The new ICP Museum at 250 Bowery © Saul Metnick

The International Center of Photography’s brave new world

As the International Center of Photography prepares to move to its new Manhattan home, its director Mark Lubell, formerly of Magnum Photos, talks to gallerist James Danziger


James Danziger: So when is the new ICP due to open, and what are you going to open with?

Mark Lubell: I’ll say this with my fingers crossed… we’re going to open on 23 June at 250 Bowery. The first show, Public, Private, Secret, will look at 20th-century photography in terms of voyeurism, and examine the ways in which we are putting our lives online and making them public.

JD: Tell us more about the new location.

ML: We have a 90ft glass frontage, which is an invitation to people to come into the space. It’s not going to be like so many institutions, where you feel slightly intimidated. This is really about opening a two-way conversation: you can have a coffee, there will be a few things on the walls so you can get the vibe of what’s happening, and then you can pay to see the gallery spaces on the first and second floors.

JD: Will there be an ICP bookstore, which was always much loved in the old space?

ML: There’s going to be a version of the bookstore. We’re going to develop a curated book experience on a different theme for each month or each exhibition.

JD: Ten years ago the Bowery was like Skid Row. How do you see the area now?

ML: Yes, it was Skid Row, but decades before that the Bowery was the high street in the city. Then it became the Bowery that many of us New Yorkers grew up with. Now it’s going through a renaissance. I love how the commerce spills out onto the street. You always see guys fixing things! There are new restaurants and bars; there’s the Ace Hotel coming, and Ian Schrager is doing a hotel. There’s a real energy here, and the Lower East Side, which has about 100 galleries, seems to be the new art centre of New York, and that’s exciting.

Mark Lubell on site at the new International Center of Photography as it nears completion. Photograph Matthew Spiegelman
Mark Lubell on site at the new International Center of Photography as it nears completion. Photograph: Matthew Spiegelman

JD: You’re the director of one of the great institutions of photography. How did that happen?

ML: It was 9/11 that started my career in photography. I worked on the project Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photography, which took in both professional and amateur photographers’ work after the events of 9/11. We scanned the images, hung them on a wire, gave each image a number, and sold the images to benefit the Children’s Aid Society and a specific group of children who were affected by 9/11. The exhibition attracted 2,000 people a day, with lines around the block. The website had two billion hits in five months. We crashed servers. It went to 33 places around the world. And we gave a million dollars to charity. It was just an amazing experience. And that led to my coming to Magnum to be its director, which in turn led to ICP.

JD: How is ICP different from other institutions that exhibit photography?

ML: I would say we have a tripod approach: ICP is a museum and exhibition space, a school, and a resource for public programming. The museum showcases the work that sparks discussion. The school inspires the practitioners of the next generation to go out into the world and tell their stories. And our public programmes create opportunities to discuss, debate, expose and analyse the big issues of today. This goes back to the original concept of ICP that Cornell Capa, our founder, articulated. That’s what made the organisation relevant and engaging from its inception in 1974.

JD: What photography do you own?

ML: In my office I have just hung a photo by Thomas Hoepker of Muhammad Ali. Thomas gave me the print in 2009. It’s of Ali with his fist coming right at the camera, and I feel it speaks to the moment that ICP is in now. We’re in a battle. We are changing spaces, changing programmes, and we’re battling to raise money, to finish the building, to develop good programming. The photo reminds me not only to stay strong when faced with a challenge, but also that there will be moments of great accomplishment.

JD: Christie’s most recent photography sale fetched $8.8 million. Do you see ICP bidding in future auctions to augment its own collection?

ML: ICP has an incredible archive. We have the second largest Cartier-Bresson collection in the world, the Robert Capa collection, and about 156,000 images covering the history of photography. About 70 per cent of our shows have come from the archive. So we’re not going to just grab things and put them away; they’ll always be very present in our spaces.

JD: What do you think the next iteration of photography is going to be?

ML: I could talk about Instagram and Snapchat and other companies that have the ability to make a huge impact on photography, but to me what’s more interesting is what’s actually happening in society, and how people are using these technologies. The way we are distributing and responding to images is changing society as a whole. The opportunity for ICP is to be at the centre of this change and part of the conversation surrounding it.