Doug Nickel, Former Director of the Center for Creative Photography

Doug Nickel

 Ansel Adams originally conceived the Center for Creative Photography, on the University of Arizona Campus, as one of the world's premier photography archives, comprising a museum, teaching institution, and research center in one. A tireless champion for preserving our photographic heritage, Nickel sat down with PhotoWings for a candid, wide-ranging interview to offer advice, to share insider stories, and to discuss the nature of photography and the very real challenges facing the field today.

* Since this interview was conducted, Douglas Nickel has received an endowed chair as Professor in the History of Photography at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. For more information, follow this link.

Click here for more biographical information and links on Doug Nickel

PhotoWings: How did the Center for Creative Photography get its start?

Doug Nickel: The Center was set up back in the 1970s by Ansel Adams. He had been looking for a home for his archive, and he had been talking to the University of California library system. But they told him, frankly, that they were really not a photo archive and they really didn't have the money to do the right things with the stuff.

Quite by accident, Ansel had been invited to put together an exhibition of his works for the University of Arizona by then-President John Schaeffer. Schaeffer was a chemist but a very avid photographer and he loved Adams' work. So Adams and [his wife] Virginia came down for the opening and they met Schaeffer. And during the course of this meeting, they together started working on this idea that had been knocking around in Ansel's head since at least 1935.

In the 1970s, photography was still this underdog medium, and [Ansel Adams] felt it needed its own advocacy organization.

Adams, back in 1935, wrote a book called Making a Photograph, in which he described the need for centers of research about photography. This was before there was a department at The Museum of Modern Art, let alone the George Eastman House. And so finally in 1975 or 1974, he's talking to Schaeffer about this, and Schaeffer said, "Well, I think we can do that here."

His idea was that this would be part of the new library that the university was building, a special collection within it. But as soon as it was set up, it quickly grew. The demand for it and the interest in it in 1975 was tremendous. And so within a year, the first five archives were committed - Adams,Wynn BullockAaron SiskindFred Sommer, and Harry Callahan all came in the first year. And then, in the early years, there continued to be more archives that were added. The [Edward] Weston archive came to us, the Garry Winogrand archive, and others - at least 60 other important names in photographic history.

So that was really the kind of core mission and work of the Center, was to preserve these archives, make them available to researchers. In Adams' head, it was really to promote the medium of photography. Remember, in the 1970s, photography was still this underdog medium, and he felt it needed its own advocacy organization. He actually set up the Friends of the Center simultaneously, and the Center was to be dealing with the history part of it, and the Friends would be dealing with the contemporary part of it. The Friends originally did not have a building; it was just supposed to be a group of people who came together who promoted photography and its contemporary expressions.

[Ansel] Adams had in his head this idea that there needed to be a research center in photography.

Jim Enyeart, when he was the Director, raised the money to construct our building back in the late '80s, and so we had a facility that was specially designed for the kind of work that happens here. And the idea was always that there would be a gallery to show off works in the collection. In the period before I got here, there was a lot more attention being put into organizing temporary exhibitions and relatively less energy into identifying and acquiring major archives.

PhotoWings: So what are you doing right now?

Doug Nickel: When I got here, now just over two years ago, the first thing that we did was rewrite our Mission Statement. And that became the first part of a strategic five-year plan. Part of the job was really rededicating the Center to some of the activities it was originally designed to do.

hy The Field Of Photographic History May Be Atrophying

PhotoWings: Have there been any challenges in returning to the Center's original vision?

Doug Nickel: One of the things I recognized was that none of the previous directors were trained at the doctorate level in the history of photography - the level now required to teach at major universities. Jim Enyeart was a photographer scholar and Terry Pitts I believe, received his masters degree while employed here, having started off in the 1970s as the librarian, registrar and then curator at the Center. When the University selected me - someone who combined an academic orientation and museum background - I assumed that what they were looking for was what I could offer - a way of better integrating the Center into the intellectual life of the university.

The museum industry needs photo curators and needs them to be well-trained. And they don't want someone who learned photo history from a studio person or from somebody who specializes in abstract expressionism. They want people trained in photo history.

The Center has every reason to become the preeminent place to teach the history of photography - we have great collections, great staff, all of the knowledge they hold. This ought to be a place where people learn to become curators, or learn to become photo historians in an academic setting. That really had never happened here before. The Center was acting more like a photography museum of the ICP sort or the MoPA sort. More like a Kunsthalle exhibition space.

Back in the '70s, there was this idea that there was this special field called the "history of photography," and you could go study it and become an expert in the history of photography. And so, people like my advisor, [Peter] Bunnell, were appointed to positions at universities. Bunnell actually had the first endowed chair in photographic history, at Princeton, and he taught students a specific body of knowledge called "the history of photography." Malcolm DanielEllen Handy and myself came out of that program thinking of ourselves as people who do photographic history.

What happened in the 1980s and into the '90s is, as university budgets were cut, those cuts tended to be passed along to individual departments, especially in the arts and humanities. As the federal subsidies to universities were reduced (in part because the Cold War ended) there was a lot of money going into science and engineering programs, but arts and humanities funding was scaled back. Universities decided that they couldn't really cut their engineering and science programs because that's where their future money was going to come from - those [students who] went out and made a lot of money and gave back to the university. So they compensated for these cuts by moving money from the humanities - from the library system or from the English department - to keep the science and engineering budgets healthy.

Art history chairs found themselves often in this position of asking, "Well, can we afford a specialist in the history of photography? Let's see if the person who does modern art will also do photography, or maybe that guy who teaches studio photography wouldn't mind doing a photo history course every once in a while." So the number of positions of people [who entered] photographic history as a specialization gradually shrank because the opportunity to study it as such shrank.

That ends up being a great opportunity for the Center, because the jobs are still out there. The museum industry needs photo curators and needs them to be well-trained. And they don't want someone who learned photographic history from a studio person or from somebody who specializes in abstract expressionism. They want people trained in the history of photography.

And increasingly, the standard keeps getting higher. Twenty years ago, as a rule, you didn't have to have a Ph.D. to be a curator, but now you do, at any of the more prestigious museums. The doctorate is the credential necessary to have one of those good jobs. So at the same time that there are a smaller number of academic programs to get a Ph.D., the field is requiring it.

This is an opportunity for the Center - we can be one place where that next generation of curators gets trained. We have a substantial teaching collection. When I left SFMoMA, the photo collection was about 14,000 works total. The Center has 80,000 which is vastly larger collection than almost any museum and a vast amount of original material for students to delve into. We can teach here with an unapologetic object orientation.

In the '80s and '90s, it became very fashionable to be a theorist. Some academics said, "I'm not interested in objects, and I have no interest in the museum. The museum is a corrupt institution. I'll have nothing to do with it."

PhotoWings: So there aren't any other universities teaching photo history?

Doug Nickel: Yes, several, but it's how the subject is approached in the various programs that I am addressing. Peter Bunnell has retired from Princeton, and he used to teach classes in the museum using original objects that he had collected as the Art Museum's faculty curator. It's not surprising that so many of us went off and did museum work after that. His successor there, Elizabeth Anne McCauley, wrote two seminal books demonstrating a social history approach to the medium. She is best known for her pioneering role in that approach, but she has also always appreciated the fine art tradition and incorporated it into her work and teaching.

Click "Listen" to hear what Dianne Nilsen, Rights and Reproductions Coordinator at the Center for Creative Photography, had to say about Ansel Adams' Horseman view camera.

Kim Sichel, who did the Germaine Krull a few years ago, is at Boston University and she advises Ph.D. students and several of them have become museum people. She's done pretty well in that regard. Her area is modern photography in Europe in the '20s and '30s, but she's produced people who have done theses on Carleton Watkins and other nineteenth century subjects. Then there's Ulrich Keller who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, he's been active in the field for decades. Likewise Joel Snyder at the University of Chicago - he sets the standard for the rest of us, and he has produced students who have taken museum positions. My colleague Geoffrey Batchen, who teaches graduate students at the City University of New York has emphasized the study of vernacular forms of photography and I've been impressed with some of his students.

In the '80s and '90s, it became very fashionable to be a theorist. Some academics said, "I'm not interested in objects, and I have no interest in the museum. The museum is a corrupt institution. I'll have nothing to do with it." The museum itself became a field of inquiry. But I have found younger scholars today approach the question more openly and are not so polarized in their thinking as the previous generation. That's why I say it matters how the teaching happens as much as where it happens - or the number of places - because if students are coming in to study the history of photography and their professors are telling them to never have anything to do with a museum because it's bad, then we're going to find ourselves in a worse situation where there aren't enough younger people trained as curators to take over the jobs that open up.

And you want the museum field to flourish with the best trained people - academically trained people - not who have to do all the training on the job, which is likely if there aren't candidates with Ph.D.s in photographic history from a known professor.

You can track this as kind of an arc. For quite some time, photography curators were often trained in art history or were practicing photographers who were trained through experience in a museum photography department or who were self-trained in various ways. And then in the '70s and '80s, increasingly the best jobs were given to those who had studied the history of photography with scholars like Eugenia Parry Janis at the University of New Mexico. She held an endowed chair but when she retired the department lost the chair. Carl Chiarenza taught history of photography at the University of Rochester, he also occupied an endowed chair that was not retained for teaching traditional history of photography when he retired.

These were both important photo historians who were taught in respected departments. When Chiarenza retired from the University of Rochester, they didn't replace him with a photo historian. So the field of photographic history is really atrophying, and that's why I say it's sort of an impending crisis in terms of training, because this trend that started in the '80s and '90s is now starting to manifest symptoms.

When jobs are opening up-sort of mid-level photo curator jobs - at this point, I get calls from my colleagues at museums saying, "Do you know of any bright young people who might be interested in taking this job?" And we're all scratching our heads because there aren't these bright young people out there to take the jobs. There's a real hole in terms of talent.

So one of the things that I think this place can be doing is training those people and getting them out into the field, into jobs, so that the quality of scholarship and research that goes into exhibitions remains at a high level. [Some of us] were academically trained photo historians who acted as curators because we believed to our bones that the mission of a curatorial department was essentially educational, that our job was to take those ideas about photo history that were really compelling and then make them available to the broadest possible museum-going audience.

PhotoWings: So do you think there's a different mindset between someone who's had your kind of training and somebody who might have come up with a different background? Maybe been a photographer?

Doug Nickel: Yes, inevitably. A colleague of mine has observed how photo people tend to be rather tribal. Those of us who love photography feel like we're part of a community that really believes in the thing. And that's the biggest difference. I'm not in any way embarrassed to describe myself as a photo historian. It's something I really believe in. We talk about the field with this presumption that there is a field called "photography" that it's our job to do something about.

But if you talk to somebody who's trained in painting, who then takes over a photography job someplace, they've never been allowed to think of themselves that way. They think of themselves as an art historian, or a modernist, or they have some other kind of identity, which is different. And it's the biggest difference, I think.

PhotoWings: Are there any curators with photography backgrounds?

Doug Nickel: Yes. Unfortunately, they face a number of prejudices. There's this idea, in some quarters, of the artist as someone who's inarticulate and expresses themselves through their art. But it's a mythology. There are some incredibly intelligent curators who started as photographers and who developed into really good researchers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to hiring at the better museums, a person whose background is as a studio person, instead of as an academic with credentials, is going to be at a disadvantage. People are going to want to look for proof of activity on behalf of the scholarly side of the field.


Building A Research Archive

PhotoWings: How did the staff at the Center for Creative Photography impact its exhibitions?

Doug Nickel: Before I arrived, the shows that were being organized by the Center - many of them very good - had to do with topical issues like immigration or the problem of being a teenage girl in America; socially or politically-oriented thematic issues, and less exclusively about the photographers whose archives were here.

Adams never advocated that the Center be a teaching institution, but that's my idea. I think, really, the field is approaching a crisis in terms of professional training.

Some in the field and the board here argued for bringing the Center back to what they felt it was established to do. There are 250 institutions across the country showing contemporary photography, but there is only one research archive devoted primarily acquiring and promoting the archives of major photographers. The Center was specifically set up to do that. The George Eastman House is a museum that as it happens also retains some very important archives. It has the Nickolas Muray archive and the Edward Steichen archive, ICP has the Weegee archive and Princeton has the Minor White archive. But none of those places were set up first and foremost to collect and preserve research archives. They were set up to be museums, and for a variety of reasons, each ended up acquiring archives or being left archives, which they are saddled with managing as they try to do their core work. You know, the Walker Evans archive went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art because the Met wanted to do a retrospective and have all the material close at hand. Those materials will now be well cared for but the Met was not established as an institution with this function in mind.

But now I get these pleas from people saying, "Isn't there any way you can get me into the Walker Evans archive to do research?" [Museums are] so busy working on their exhibitions that they don't have time to accommodate a scholar who needs six months of access to do a dissertation or something. The Center is the only place in the world that that was specifically built to acquire archives and then make them available to scholars and the general public. That's the role we plan in the greater ecosystem of photography.

As Director of the Center, I recognize the outstanding research and archival needs the field has. The five-year plan lays out this updated return to the Center's original mission. Adams never advocated that the Center be a teaching institution, but that's my idea. I think, really, the field is approaching a crisis in terms of professional training.

Back in the 1970s, when photography first became a hot topic, it became very interesting to collectors. It became interesting to museums to collect and show photography back then. Dealers started springing up. You know, there were only two in 1969 (The Witkin Gallery and Harry Lunn), and then suddenly there was this big flourishing of the photo market and dealers started getting into it. By the end of the decade there were dozens, and now there are hundreds. You look at the auctions and things like that - we know it's doing very well in that regard. Publishing is doing very well.

Where and How Our Photographic Heritage Is Saved

PhotoWings: Can you describe the differences between a collection, a catalogue, and an archive?

Doug Nickel: Well, I can give you our working definitions. Most art museums and private individuals have collections. And often, depending on the particular mandate of the institution or individual, what a collection usually aspires to is a kind of breadth. So (real estate developer) Paul Sack says, "I'm going to collect photographs that are places that I can rent or lease, and I'm not interested in what happens after 1970." So what he's looking for is as many examples of that as he can find. That's what a collection is.

An archive is everything that a photographer does in their life that is worthy of attention by history. It really is designed to explore depth, instead of breadth.

An art museum's collection isn't very different. They'll say, "Well, of course, we have to have an [Eugene] Atget and we'd really like to have also a[Andreas] Gursky and at least one or two Cindy Sherman." And so they try to make sure they have one of everything that falls under their broad mandate. If it's modern art, then they want to have an example of every important modernist photographer and usually the best examples they can get.

Conversely, an archive is everything that a photographer does in their life that is worthy of attention by history. It really is designed to explore depth, instead of breadth. What you're trying to do is recover documents - including original photographs, but also negatives and work prints and paper documents, letters, memoranda, publications - that allow you to understand in a very deep way how that photographer worked, what their life was about, who they knew, what their influences were, all these sorts of questions. Those aren't necessarily questions that can be answered with a traditional museum.

What an archive tries to do is have everything all in one place. Because what a researcher will want to do is figure out how it is that a famous picture came into being.

When John Szarkowski did the Ansel Adams at 100 exhibition in San Francisco, one of the things I was happy to incorporate into the multimedia component was Adams' famous picture from 1932 called Frozen Lake and Cliffs. Everybody knows it. It's reproduced often. As it turns out Adams actually took six other pictures on the same spot. They are variants. Adams was working his way up to get to the picture that we all know. What an archive can do is let you see that process of discovery, how the photographer circled closer in, until he finally got the thing that he was trying to get out of the subject matter. An art museum doesn't have the luxury of keeping all of that stuff. If they kept every near miss that went along with the creation of a good work, they would quickly fill themselves to overflowing and not be able to get anything done. That's why it's important for places like CCP to exist that have a different job.

PhotoWings: You talked a lot about this being a research center. But who else has archives?

Doug Nickel: Oh, in this country, George Eastman House in Rochester, the University of Texas at Austin Library. The Amon Carter Center in Fort Worth. As I mentioned earlier, ICP has the Irving Penn archive, and then Museum of Modern Art in New York has the Atget archive purchased from Berenice Abbott. The Getty Research Institute - which is different from the Getty Museum - has some archives of photo dealers and historians. For instance, they bought Beaumont Newhall's papers. Steven White was a dealer in Los Angeles for a number of years. He sold his papers to the GRI. So [the Getty Research Institute] is a kind of scholarly repository that's not specific to photography. It has vast holdings from art historians and various other kinds of research materials. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the Walker Evans archive.

There are different degrees of intentionality that go along with this. Princeton has the Minor White archive because Peter Bunnell was a trusted student and friend of Minor, and when he died, he wanted Peter to look after the materials. And Peter was at Princeton, so that's where they went. But if Peter had been teaching in Texas, they would have gone to Texas.


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It may be hard to believe, but the work of noted documentary photographer Eugene Atget nearly ended up in the trash-heap, but for the interventions of Man Ray and a chance friendship between Atget and Berenice Abbott.


An Urgent Need for Communication Among Those With Common Interests

PhotoWings: Are there any books that talk about how these things have been saved?

Doug Nickel: I wish. It's astonishing to me that those institutions collecting photographers' archives have never formed a group to talk about how they do their work and organize archival planning.

There are people who go through programs to get degrees in being an archivist. We've got two trained archivists here. They go through a kind of generic program that would have allowed them to be an archivist of maps or an archivist of Western prints, or you name it - the basic skills are the same. And then they come to a place like this and they learn all the specifics of archiving photographic careers. But it seems to me that we're past due for a broader conversation in the field about how these things are done.

To my knowledge, none of us are conversing with other institutions in a sustained way ... the field has acted like the proverbial herd of cats. Everyone's been going in their own direction and doing things according to organic practices, based on habit and tradition.

When I was at the Oracle conference last fall, I approached some of the other representatives of institutions that have archives and proposed that we do this. There's a need at the other end as well: Photographers want to know how to put together their archive. A colleague named Fred Baldwin, in Texas, who runs a photographic organization that doesn't collect archives, but he has been approached by individuals who say, "Well gee, I think that if I just have my archive put together the proper way, that these important collecting institutions would want it - that it's more valuable if it's organized. So, how do I know what to keep? How do I know what is going to be important to people? How do I know how to organize it?" Fred suggested that there be a kind of cookbook for photographers that tells them how to make those decisions. So I think that there's a desire at both ends - at the institutional end and at the photographer end - for this kind of information to be more formulated and shared.

I think, in this regard, the field has acted like the proverbial herd of cats. Everyone's been going in their own direction and doing things according to organic practices, based on habit and tradition. And I think that it would mark a moment of maturity of the field to begin talking about these things [and] to have a more concerted effort to talk between institutions about these issues of shared concern. The danger is you have to give up a habit. The advantage is that you hear how other people do it, and maybe they're doing it in a way that's better and makes more sense for you.

What the digital era portends, in this regard, is you now are required to think about standards that go outside of your institution. If your data is being shared by other people, you've got to be able to talk to them electronically in order for that to happen.

There are standards that are developing for things like cataloging records and scanning standards of what's going to work on the Web and what's going to work for a book. So there's a lot of that information-sharing going on right now.

Andy Smith, who owns Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, was trying to get together a kind of discussion group over the summer. He's particularly interested in the relationship between scholarship and the photography market.

If a photographer's important enough to have a book, he or she's important enough to collect. So there's a sense that there's a real connection between what researchers do and what ultimately happens in the marketplace for photography.

We know that if an academic or curatorial department publishes a book on a photographer who's never been published before, the market for their work is going to change. A lot of collectors are looking for knowledge so they can make informed decisions about collecting, but also there is an attitude- "if a photographer's important enough to have a book, he or she's important enough to collect." There's a sense of a real connection between what researchers do and what ultimately happens in the marketplace for photography.

There are lots of other kinds of photographic archives that are archives but don't resemble us. The Bettmann Archive that Bill Gates bought is essentially a kind of picture stock house repository of millions of images. Technically, it's an archive, but it's not an archive based upon individual photographers. It's a different thing.

PhotoWings: So they may be called archives but they're not really archives in the context that [Centerfor Creative Photography] is an archive.

Doug Nickel: Yes. They're more like picture agencies that have been purchased and are now administered. So Life magazine, likewise, now has an archive of work that's organized according to a different principle than individual photographers.

The Kinsey Institute has an archive of photographs of different sexual practices. Again, they're an archive, but it's more subject-oriented than it is photographer-oriented.

PhotoWings: So we talked about what a collection is. We talked about what an archive is. What is a catalog?

Doug Nickel: Well, if you mean by that a catalogue raisonné, that is a traditional publication in the field of art history that is essentially a catalog of everything an artist has done. So for places that collect archives, that's an important thing.

These tend to be fairly specialized publications. In other words, if you're a fan of [Edward] Weston'swork, you may not necessarily want to sit down with 2,500 Edward Weston images in a book. You probably want the 70 that are the best. But if you're a scholar doing research, you want to see everything that somebody has produced. So these are very effective tools in describing what you have in your archive.

The field of photography has been pretty slow in catching up with the rest of art history in this regard. I think there have only been three or four catalogue raisonné in photography ever done. And just in the past few years. A couple of years ago, The Getty Museum did a catalogue raisonné of Julia Margaret Cameron's work. It took, I think, eight or ten years to collect all the information, because essentially what you're doing is trying to find every Julia Margaret Cameron print in existence. You want to find out how many there are, and where they are. You want to be able to give scholars and researchers an authoritative document - these are all of the ones that are real Cameron's. The Getty is in a position to do a very expensive and time-consuming project like that, and it came out a couple years ago.

The difficulty with a book like that is, because it's so expensive, it usually isn't going to sell a lot of copies. You usually have to underwrite it, because it'll be a money-loser. The Center did something that's very much like a catalogue raisonné, although technically isn't one, several years ago with this book of all of the pictures in our Edward Weston collection. Because we have the Weston archive, we've got the world's largest collection of Weston photographs. [A catalogue raisonné will] have small images, lots of them, and then catalogs and records to go along.

The Center's Weston publication turned out to be not exactly a catalogue raisonné because it only accounts for everything that we have here, which is a very comprehensive collection, but [it] doesn't guarantee that every picture Weston ever did is going to be reproduced. This is technically a collection catalog, as opposed to a catalogue raisonné.

But, we are now poised to become the first institution ever in the history of the world, to my knowledge, to attempt a catalogue raisonné for a 20th-century photographer. We're going to do a Harry Callahan catalogue raisonné in the next few years, based on the archive here. It may be a traditional publication, or an electronic publication or a combination of the two.

If one does a catalogue raisonné of a 19th-century photographer, it's really a catalogue of all the works that survive, not all the works that were done. But if you have a photographer's archive from somebody closer to your own time, then it becomes a catalogue of everything that they did because, presumably, everything they did survived and is available to you.

The difficulty with a catalogue raisonné is that you go to all this great effort and time and expense to produce the thing, and if somebody produces one picture that you missed, your catalogue is immediately out of date.

So the advantage of doing a catalogue electronically is that, when that happens, you add it. You might choose at moments to do an imprint version, but ultimately what you're trying to do is something that continues to grow as more information comes along.

Creating a modern catalogue raisonné brings up a whole host of really interesting issues which haven't ever been tackled before. If you're dealing with a working photographer in the 20th century, does the catalogue raisonné include every print that [the photographer] exhibited or published? We certainly know that the photographer approved those to go out into the world. Does it include everything they ever printed but might not necessarily have exhibited or published? Say they printed something and signed it, but never sold it and never exhibited it or published it. Would the catalogue include that? Would it include variants of every picture that they did? Would it include every negative that they made? These are all of the decisions that have to be made in terms of determining what it means for a photograph to exist. Does it exist publicly? Does it exist privately? Does it exist as an interim objector as a final object?

Putting together an archive or catalogue raisonné is no small undertaking. A catalogue raisonné should include every notable photograph the artist ever took. And when a work slips through the cracks, it can be just a bit embarrassing.


And then you get into somebody like Garry Winogrand, who died with all of those rolls of film unprocessed. Garbage bags full of unprocessed film. So there, the question becomes how much intentionality on the part of the photographer is necessary to decide what goes into the catalog and what doesn't?

Britt Salvesen, our curator, is asking these pioneering questions for photography. Since she's in charge of the Harry Callahan catalogue raisonné project, she'll have to decide what goes in and what doesn't go in, and [she'll] have to be able to justify this when she writes the introduction to the publication.

The Fate of Photographs: What Gets Saved?

PhotoWings: How much say does a photographer or their estate have? What if there is an image that a photographer loves and you guys don't think it's important? Judgment varies. I remember Ruth Bernhard really loved her Gift of the Commonplace, and it was her nudes that became famous. So what kind of decision-making power does the photographer have?

Doug Nickel: Well, everything follows from trying to figure out what the photographer had in mind. If Harry published or exhibited a picture, we know that he liked it enough to share it with the world. Or if he gave it away or sold it through his dealer, we know that he was comfortable with it leaving his hands.

The hard questions come if he produces 30,000 color transparencies. It's an interesting treasure trove of imagery. But did Harry ever say it was okay for them to go out? No. So that's where [Britt] needs to do her deliberation and make a good argument.

PhotoWings: [Henri] Cartier-Bresson also shot in color, but he didn't want anybody to know it. And also, over time, somebody can change their mind.

Doug Nickel: It's true. And then you get somebody like John Gutmann. He made all of his pictures back in the '30s and '40s for magazines. He would photograph a chicken ranch in Petaluma and send it off to the Pix agency and they would sell it to a magazine. Later in life, when a photography art market was created, he went back to those same pictures, selected them out now for a museum audience instead of a magazine audience, and added titles to them.

A photograph like the one titled Omen, which Gutmann did in 1933 when he first got to San Francisco, was just a picture in his file for most of its life. And then when he went back and reprinted it, he titled it because it suggested something about the war that was approaching at that time. So, what does one do with this history? The title was added later to it, and so it was recontextualized. It was an art photograph. Which becomes the authoritative version - the editorial image or the art photograph on the wall?

Ansel Adams, we know, printed Moonrisein many different ways over the course of his career. It was small and kind of gray back in the '40s when he first made it. He, at some point, intensified the negative and started printing it with a lot more contrast, so you get all of these different articulations of the same negative. Which is the one that goes into the catalog to stand for that image?


Context in Photography?

PhotoWings: What can archives tell us about the context of photographs? Do you feel it's important to know the context of a photograph, or should it speak for itself?

Doug Nickel: I don't think any kind of artwork ever actually speaks for itself. I mean, every time we approach something, we bring context to it - all of our knowledge about culture and images and what we know about the photographer. It's almost impossible to be completely naive about photography or art these days, because there's so much in the media and in the general ambient culture about it.

The real question is how do you provide the right kind and right amount of context in the right circumstances? When people go to an art museum, they're standing on their feet for a long time. They usually don't want to read five paragraphs about every picture that's hanging on the wall. Not to mention the fact that the curators know that the amount of time that they're spending reading the label, they're not looking at the picture. So you try to strike the right kind of balance [when] imparting contextual information that will be helpful and illuminating, that makes the person go back and look more closely at the image. And some people will always go through the gallery and not read any labels, and other people go through and only read the labels and never look at the pictures. And so what you're really trying to do is establish the right place on that continuum.

I don't think any kind of artwork ever actually speaks for itself. Every time we approach something, we bring context to it - all of our knowledge about culture and images and what we know about the photographer.

And some shows require a lot more contextual explanation than others. A contemporary photographer who's coming out of my culture and your culture, you don't need to explain that culture to us. We already have that context in our heads. But somebody who was making spirit photographs in the 1870s, well, that's a pretty bizarre practice for us, from our historical point of view. So you need to talk about what it is they were doing, and who they were, and what they were attempting, and what conditions would have allowed them to attempt something like that. Or postmortem photographs from the 19th century. There's all kinds of things that are very foreign to us now, that just can't speak for themselves because the history's all lost.

PhotoWings: So if a photographer's coming to you and wants you to collect their work, do you want a lot of context with it, or do you want to decide for yourself and not come from a biased point of view?

Doug Nickel: Yes, lots of context. Users of the materials can always ignore or reject the context, but if you don't capture it, then you don't have it as an option later on - especially with archive photographers that we're talking to. This is why our oral history project is so important, because that's our chance to ask the questions that people will care about in the future and append the answers to the objects or a general framework for understanding what that person was about.

Some [photographers] feel like they need to talk you into liking the work - that if you like them, you'll like the work, or if they're articulate you'll think the work is better. But that just doesn't work in a gallery setting. So the work needs to be compelling on its own.

PhotoWings: If photographers are going to drop off their portfolio, how much information would you want?

Doug Nickel: That's a slightly different proposition. I remember from my days back at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art going through this. Some young person would call up and ask about our portfolio policy and we'd say, "You should leave it down at the front desk on Wednesdays and pick it up the following week." And they would say, "Oh, but I'd really like to meet with you." And I'd say, "Well, when you come to pick it up, I'd be glad to shake your hand and introduce myself." And they said, "Oh, no. I have to be there when you're looking at the pictures." And I'd say, "Why is that?" And they would say, "Well, to explain them." And I would say, "Hmm. Okay, imagine this strange scenario: Say we decided to go ahead and purchase your work [and] we put it up in the exhibition. Are you telling me that you would need to stand next to the work and explain the work to every visitor who comes into the gallery for them to really appreciate what your work is about?"

Some people feel like they need to talk you into liking the work - that if you like them, you'll like the work, or if they're articulate, you'll think the work is better. But that just doesn't work in a gallery setting. So the work needs to be compelling on its own. You can't have the artist talking about it in order for it to function.

To strike the right balance the curator wants to capture a certain kind of information at the time that you would be acquiring the work of a young photographer, but ultimately you would need to be capturing a different kind of information as the work becomes more understood as historical instead of contemporary.

PhotoWings: So if a photographer is going to do a portfolio drop-off, how much information should they have?

Doug Nickel: Just an artist's statement is usually sufficient, and usually they include a resume or a C.V., which is useful information.

PhotoWings: Does each image really need some kind of a caption?

Doug Nickel: They should put a caption on the picture.

PhotoWings: And how long?

Doug Nickel: There's not a way to make a rule about this. When Sandy did her [Dorothea] Lange show in the old building, she put with every photograph Lange's caption, and sometimes they were a paragraph long. But in that case, they were really kind of illuminating. Lange understood this as part of her own artistic practice, to record this textual information that went along with it, but it also helped explain what it is you were looking at. On the other hand, I probably don't need a paragraph or two with a [Andreas] Gursky photograph. A Gursky photograph is something that does pretty well on its own in a gallery with just the title and date.


Portfolio Reviews: Reality Check

PhotoWings: For photographers, it is immensely helpful to watch the reaction and see what someone in your position likes, and what you don't.

Doug Nickel: Oh, yeah. See, I think there needs to be a different kind of portfolio review, like the Friends used to do.

PhotoWings: Well, they do them in Santa Fe.

Doug Nickel: Yeah, that kind of thing, or FotoFest in Houston. And College Art. There are places where that sort of thing goes on.

But most portfolio reviews that happen at art museums are done for the benefit of the art museum. They're looking for people to exhibit and collect, so they can be kind of selfish about it. But the portfolio review that you're talking about is for the sake of a photographer and not the reviewer, in which case they can get advice and feedback and reactions. That's usually a good thing.

PhotoWings: Back in the early '70s, you could actually sit down with somebody and they'd give you a little bit of feedback and that could change a photographer's life.

Doug Nickel: I know. I've seen that happen. Conversely, most institutions don't have enough staff and time to do that for the much larger number of people that are looking for it now.

PhotoWings: Do you like doing that when you have the time?

Doug Nickel: I do. I used to do it for the Friends when invited, and I really enjoyed doing it. It was also interesting because [photographers] would come to me after they had talked to somebody else, and they would say,"Well, that's funny that you like that, because that guy over there really discouraged me from pursuing that. I'm really glad that you got what I was talking about."

It's important for the photographer to get different peoples' perspectives on things, and then use those perspectives in ways that are helpful to them instead of [thinking], "Some authority told me to do something, so I better believe them."

Most portfolio reviews at art museums are done for the benefit of the art museum. They're looking for people to exhibit and collect, so they can be kind of selfish. But the portfolio review [at a photo festival is] for the sake of a photographer and not the reviewer, in which case they can get advice and feedback and reactions.

I do think there need to be more opportunities for photographers of that sort. I've done portfolio reviews at Photo San Francisco. Some of those commercial photo fairs will set up a portfolio review mechanism too. They're very helpful, because the dealers are in the same position as the art institutions - they're all looking for new talent.

In fact, when I first got to San Francisco, one of the kind of the surprising things was that, I had internalized the story about Diane Arbus leaving her portfolio at the Museum of Modern Art in 1963 or there abouts and someone like John Szarkowski opening this box and discovering Diane Arbus. It's a very compelling idea, that there are these very talented photographers out there, and that the museum could find them and give them shows and encouragement.

But the reality is, by the time I got to work at SFMOMA, there were so many more dealers, galleries, teachers and museums looking at photography than there were in 1963. Remember that most young photographers would more likely go find a dealer than to go to a museum to show their work. It's easier, you know. Their economic future depends upon being discovered and represented by a dealer. So most of the great discoveries of talent were going to be made by dealers and not by museums. And indeed, the entire time that I was at SFMOMA, I think we bought work from a photographer who left a portfolio twice - and exhibited those works only once.

It's important for the photographer to get different peoples' perspectives on things, and then use those perspectives in ways that are helpful to them instead of [thinking], "Some authority told me to do something, so I better believe them."

PhotoWings: So this has to be work that, by definition, is commercially viable, which might not necessarily be a photojournalist's work. It's got to be something that a collector is going be able to afford.

Doug Nickel: Well, right. Or something that some dealer's willing to represent. Now, granted, some are more adventurous than others in that regard.

But if you look at what most art museums buy for their collections - when it comes to contemporary work or the work of unknown or less-known figures - almost all of it is coming from dealers who found these people, not from people who've walked in off the street.

But we still have a cherished mythology we have about the portfolio review in that regard. It was very helpful for us to have those reviews - and it is here too - not to make a major discovery, but simply to take the temperature of the field. What I found in the '90s in San Francisco is [that] a lot of young people in school cared an awful lot about Nan Goldin, because they were making pictures that looked a lot like Nan Goldin's pictures. The only way for me to have discovered that was to go to the art schools and go to critiques, which I did, and to see what portfolios were coming in. The museum can use the portfolio review as a sort of census mechanism for where the field is going and what other artists are being paid attention to.

Ultimately, this doesn't help you build your own collection, really, because if you've got Cindy Sherman, do you need five young people who are derivative of Cindy Sherman in your collection? They'll probably, if they're lucky, and stick to it, go on to do something else that's much more original and you will be their friend already because you have a relationship that started when they did. But in all probability [they're] not going to get in a show.

PhotoWings: Is there a common thread among photographers who have become successful?

Doug Nickel: That's an awfully good question. I don't think so. I wish there were a kind of simple answer to this.

People used to accuse John Szarkowski of being too powerful a curator - a tastemaker - because if he anointed you, if he gave you a show you would presumably go from a nobody to one of the most important photographers in the world. I remember his response to this charge was, "No, what a curator does is really put the work up for consideration, as a blind ad, and let the world decide whether it's worth paying attention too. I might like William Eggleston. But if I put Eggleston up and everybody thinks it's a lot of hooey, we'll never hear of Eggleston again."

There are two moving targets, which is what the photographers do and how receptive the soil is to what they've done at any one time. Sometimes [the soil] is not ready for somebody until much later, sometimes it's never ready, and sometimes it's ready right then.

Szarkowski did put up a lot of people that disappeared. They never went any place. John Szarkowski liked Bill Dane's photographs and Jeffrey Fraenkel represents Bill Dane, so no one can say his work did not receive support. There are people, including me, that really thought of his work as interesting. But Bill Dane is not a name that a lot of people will pull out of their hat when describing the most important photographers working today - for reasons that can never be fully explained. He was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. This mechanism was thrown behind him, but John is probably right in this regard, the world was not ready for Bill Dane, so it didn't happen.

What one learns from doing research on photography is the way that figures get proposed, forgotten and then rediscovered. Or proposed, then forgotten and never rediscovered. Or proposed, discovered and never go away; they become famous and stay famous. Cindy Sherman got famous very early in her career and stayed that way. There's no one common element that will determine this. If there was, everybody would do it, I'm sure.

But there are these two moving targets, which is what the photographers do and how receptive the soil is to what they've done at any one time. Sometimes [the soil] is not ready for somebody until much later, sometimes never ready, and sometimes it's ready right then.

You might be a genius - you might be the most important photographer of the past 50 years - but if your work is under your bed, then no one's ever going to know it.

Sometimes success, if it comes too early, can ruin a photographer. There are cases where people get a lot of attention, and the attention turns into pressure, and the pressure makes them choke, and they never do anything important after that and then they disappear. So, their trajectories can go in a lot of different ways.

At the bottom of it is always the quality and interest of the work. But secondary to that, and also important, is going out and making sure the work gets seen. You might be a genius - you might be the most important photographer of the past 50 years - but if your work is under your bed, then no one's ever going to know it.

Conversely, there are people that are really good at promoting themselves and can get a certain amount of attention. But if the work isn't very good, ultimately that attention is going to disappear. It'll wane. The photographer has to be able to sustain it with substance, as well.

So if there's a secret to success, it's having those two things in place. You have to be talented, and you have to get the work out into the world somehow or have somebody who does it for you. Sometimes [success] is an accident and sometimes it [happens] because you're willful about it.

What happens is that the field is so small that everybody pays attention to what everybody else is doing.

PhotoWings: Is there a particular personality type ...?

Doug Nickel: No. Perseverance maybe. If you give up too soon, then the odds of your work taking hold and growing roots are slimmer.

PhotoWings: How does somebody go about getting into collections, books, etcetera?

Doug Nickel: If I were giving advice to a young photographer, I would stress the importance of perseverance. You really have to be like a bumblebee. You go around and you pollinate as many flowers as you can.

Some people think, "If I can just get into The Museum of Modern Art, I'll have it made." But really, what happens is that the field is so small that everybody pays attention to what everybody else is doing. So if there's a gallery in San Francisco that's showing your work, and then there's a publisher that's doing an article on you over here ... if I'm a curator, I'm going to say, "Huh, it looks like this person's being noticed in a couple of different places. I ought to take notice, too. There must be something to this if a couple of people are attending to it." And so there's a sort of snowball that goes with it. Then I'll say, "Gee, I should buy some of this work for my collection. I want to get it before it gets too expensive." And then the next person that they send their stuff to is going to look and say, "Ahh, a show and an article, and look - that art museum thought this was good enough to collect. I guess it must be something, so I'm going to collect it, too." I've seen this happen over and over again.

If I were giving advice to a young photographer, I would stress that perseverance thing. You really have to be like a bumblebee. You go around and you pollinate as many flowers as you can.

If you're the photographer, you need to be getting the stuff out there with the idea that you're probably going to be rejected by nine out of ten of the places that you go to. But, No. 10, you put in the plus column. And then you go to another ten, and you're getting eight out often the next time around because of that.