The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s current exhibition, “Beyond the Frame,” aims to nurture and develop visual literacy skills. This collection-based show reveals the depth and breadth of the MoCP’s collection while guiding visitors through key themes. Newcity spoke with the exhibition’s organizer, curator of academic programs and collections Kristin Taylor.
“Beyond the Frame” is grounded in the concept of visual literacy. What does visual literacy mean to you, and why is now the right time to mount a photography exhibition dedicated to it?
Visual literacy is being able to look at images with awareness. It is the ability to understand how the choices made by the photographer informs the narrative you ascribe to the moment, person or place depicted.
As technologies change and our lives become more entrenched in photographs, it is increasingly important to understand how to read images. We are living in a time where we are questioning the very notion of truth. How do images play a role in our understanding of the world? How automatic or skeptical are we in trusting images as factual documentations? How are we able to thoughtfully engage with images when we are bombarded with them all day long? I think it can surprise people to realize how much of an impact photography has on their lives.
The exhibition is arranged topically, cutting across time periods to explore the many themes that reoccur in the history of photography, such as light, illusion, portraiture, landscape and constructed and staged images. What was the process of pinpointing these themes and which photographs went into each section?
These are themes that come up repeatedly in our education programs, so I thought of the topics as entry points for visitors of all backgrounds. But I also wanted the exhibition to touch on trajectories in the field and the ways artists influence one another directly or indirectly. For example, many artists over time have made depictions of the land. Ansel Adams, who is extremely well-known for capturing pristine landscapes without the presence of people, is in the show near Anastasia Samoylova and Terry Evans—two artists who are working now to illuminate human-caused damage to the earth. It is impossible to include the many in-betweens, but visitors can at least identify some of the big shifts in the history of image-making.
Pinpointing which photographs went into each section was a greater challenge. With over 16,000 works in the collection, there are so many pieces I wish I could have included. Many are works that I know always resonate with students, like Barbara Probst’s piece that shows one moment in five different perspectives. Her work is a wonderful example of how photographs are highly selective interpretations of reality.
The photographers exhibited range from household names to art-world darlings to emerging and lesser-known artists. How did you approach inclusion and diversity while you were putting together the show?
While teaching from our collection, we always try to strike a balance of showing students the big names, alongside works made within the last five years or by people they probably have not heard of. We collect and exhibit works by artists we believe in, regardless of if they have the conventional background or exhibiting history. Although we still have work to do in terms of inclusion and diversity in the collection, the exhibition reflects the broad scope of this archive.
How did the MoCP’s status as a college museum impact your curatorial approaches and decisions for “Beyond the Frame?”
In so many ways! You can probably sense this from my answers to the other questions. I love that education is at the forefront of everything we do here. Before we acquire a work into the collection or plan any program or exhibition, we are always asking how that object or experience can spark dialogue among students, artists and diverse communities. I think college museums sit at a sweet spot in the art world. They are less about bringing blockbuster exhibitions of big names to the city and more about being a space for learning and community.
What did you learn about the MoCP collection while putting together this show?
I have worked at the MoCP for sixteen years and always very closely with the collection, so I know the material pretty well. But I did learn that putting together an exhibition from the collection is very different from having conversations with others about the collection. So much time is spent writing wall text, coordinating framing of works and planning the physical space the objects will inhabit. You do not get the immediate feedback or reactions you do in public programs or in working with classes. You also do not know how people are going to engage with the material, so you just have to put it out there and trust that they will find it meaningful. It can feel a bit like a one-sided conversation.
I know tackling visual literacy is a lofty subject, but I really believe in the power of art to see things in a new way and to grow our connections with one another. I hope this exhibition is a place to do both.
“Beyond the Frame” is on view at the MoCP, 600 South Michigan, through October 30.
Jacqueline WayneGuite is a curator, strategist, artist and freelance writer based in Chicago.