Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort organised in 1991 by Peter Gallassi, Chief Curator at MoMA at that time, was the first photography exhibition that really inspired me. It redefined the medium – it was no longer the medium of truth as you could manipulate images to tell a story. More recently, Louise Lawler; Why Pictures Now (2017) organised by Roxana Marcoci, was amazing. As Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times review of the exhibition (May 11, 2017) “Ms. Lawler’s images have multiple lives, exposing the ceaseless flexibility of photographs.”
What makes an image stand out is the content, not just the form. Is there an idea there or are you just recording an anecdote? The decisive moment interests me less than the idea. Digital photography can create complex questions for viewers. It’s like a seamless magic that again defies photography as a medium of truth. But that’s not new. ‘Spirit photographers’ of the 19th century would manipulate the image so there appeared to be a ghost behind the subject.
I’ve loved photography since I was a kid. My parents are both rocket scientists and my dad built a dark room in our house to experiment with photography. He made his own developer, his own fixer, and we rinsed our images in the bath tub.
I have degrees in both finance and in art history. As a manager in a big institution if you don’t have basic accounting, you’ll be lost. I did a bachelor’s degree in Economics at the Sorbonne in Paris but when I saw the kind of jobs on offer, working in an office, doing stats, I thought I can’t do that. I tried to get into the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie at Arles but didn’t get in so I went and did a postgraduate qualification in Art and Technique of the Image at Paris 8.
I met some artists who were moving to New York to experience the scene and decided I wanted to go with them. My parents said: “you’re not just going to New York to fool around, why don’t you get a degree while you’re there?” I did a BA in Art History with a minor in photography at the School of Visual Arts. At that time I wanted to be a photographer. I found a job as a retoucher in Lexington Labs on 23rd street, the largest lab in NY at the time. I met some of the top fashion photographers in NY and worked with Kim Caputo on the creation of her magazine, Blind Spot.
This was the mid-1990s. There was no digital photography, everything was done by hand. It was an extremely fast-paced environment. I worked hard, long hours, weekends, and ended up knowing pretty much everyone in the fashion industry at that time in NY. Ultimately I became the manager of the lab working with top end photographers.
My breakthrough was becoming the manager at Steven Klein studio. He wasn’t an easy person to work with but he trusted me and taught me everything there was to know about fashion production. I learned on the job how to budget and produce a fashion shoot and to manage a studio. After some time focusing on fashion production, I worked as the manager of two art galleries and then here at MoMA.
When you deal with finance, you deal with people. My main role is financial, and involves preparing and monitoring the department’s annual budget, requests for capital expenditures and all departmental funds but I also assist the Chief Curator, oversees all administrative functions of the department and act as departmental liaison to other curatorial departments.
You come out of school with a lot of ideas about who you are and the workplace will tell you that’s not for you. You have to be fluid, you have to let the workplace shape you. Be open to criticism, to evolving, changing and creating yourself.
I didn’t become a photographer as I’d planned but instead the industry pulled me in. I fitted the role of manager, and because of my particular background I could help the photographer in a tremendous way. In the early days I’d work from 5am until 11pm. You can start at the bottom in New York City and make it to the top but you have to work. In fact, my biggest advice for anyone who wants to make it in this industry – whether as a photographer, curator or manager – is to work hard. If you aren’t ready to work, there are 150 people waiting behind you.
To make it as a photographer, you need to assist. Schools are going to teach you how to use cameras, how to use Photoshop, and a good one will teach you about Art History and Theory but working as a photographer is completely different and you can only learn that on the job.
Having a plan B is always a good idea as it gives you an insight into another discipline and also gives you something to fall back on. It might be teaching, finance, science – I had a friend who studied biology, physics and film. He ended up working in a lab filming cells developing on a microscope. Your unique combination can give you a career that you couldn’t have otherwise.