INTERVIEW: Curator Urs Stahel on Museums and Photography

INTERVIEW: Curator Urs Stahel on Museums and Photography
Curator Urs Stahel
(Delhi Photo Festival)

Among the many highlights of the second edition of the biannual Delhi Photo Festival (DPF) is Urs Stahel’s presence. The Swiss curator, editor, and author was invited by the festival’s committee to present the keynote address at the inauguration on Friday, September 27, 2013, a visit that was managed thanks to the Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council.

Stahel was the director of the Fotomuseum Winterthur for 20 years, from 1993 to 2013, before which he was a freelance curator and art critic, the editor of art magazine Du, and a lecturer in the history of art and photography at the School of Art and Design in Zurich. 


BLOUIN ARTINFO caught up with the dynamic scholar over a morning cup of tea and biscuits at the lobby of the India Habitat Centre (IHC) and got him to share with us his thoughts on the challenges faced by photographers in an increasingly image-saturated world.

How are you feeling after your keynote address last evening?

A bit exhausted. It’s not just because of the talk. I also spent quite a few hours yesterday morning doing portfolio reviews. It’s incredible, the atmosphere, I loved the amphitheater environment of last evening. I like the IHC. It’s an incredible piece of architecture. The ceiling is so high up it starts to feel light. It’s a tremendous space for the festival to be and stay.

You’re in a position where you can actually comment on the global photography scene. Where does India stand within that scene?

I’m a museum person, so my first answer is that India has no museum of photography. So India—and I hope this isn’t taken offensively—has had no sincere scientific debate on photography so far. Like a lot of other countries at one point, for instance, Europe was decades after USA. In fact, if there is one country in the world that took photography seriously right from the beginning it was the USA, for many reasons, of course. The USA is a young country, and in every cultural expression they were after Europe. But not in photography, because the state existed when photography was invented. They took photography as a genuine tool to express themselves. Collections of photography at the MoMA in Houston were set up as early as 1928, they had big collections when Europe was sleeping in terms of institutionalized photography.

Institutionalized photography has it difficult here in India. There is no museum of photography, therefore no constant debate on an institutional level.

Secondly, there is no big national archive of photography. Photography is a tool, you can use it for any purpose in the world you can think of. I’m not talking about it as art, I’m speaking of it as a visual heritage of a society. To have a big visual, photographic archive is important for a country. As far as I’m informed, India doesn’t have one. I would propose, or suggest, that it would be a great thing if someone picks this idea up and works on it to make it possible. This would be an important place for students and practitioners of the medium to see their own history. So that’s my answer as a museum person.

The other answer is that when I was traveling the first time to India, about 20 years ago, I had the feeling that apart from two or three famous figures, nothing was really happening on the photography scene. It was a bit quiet. Coming back here now for the festival, I have the feeling that the photography scene has exploded, like someone has put in some kind of massive energy into it. Many young people are starting to take to photography, which seems like an interesting development. At the same time I feel Indian photography is shown abroad more than in the country. And there are individual shows internationally, too. The two most famous photographers, of course, who have had international careers are Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai, and now Dayanita Singh. But also, it’s now possible to see the work of Richard Bartholomew and Pablo Bartholomew abroad too. These are all good signs, that there is a scene, an awareness, that people have started to take photography seriously. You see, because everyone can do it, we think photography is not something to take seriously. We need to have someone teaching it at universities, we need to start talking about the importance of its history. I think India is about to start. It’s running fast. It was a great feeling yesterday at the opening.

One of the other strange mysteries within Indian photography is the shocking absence of a written history of Contemporary photography. Do you think it’s important to attempt one?

It’s absolutely necessary to have a contemporary debate on photography, which becomes a written history. In Switzerland, I remember, in the 80s, in the pioneering times when there were institutions being built for photography, I remember that photography shows were being done at full speed. So you clean a room, you hang photographs with a distance of two to three centimeters, you nail them to the wall, and you have one page with 20 lines of text that says where the photographer was born, and that was it. There was no debate. So maybe it’s always like that at the beginning. But that cannot be the reality of tomorrow.

First, it’s interesting to talk about it. Secondly, it’s necessary. If it is to be a fruitful ground for people to learn to look at photographs, we need a debate on visual media. I sometimes get a missionary energy in myself when I talk about this. I’m not talking only about engaged art photography or social photography, but I’m talking about the image world of today, which is a topic that concerns me. We are living in a time where communication through images has partly replaced our communication through language. In some generations 50% of their communication is done through images, not language. As the famous Italian linguist and philosopher, Umberto Eco, said, we are going back to the middle ages where we communicate through emblematic images. We have to therefore learn the visual codes, we need to learn what to do with images. We have to learn the alphabet of images. We seem to swim in a world where we don’t know how to swim. In that world, photography and video play an important role. We need to learn, discuss, show these photographs, there should be libraries. It should be a new field that we should take seriously. We have to understand the visual world, and yet, we’re completely illiterate.

Thank you for that well reasoned answer. Moving forward. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about the complexities involved in showing photojournalistic work in a museum collection or it being acquired by a museum.

That’s an interesting and very difficult question. I have to give you two or three answers to that.

I often was talking about this topic, saying there are a lot of misunderstandings that happen when photojournalistic work enters the museum. Photojournalism is traditionally done to work within a magazine format with a title, text, and captions. Within that frame that photojournalistic piece of photography makes sense. When you take this same kind of photograph, frame it, put in on a white wall in a white-cube space, it loses its context and meaning. Suddenly it aspires to be an aesthetic event, even though it was meant as a photojournalistic work meant to document a certain experience. There’s a lot of danger. Why should they be art pieces? They were never meant to.

Now, if you do it, you have to be incredibly careful. If you changed the frame, you have to adapt the whole piece to the new frame. Before, the photographer would be out there photographing something and then delivering photos to the picture editor. Now, he has to think about what he can do in a 10 x 10 meter space, for instance, and how can he get those photographs to speak to people. May be he’ll have to bring in not just the five photos he published then. He may have to recontextualize the work so it stays understandable. When you just transform it, it goes wrong. A lot of shows in the 80s and early 90s were examples where exactly this was done. Bresson started to blow up his photos, get the captions off, because now they were art pieces. But they were not meant as art pieces, though they are important documents.

Today there are young artists, like the German artist Lucas Anselm. He tries to find a new way of documenting. When he is photographing an industrial plant he is not just taking photos, but looking at who are the owners, who is putting in the money, then he looks at the global stream of ownership. He includes the Swiss bank. When you look at the show he does, on his walls you have statistics, photos, videos, he starts to make a complex image of that industrial fact. I think with photojournalism and photo documentary, that’s their task and role. It has to go through a big self reflection, because the world is complex today. A simple image of a car or factory is not showing a truth. Photojournalists should start to be investigators, not only thinking of the photographs but also thinking of the system and bringing in information.

What about the economy or ecosystem of the world of photography, particularly in a place like India that has limited options for photography, where we have no museum, no collections, few schools, and few avenues for photographers to sustain their livelihoods?

It’s all about networking. The few little things that are existing should network more together to make themselves stronger. In every part of the world we can complain that there’s not enough happening. But let’s complain for five minutes and then start to work. Complaining is a passive situation. Firstly, those forces that are in the city, like in Delhi, for instance, they should start to work with each other and forget about status differences.

Every small initiative can help. If you have in Delhi 10 places that are 10 x 10 meters, and in each of these small rooms young photographers are showing their work, it will be fruitful ground for the future. You need more not-for-profit spaces. It’s always difficult if you have only national state museums and then private commercial galleries who have to be commercial. The third pillar is the non-profit organization. I’m astonished by how many we have in Zurich, and that’s what provides the space for experimentation, and where galleries can discover something and then make it big. It would help to make the network stronger and give young photographers a chance to make their first mistakes. You need to have a chance to show work to make a mistake.  

During your keynote address, you urged younger photographers to “go beyond” and to do and be more. Could you elaborate?

I think the world has become very complex, and this is an issue for the producer of photographs and for the visitor of photographs, the lookers. We accept complexity in our daily life. When we buy a new computer or a new smart phone, we accept that we get a manual and that we have to read at least a part of it, otherwise we cannot use this machine. In our daily life we are ready to deal with a rather complex world. But very often, in art and photography, we want to simplify the world in a childish way. Here, look, that’s the world, is our attitude. The world is no longer like that. Very often the appearance of the world is hiding what it is. So, pieces of art, pieces of photography, I would suggest could be much more complex, could include text, mix up video, text, and create an environment of visual information. Photographers tend to be too easily satisfied with their own work, they should go further, though. Sometimes I use the word radicalization for that. We should push ourselves, become radically intimate when you do something, in a poetic, radical way. When you’re doing political photography, become a political investigator, expose the horrible truth. When you’re an artist, you radically conceptualize, so don’t do this in-between thing. It doesn’t help, and of that we have enough. I don’t like to show or collect photographs, I always say. I like to show and collect personalities and attitudes. I’m looking for a human being who really deals with the world, like Alan Sekula, who, sadly, died just this August. I would love to give as an idea to pass on to young people to make their reference to that kind of personality.