Interview: Sandra Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Sandra Phillips is Senior Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an institution that has supported and collected photography since it opened its doors in 1935. We were interested in a curator’s point of view on, among other things, the true nature of photography, its place in our image-obsessed society, what role museums play in conserving and disseminating pictures and what will it take to make people really care about content again.

Sandra Phillips: The really interesting thing about photography is its relationship to the real world. That’s why we all look at photographs. That’s why a picture is worth a thousand words, because it was supposed to be something about truth, truthful representation, something you had to see to believe it – you had to be there to witness it. As old-fashioned as it sounds, I think that it’s really photography’s best asset to deal with the real world, what it’s best at doing. It has an enormously accurate and descriptive quality. So, photography has even more of an important role, because it deals with reality and we are verging on fantasy. This culture of ours, it’s a culture of stars, a culture of the unreal. I think it’s even more important now to have photographs of what it’s like out there.PhotoWings: Why is a picture worth a thousand words and what is unique about the way it informs the viewer?

PhotoWings: Have all these years of being involved in photography, on so many levels, changed your way of seeing the world?

Sandra Phillips: Oh yes. Indeed. I always thought that the photography that was important was the “art” part of photography and it was only after I got involved in it and realized what was going on in the world of photography then. I was going to the Museum of Modern Art and I was seeing Garry Winogrand’s pictures on the wall, and I saw Diane Arbus’ pictures and then I realized that it wasn’t about making up beautiful things, it was about a report of what is out there, in real life that was really interesting…

PhotoWings: What is it about the essence of photography that has the power to move people so profoundly… enough so to encourage change? Take for example, the work of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis and others…

Sandra Phillips: That’s a very interesting question. I think that we have lost some of that power, actually. Which is why PhotoWings is so important, it’s so important to be rethinking all of this. When Lewis Hine was looking at kids in the street, selling newspapers and kids in textile mills in the South, he snuck into to those places and made pictures on the sly. When Jacob Riis, before him, made pictures, he was running away so he wouldn’t get caught. We know from Riis’ books and Hine’s persistence what happened – outlawing child labor. That took a long time. We know that photography is a very useful tool, and we’ve gotten very used to that. There is such a thing as pictorial overload and people don’t seem to be quite as responsive as they were. It was interesting to see what happened to the Abu Ghraib images. They came out and it was very powerful, it was more powerful in the Arab world that it was here. For us, we kind of lost interest in it, it doesn’t mean so much to us as it does to them, which is pretty scary. I think we’re in a different culture now, it’s more experienced with photography. We have to relearn our sense of surprise.

PhotoWings: Do you have any thoughts on how to do that?

Sandra Phillips: I think a large part is to deal with the media in a serious way. Get people to sit and think and look seriously. I mean, it’s a kind of culture of “news as entertainment,” “infomercials” that kind of thing. That’s not helping us as a culture.

PhotoWings: How does this kind of socially engaged photography later become recognized by the art world?

Sandra Phillips: It’s very curious, we are buying things as “art” that were once very politically sensitive. They were not only documents, they were politically difficult for people to deal with. I only vaguely remember the 50s, but truth and documentary evidence were very much discussed during the Army-McCarthy hearings. It’s very interesting how this culture commodifies everything. Everything is turned into an artifact that can be purchased, and that seems safer to people than actually thinking about the implications, the content of it. So I think the trick for PhotoWings is to get some of this content back into pictures.

PhotoWings: When do you think it’s important to tell the story of a photograph: the context in which it was made, the photographer’s relationship to the subject and his or her perspective? Is it always important?

Sandra Phillips: I had this wonderful conversation with John Szarkowski, who was the curator of the Museum of Modern Art for many years. One of his favorite photographers was Dorothea Lange and one of his great favorite pictures was called “The End of an Era,” it’s a woman in the back of a car, with a look of disdain, the car has all this ornamentation on it. He thought it was a picture of haughty rich woman looking down at poor people, because her expression was so hard. Then he did a show with Lange and he read the original text she had written – she [the woman in the photograph] was in a Hearse – somebody, probably her husband, had died, and so this was the end of an era for her. So it wasn’t a social observation, it was a personal indication of what she was going through. Not what you would expect from Lange. So he said “you have to realize how malleable photographs are, how slippery they are in terms of getting an idea across.” He said “that’s why people dress them up with captions, put texts around them, to try to protect them. ” They are not naturally easy tools for communication, which is pretty interesting. So, I guess my answer to you is that it is probably important all the time to be as informed as possible or as informing as possible about the photographs, to have that information available. One of the interesting things about photographs is that they are so open. There are also these interesting studies about how a picture can be used to promote the different causes – the same picture! There is an interesting essay if you go into the literature about Lange [essay by Vicki Goldberg]. I think that it is about the migrant farmer mother and her children, about that image being used for causes as different as the defense of farm workers and the Black Panthers.

PhotoWings: Let’s go back a step to Walker Evans and commercialization. It seems like the older photographers like him are collected and valued, but there is a lot of new work that is as good, or perhaps even better. Who decides what is collectable, what is valued?

Sandra Phillips: I’m not and expert on that question. A lot of it has to do with the intent of the photographer, himself or herself, if they put this work out in galleries for people to see in a gallery context. If they get published in books, newspapers, magazines, that’s a different kind of audience, sometimes they cross paths. The change that’s happened in the last 30 years is that if you were a photographer you used to have a craft: you used your photographs to sell product, you used it to go on missions to Africa or something. The vehicle for that was the magazine, and you know very well, the magazine world is much, much diminished now, so there is less opportunity for people to have a working craft like that, which I think kept photography honest… well, the alternative now is photography as an art object, which is why you have all these photographers going to grad schools in art contexts. They are still photographers, but their market is different, at least the intent is different.

PhotoWings: Lewis Hine’s photos were not intended to be fine art, they were intended for socially responsible uses. Now if someone is taking photographs for socially responsible uses, they’re not usually recognized by the art world. How does one make that transition?

Sandra Phillips: It’s not really clear, because if you look at Mother Jones Magazine for example, a lot of those photographers are people that we have in our collection, that we put up on the walls, or that are shown in museums and galleries. So it’s not real clear, I would say the market has gone in a different direction, but there are people working in socially conscious directions that, in some cases, their only real outlet is the museum or gallery. Look at Josef Koudelka: here is a guy who’s working for Magnum, the most important institution for socially conscious photography. He almost always shows his work in museums and galleries, he doesn’t publish his work at all anymore. That is a radical change. Who is seeing it now? In a way, it’s like the museums and galleries are the venue for social criticism. It’s weird!

PhotoWings: What do you see as the implications of this change?

Sandra Phillips: I’m not sure that this is the appropriate place for it. One of my first shows was Sebastião Salgado. But I’m not sure that that’s the best place for socially conscious work. I don’t think it’s necessarily effective, People don’t come to museums to be engaged socially. It may be one of the reasons they can come… I think the big question is where to put that work so that a lot of people get to see it and I think it’s maybe train stations and airports.

PhotoWings: Do you think that if something is seen in a museum that it’s going to be thought of differently than if it’s seen in a coffee shop? Is there a different audience, a different mind set when people go in?

Sandra Phillips: First of all, not everyone goes to a museum, right? We have done studies as to who comes to this museum; they’re very educated, they’re usually white, alas, and they have money… It’s not a broad section of the population. They can probably see Lewis Hine as a cultural historical figure. I don’t think these people are going to think about the slums and child labor. They’re going to think about Lewis Hine as a photographer, working in that period, making pictures in this way of what was out there. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think photography does have an important role for us, and not just this kind of photography. I think you have to figure out your audience and I don’t think it’s necessarily the museum audience, I think it has to be broader; on the streets, in bus stops, that kind of thing.

PhotoWings: Some of the century’s most respected photographers have recently passed on – Cartier-Bresson, Eddie Adams, Richard Avedon – and much their work is being saved. As curator you’ve seen a lot, do you get the sense that there are other valuable photographic works at risk of being lost to the world for ever… some not yet recognized as being valuable?

Sandra Phillips: I’m sure that’s true. The big difficulty about photography is that there is so much of it. Who makes the decisions about what gets saved and what doesn’t and how do you save it? We, for instance, are not capable of archiving, we don’t have archives here. There are very few places that do, and they are mainly libraries like the Center for Creative Photography, or Duke University and Yale has a very good archive. But there is a lot of stuff out there and I don’t know what’s going to happen to Avedon’s work, he’s got a lot of it at the Center for Creative Photography, whether it stays there or not, who knows? He has heirs, or at least an heir, I don’t know what the role of the heir is. In the case of Diane Arbus, the role of the heir was extremely important, the control is extremely vital and close. The other added ingredient is, in the case of Arbus, the estate is worth a lot of money, and the potential of making photographs out of the estate exists. She’s been dead for 30 years and they are printing things from the estate without her being around, so that very interesting issue there. There are lots of questions about estates and archives, it’s not only saving them, it’s how they are treated, how they’re published, even when they are presumed to be saved.

PhotoWings: Do you ever run across horror stories? Have you ever gone to look at a collection and found out that it had been stored improperly, people didn’t know what they had and things have been thrown away?

Sandra Phillips: I think there is an awareness of it now that there hasn’t been in the past, so it is probably less alarming than it used to be. I remember when I was doing research for the Arbus show, I read that Diane Arbus met Weegee [Arthur H Fellig]’s widow, I’m not sure they were actually married, but this lady kept photographs in the kitchen cabinets and all over the place. She was a smart woman and she knew what she had, and she finally gave it all to ICP [International Center for Photography]. But it’s a very expensive project, if you are the widow of an artist, not just a photographer, taking care of all this stuff, it’s a big responsibility.

PhotoWings: Not every photographer’s work is going to end up in an archive. If there was a valuable but unrecognized collection, would it be possible to get photo-researchers in, and volunteers with sleeves to at least set up something reasonably archival and document what’s there?

Sandra Phillips: That’s a very interesting idea. Sure, I would think particularly for journalistic photographers, who don’t have that kind [of network]. Although the University of Texas, the Ransom Center, with Roy Flukinger, seems to be working on that side of things, he’s pretty aware of that.

PhotoWings: What’s happening to the Vietnam War photographs and those of the Civil Rights movement? What’s happening to those kinds of photographers and their work?

Sandra Phillips: There is this lady I just met [the photographer] Catherine LeRoy, she wants to preserve and promote [the work of Vietnam War photo journalists]. The other thing is the Library of Congress, which is a very, very interesting institution, very important. Their job is different from ours, they have millions of photographs, millions! Can you imagine trying to find a picture in that collection? Just trying to keep track of a few thousand is amazing to me.

PhotoWings: Can you tell us about the different mindsets of curators, collectors, and photographers? What can they learn from one another and about each other?

Sandra Phillips: Well, photographers have a kind of a view of the world and photography is their expression of it. It’s an interpretation of their world view, so they have a very particular interest in the kind of photography they practice and depending on the kind of photographer and on their interests and training, there are extremely various. Collectors are also, in their own way, creative people, because they have a world view of what photography should look like because it’s photography that interests them. And it’s often a very personal extension of who they are. Curators try to be different, because we try to be responsible for the whole thing. Obviously our personal interests and prejudices come in, but we try and think of the larger overview of photography, it’s role, it’s history and all of that, and where these pieces fit into the puzzle.

PhotoWings: The Photo collections at SF MoMA are quite varied, what guides your acquisitions?

Sandra Phillips: We are not working out of whole cloth, we are not piecing together a collection out of nothing. There has been a collection at this museum since it was founded in 1935. When the museum was founded, there were very important photographers living here whose work was collected and shown: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston…

PhotoWings: Was that unusual at the time, for a fine art museum to be so interested in photographers?

Sandra Phillips: Good Question. It was pretty unusual, yes. This museum was the second Museum of Modern Art in the country, probably the world. This museum was founded after the Museum of Modern Art [in New York], which opened in 1929, so it’s only 6 years after the Modern. When the Museum of Modern Art was founded, it really came from a group of people working at Harvard and the woman who was our founding director, Grace McCann Morley. She was originally the curator and within two months they figured out that she should be the director. She went to Harvard to this seminar where people like Paul J. Sachs, (who had taught Alfred Barr) were teaching, all the people that were founding the Modern [in New York]. So, she knew all those guys, she studied in the same situation, she worked for a while in Cleveland with another Harvard-trained Museum of Modern Art type, and then went off to found our museum. I think it was completely obvious to anyone who was here at that time that, that there wasn’t very interesting painting going on, but what was interesting was the photography. So she tried to show photography in the context of what she could bring here. There were people here who were very interested in what was going on in Mexico, for instance. She was very interested in bringing Rivera here and Frida Kahlo, and all those people. She gave Jackson Pollock his first shows here, there was interesting stuff going on at this museum in the 30s and 40s – she left in the 50s.

PhotoWings: So you have been following her example, her spirit?

Sandra Phillips: We have tried to build on it, obviously, and expand it. I’m the third curator for photography, there was somebody who started in the 30s and was there until the 70s, I think he died in 1970. Then, there was my predecessor who was there until I came, and he was interested in Modernism in photography mainly in Europe, which was an interesting avenue to pursue then, because no one thought of Man Ray as an artist, well, Man Ray did! Nobody really thought that Maholy-Nagy was a serious artist because he made photographs.

PhotoWings: Who else these days can discover new photographic talent? Can a collector do it, can a gallery do it? How does a photographer become recognized now?

Sandra Phillips: Well, showing your work to gallery people and dealers, showing your work around. There are places like FotoFest in Houston, where lots people get to see your work. We see a lot of work, we have people drop off portfolios, every other week we look at work.

PhotoWings: What percentage of work like that ever makes it onto the walls here?

Sandra Phillips: It’s small, but we do buy work from people that we’ve never heard of that drop off portfolios. Some of them are students…but we do buy.

PhotoWings: Do you ever surf the web and look at people’s pictures on the web?

Sandra Phillips: That is harder for me. Believe it or not, I somehow don’t trust the web yet. I know it’s weird. Maybe they [photos online] are too pretty, I trust something on paper more. It’s not real photography to me. I’m very interested in digital photography, but I don’t really trust it.

PhotoWings: How does strong work, that may not be suitable for galleries, get seen?

Sandra Phillips: That’s the big challenge! Finding markets or places to display, or ways to interact with the world, that’s the big challenge. That’s why I caution you against thinking that the museum or art venue is the only venue, because I don’t think it is. I think it’s up to you guys [PhotoWings] to figure out that other space. I don’t have that kind of imagination, you guys do!

PhotoWings: People in general and collectors in particular are increasingly finding value in vernacular and found photography, can you comment on that?

Sandra Phillips: Vernacular photography is a huge subject, because that’s where most of the photographs are. The big problem is that there are lots of boring photographs. There are people who go through this material who have very interesting eyes, who can find things that I haven’t the patience to find, or you wouldn’t notice. The quantity of material that is out there, from an artistic point of view, it’s hard to get your arms around it. It’s not only artists who are interested in it, it’s historians who are interested because there’s different eras of clothing, there is some technology depicted there, like televisions of the 1950s – what do they look like? Well, you can see them in snap-shots. There are all sorts of other reasons, not just artistic ones, for collecting vernacular pictures. I actually think that it’s not going to be museums that will be savior of this stuff, it will be libraries that are interested in popular culture that will preserve this. The museum or gallery will just pick out what is intriguing artistically, but it won’t save the whole thing.

PhotoWings: What about individual collectors? Vernacular photography seems to be an affordable way to collect…

Sandra Phillips: It’s marvelous, it’s like going to the Salvation Army if you are interested in vintage clothing. It takes a lot of time and patience and knowing what you’re looking for, but you can find great stuff.

PhotoWings: Who else could be interested in vernacular photography, but may not know it yet?

Sandra Phillips: Historians of any stripe, or designers, or people interested in old forms of technology, gardeners – historians of our culture, our past, any aspect of it. Psychologists interested in portraits of family life in the United States, you can tell a lot from a snap shot. History is interesting, that’s what all of this teaches you.

PhotoWings: Can you tell us more about the Paul Sack collection, the subject of your current exhibition.

Sandra Phillips: It’s a history of photography seen through the lens of someone interested in inhabited places, places where people have lived or had something to do with personally. That’s a very personal way of looking at the history of photography. I think it’s given him a creative viewpoint from which to select some extremely unusual pictures.

PhotoWings: Do you have any testimonials for PhotoWings?

Sandra Phillips: I think this is a great idea! My heart goes out to you, you have a big complicated job ahead and I think you’re great to take it on. I think it’s extremely important, very much needed. Bravo!

PhotoWings: One last question: do you have any thoughts about oral histories?

Sandra Phillips: I would just attack any elderly photographer and get everything you can!