Interview with Alison Nordström
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
By Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis, PRC Program & Exhibition Manager

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing this year’s EXPOSURE juror, Alison Nordström, over the phone. During a forty-minute conversation, we discussed her role at George Eastman House, where photography is going in the coming decades, and the rise of digital images made by mobile devices.

1. What is your favorite part of working at George Eastman House?

“At George Eastman House I serve as Senior Curator of Photographs and Director of Exhibitions and run a graduate school. Although these are separate jobs, they are inextricably intertwined. In fact, my favorite aspect of working at the Eastman House has to do with the pictures in the collection – studying them in my capacity as curator, showing them to students in my capacity as professor, or organizing them into an exhibition or publication in my capacity as Director of Exhibitions – but my passion always comes back to the objects themselves.”

2. What are some of your upcoming projects at George Eastman House?

“We’ve just opened Untold Stories, a collection survey, in response to the ludicrous situation of having millions of photographs but showing the same 500 or so over and over. This exhibition is about 320 photos broken up into series, or groups of photos, ten to twelve at a time, work we’ve never shown before. Some are recent acquisitions but others have never been shown publically because they were sitting in a box in our archives. Our holdings of Ansel Adams are so broad that we pulled [images] from his earliest portfolios – a nice change from the very familiar Moonrise and Half-Dome. Another big project is our exhibition on Lewis Hine. Eastman House acquired the photographic contents of Hine’s house when he died, some 10,000 objects in total, so we now have 400 objects in an exhibition traveling in Europe [to three different venues]. He’s not as well known in Europe, so we feel we changed the discourse about Hine; people are seeing work of his they never associated with him. We didn’t want to show just child labor or the Empire State Building, we wanted to show those in context with many other Hine photographs.

I knew when I came to the Eastman House nine years ago that I wanted to do a major Hine project.  This retrospective, titled Lewis Hine, opened in Paris in September 2011 at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation and has just closed at the Mapfre Foundation’s exhibition space in Madrid. It will then go to Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, the national museum of photography in The Netherlands, before making its way to the International Center of Photography in New York City at the end of 2013.”

3. Where do you see photography going in the next 20 years?

“Clearly technology will keep changing at a breathtaking pace, and we can expect that photography will become even easier, even cheaper, even more ubiquitous, and that even more people will be photographers. What will the distinction be between the professional and the amateur? There may be less of a distinction, especially in areas such as photojournalism. All the images of the London subway bombings came from witnesses rather than journalists. The core part of photography will not change. We will see more and more blurring of the photograph and the print on paper, a blending of media. Artists will continue to make work with whatever tools are available to them.”

4. What are your thoughts on the rise of digital images created by mobile devices?

“A very small percentage of photos are made with artistic intent. How do you identify the art ones? It’s not by how they look, but by what’s done with them. The world of photography is more diverse that it’s ever been: people have more choice over technology, how the photo will look, how it will be consumed by the public, yet there’s [still] that link to something that was in the real world – that’s what differentiates photos from other types of art and information.

“Eastman House will still have a huge role as cultural influencer, but will an art museum dedicated to photography become confused? For example, Maggie Taylor starts with an antique photo then Photoshops it extensively. Is it a photo? Is it in a category we haven’t even put a name to yet? That will happen more in the marketplace. People don’t necessarily care if [an image] was made with film or digital, how it was produced is the least important part now. Think of Robert Heinecken – he appropriated photographs. In what department should that work go in a museum? What kind of intellectual justification is there? Manipulation has been going on in photography since about 1840. Technologies change much faster than our brains do. Part of the confusion is that we continue to use the language of wet photographs to talk about digital images, just as in the computer world we use old terms for handling paper such as ‘files,’ ‘folders,’ and ‘desktop’ for concepts that exist outside of current language.

5. We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the popularity of photo books through our programs here at the PRC and through interactions with our members. Why do you think this increased interest exists?

“One reason why photo books are becoming more prevalent and more popular among photographers is the ease of making them in a digital era. Because photographs have become so expensive in the market, the photo book has also become its own collectible object and allows photographers to become their own publishers. Many photographers now come to reviews or meetings with Blurb books. Back when the Eastman House librarian first started acquiring photo books, there were maybe only twelve important photo books to collect a year and now there are thousands each year.”

6. At the PRC, we’ve also seen an increased interest in traditional and alternative processes despite the trend toward digital. Please comment.

“Yes, we’ve seen that as well. Gelatin silver print making has been added to the ‘alternative process’ category in our workshop programs at the Eastman House.”

7. I’ve noticed a parallel between the invention of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888 and the digital cameras of the 21st century and how that affects people’s attitudes toward photography. What are your thoughts on that connection?

“Yes,  ‘You press the button, we do the rest.’ There is a similar reaction to amateurs now as there was in the late 19th century. As photography becomes easier, more and more people take pictures, which happened with Kodak cameras. That led to the rise of Pictorialism, which was an incredibly difficult way of creating work that didn’t look like what everyone else was doing … The parallel to contemporary times is scale; the snapshot aesthetic is often noticeable, but art photographers will often produce large scale prints as a way to distinguish them from actual snapshot photos.”

EXPOSURE 2012: The 17th Annual PRC Juried Exhibition opens on Tuesday, June 5 with a reception on Thursday, June 7 from 6:30 – 8:00 pm. Dr. Nordström will attend the opening reception, so please join us for some refreshments and a sampling of work from this year’s selected photographers.

Dr. Nordström will also present a two hour interactive seminar, along with EXPOSURE 2011 photographer Rania Matar, on strategies and techniques to advance your development as an artist and your career as a creative professional. Click here for more information.

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