the new train… I feel like we are sort of by default taking a stand, so I think that I probably will take a more public stand on this topic, and what it means for straight photography…We talk about photography now as if we’re at crossroads, leaving behind the old and moving forward with the new, which I would say has much to do with the computer, digital capture and whatever form.

I actually think art does change the world, and I know for myself that certain photographers and their work has had very profound influence on who I am.

One example I’ll give you: I feel like I really, fully understood, got to the point where I could really appreciate beauty by looking at Harry Callahan’s photographs of Eleanor. In looking at these photographs, I, as a person, grew. I started seeing people in my own life differently, my world widened. And if everyone grows, if everyone can expand a little bit, and we know for a fact that the more expansive people are, the less likely they are to hurt other people, right? So the more we can expand, the better a people we will be collectively.

PK: I’m wondering about reframing the question: about the future of curating photography versus the future of photography. Who is steering the conversation? Can galleries or nonprofit institutions really have an influence?
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SW: That’s my job. I feel like it’s up to me and all the other people who see tons of work to then present it...

PK: How do you frame that responsibility? Do you see it as a responsibility?

SW: I mean, I’m very dedicated to the kind of photography I love and I feel strongly about, which is straight photography.

PK: How do you define that now?

SW: Photographs of the material world…I think it’s about respect. I think if people really respected what photographers do when they go out into the world, and make pictures, they wouldn’t be so loose with vocabulary.There’s a lot of people just don’t have any idea how hard it is to go out and make great work with a camera. Everyone can go make a great photograph, but they don’t know how hard it is to go out and make art.

PK: Do you think people see it as a sideline craft now, because the focus is elsewhere?

SW: I think that’s true. I think there was a really brief period of time where straight photography was considered art, so brief.

PK: But it’s interesting because the people who began doing straight photography, they’re revered now.

SW: Right, there was sort of a certain amount of reverence. Robert Adams is still alive, and Frank. And Lee Friedlander is a great example; he’s still making work… I suspect that if Robert Adams and Lee Friedlander were in their thirties now, that they would be hard-pressed to find a gallery willing to represent them.

PK: What about publishing, and photo-books and their role in promoting straight photography?

SW: Well, this is going to really be a depressing… I sell books out of the gallery, so I certainly can sell a lot of books by photographers whose prints I can’t sell. So I think that there’s a way in which the art world has devalued straight photography to the point where the straighter it is, the less likely art collectors are to collect it. But they love it, and they have to have the book. They just can’t make that leap, and that’s the thing that concerns me the most. Everything that you and I are talking about today comes down to that.

PK: Well, books are more accessible for more people, there’s that aspect too.

SW: That’s a different thing, and that’s of course without question a big part of selling books, young people or people who don’t make a lot of money, but I sell plenty of books to people who have money. They’re just devalued to the point where they’re not going to buy the work to hang in their house even though they love it. And part of it is that it’s not decorative. They don’t think of it as decorative.

PK: So are you speaking about photographers who’ve worked as photojournalists, who are documentarians, but who’ve also crossed over a little bit into the art world?

SW: No, because I don’t work with anyone like that. I mean, my artists are... they’re not documentarians, they’re not photojournalists. My artists, even those who shoot assignments, if you talk to them about their artwork, they don’t think of it as documentary at all.

PK: Because they see it as a devaluing term?

SW: No. Because they think that it’s dishonest, because they don’t want in any way to pretend that they were trying to be objective. I call that type of work that you and I are talking about “post-documentary,” which to me means straight photography, documentary being the jumping-off point, but then layered with the photographers’ overt expression of their inner life, their knowledge of everyone who came before them, and so they’re riffs off of those people in their work, they’re nods and winks to those people, they’re shout outs to painters.

That’s what post-documentary means to me, and that’s certainly very different from when we talk about a documentary photography or certainly photojournalism.

PK: So, thinking again about the new tendencies in photography: you don’t think people will tire of this new aesthetic and there will be a backlash?

SW: You know, I’m not against new. I want to see a new voice; I look for new voices. I just don’t need to always look for new forms. So often to me, when I see new forms, it’s at the expense of overall quality and really true deep and intelligent meaning, beyond the theoretical.

PK: I’m thinking about that in the context of curating too. I wonder how these contemporary straight photographers will be read in the future, as a continuation of a tradition or an anachronistic approach in midst of so-called new forms? And how much further can photography go, away from straight picture-making?

SW: It can’t get any further away than it is now. We have photography shows by non-photographers, so that’s pretty far. But to me one of the most interesting things is when you see a show by a contemporary photographer, and in that same show is work by a photographer from whom that artist is clearly riffing off... I love those conversations.

PK: Trans-temporal approaches.

SW: Yeah. So, you know, for example, Adam Katseff is clearly riffing off of Ansel Adams, and Collier Schorr and Rineke Dijkstra nod to August Sander, and Elinor Carucci to Nan Golden and Sally Mann.

PK: Are their other artists who are still straight shooters but able to enter the conversation?

SW: I think people like David Benjamin Sherry or Chris McCaw feel relevant but... I mean it’s not straight photography, so that’s probably a terrible example.

PK: So you do like some things outside the strictly straight field, so to say...

SW: Oh no, I love process work! Again, there’s no list of commandments here, thou shalt not do this or that. I think you know what I’m pushing back against. I think it can open up a lot, and there can be a lot of really fun conversations happening. One of my favorite photographers is Mark Steinmetz, who is certainly making work in a long established form, but Mark makes some of the most incredible pictures... this guy should be famous! I mean he’s so true to his voice.

PK: Do you think it is that people are so used to looking at pictures now that they react more to photographs that look less like traditional photographs?

SW: The big thing to me is that the art world doesn’t hold up as exemplary that type of work because the form is old. Certainly because it’s a form that people are really familiar with, they don’t stop and look, but I am 100% certain that if you stop and look you will be so rewarded. I mean... you have to stop and look. It doesn’t scream at you. It’s quiet.

PK: Does it need that validation? Does it need that art world validation?

SW: Does it need it? No. But would we all be better off for it? Yeah, because it would mean that more people would get the attention and support they deserve, which means that they have a better chance of making a living and making work. So I think probably some great, great photographers we’ll never know because they gave up, because they couldn’t get anyone to pay any attention.

PK: So are you optimistic or pessimistic?

SW: In my corner of the world I’m optimistic because we’ve continued to grow, and I’m still able to find great artists and my artists are continuing to make great work.

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Paula Kupfer is a writer and editor based in New York. She works as photo editor for The California Sunday Magazine, and was previously the managing editor of Aperture magazine. Kupfer has BA in journalism and Latin American studies from NYU and is currently an MA candidate in Art History at Hunter College.

Sasha Wolf opened her Gallery in the summer of 2007 after spending a number of years as a private photography dealer. Prior to her work in the fine art photography world she was a writer, director and producer in the film and television industries and an award winning short filmmaker. Her last film, Joe, was nominated for the Palme d'Or du court métrage at Cannes and has screened all over the world.

Sasha Wolf Gallery specializes in contemporary photography and represents emerging and mid-career artists. All of the gallery artists are in important private and institutional collections including The New York Museum of Modern Art and the MET, the Decortava, Nelson-Atkins and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to name just a few. The gallery is a member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), the leading art photography accredited association.

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