An Interview with the Curators of Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Women Photographers in the Hood's Collection

Posted on June 01, 2004 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, summer 2004
Kevin Perry '04, Megan Fontanella '04, and Jennifer Schreck '04, Hood Museum of Art interns

This winter, Kevin Perry '04, public relations intern, interviewed Megan Fontanella '04, Class of 1954 intern, and Jennifer Schreck '04, part-time special projects intern, about the exhibition they curated during their senior year. The show features the work of over two dozen photographers, all of them women, from the permanent collection of the Hood.

KEVIN: Why women photographers?

JENNIFER: When Megan and I started to conceive of this exhibition, we began by looking at all of the photographs in the Hood's collection. We were really surprised by the richness and diversity of the photographs by women. Many of the major works are by well-known photographers who happened to be female. As we considered the works and tried to narrow them down further, we kept finding ourselves drawn to the works by the women.

MEGAN: We wanted to take a somewhat personal approach, looking back at women photographers in the collection. At the same time, we wanted to look forward and perhaps show that while the Hood might be less strong when it comes to representing the work of women painters and sculptors in its permanent collections, it is already fairly strong—and is in the process of growing stronger—when it comes to photography.

KEVIN: Which works inspired the exhibition? Which works most inspire you personally?

JENNIFER: I was really drawn toward the photodocumentary work, such as the street photographs by Margaret Bourke-White in the exhibition. These document social history at the time but also demonstrate considerable innovation on the part of the woman artist. Bourke-White was one of the first women to shoot for Life magazine.

MEGAN: Neither of us had studied photog- raphy ourselves, but what we found most exciting was that, using our training in art history, we were able to approach these works very deliberately. We understood the ways they played on certain time-honored themes, and the ways they self-consciously recalled past works from a variety of culture areas. The works that most excite me are those that play with art history, such as the Hood's new acquisition, Justine Kurland's Jungle Gym, which looks back at nine- teenth-century landscape painting, and Sally Mann's Luncheon on the Grasses, which plays deliberately with Edouard Manet's iconic work of the same title.

KEVIN: How did you go about organizing Looking Backward, Moving Forward?

JENNIFER: As we studied the collection of women photographers, we recognized a set of ideas that these nineteenth- and twentieth-century women tended to focus on. The exhibition is arranged thematically on four subjects: the body, the landscape, the document, and the still life. These are essential photographic categories, but the ways in which women have dealt with them is what concerns us most in this project.

MEGAN: We could have organized the works chronologically, of course, but that seemed too conventional, and there are still gaps in the museum's holdings. We also found that by juxtaposing different artists from different time periods, we could challenge viewers' expectations about these subjects and ask new questions about photography as it is practiced by women.

KEVIN: How does your project fit within the other exhibition programs this year?

JENNIFER: Our exhibition opens at roughly the same time as Luis Gispert/Loud Image, and it is located immediately adjacent to those works, which are extremely hip and represent a strong youth cultural sensibility. I think that these two projects will actually complement each other very nicely.

MEGAN: The relation of our exhibition to Gispert's work takes the form of a dialogue between artists past and present, between female and male artists, and between pop and highly cultivated representations. Gispert focuses on pop culture but returns to prior art historical themes quite deliberately in his work. We hope that we have broadened this discussion by exploring the classic art historical genres from another point of view.

KEVIN: What will visitors to this exhibition take away with them?

MEGAN: Visitors will see what women are doing today with photography: how they're experimenting with this important medium, how they're pushing the envelope, how they're exploring a whole range of possibilities. I also want visitors to have a sense of our own voices as curators. I hope that through this project we may have helped this community to appreciate the strengths and diversity of the Hood's permanent collection. Most of all, I want people to have a sense that the Hood is investing in photography, and especially in the work of women photographers, because the staff recognizes the significance of these contributions in historical, intellectual, and critical terms.

JENNIFER: Visitors can look forward to seeing many of the Hood's new acquisitions from just the past few years through the eyes of two very interested students.

KEVIN : What will you remember about this experience?

MEGAN: The thing that surprised us most was the scale of an exhibition this large and how challenging it is to curate a space of the size we were given. The Space for Dialogue process, in which I had just five small framed works and two small walls to show them on, was a great warm-up. Still, I didn't anticipate the planning that would go into designing this larger gallery space, or the effort that goes into selecting roughly forty works from a collection of nearly two thousand images. Add that to figuring out how best to communicate in a clear way to multiple audiences, and you begin to understand the work that is involved in even the most modest exhibition projects. Working together, we found that even after you've agreed on which photographs you want to show, how you present them can have a huge impact on how the exhibition is received and understood.

JENNIFER: Organization is the key to planning a successful exhibition; without it, we would have fallen apart.

KEVIN: What else did you accomplish this year?

JENNIFER: I pursued a thesis project within the art history department, working on a Hellenistic Greek monument. That was very different from the focus I've given to photography at the Hood. It was exciting to work on both projects simultaneously, and I feel like I really made the most of both experiences.

MEGAN: The nice thing about this exhibition opening as we graduate is that it really stands as the culmination of everything we have done at the Hood as interns this year and in our study of art history at the college. I feel like this project is the highlight of my Dartmouth career, and it represents an opportunity that most people don't get as undergraduates.

Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Women Photographers in the Hood's Collection is on view from June 12 to September 19. This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. The exhibition and free accompanying brochure are generously funded by the William Chase Grant 1919 Memorial Fund, the Hansen Family Fund, and a gift from the Class of 1948.

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Written June 01, 2004 by Kristin Swan