‘A common ground for the advancement of photography’: Aperture celebrates 70 years
Ahead of Christie’s Photographs sale in New York, Darius Himes and Sarah Meister look at Aperture’s 70-year history
This September, Aperture celebrates 70 years since its establishment in 1952. The founders were a consortium of photographers, thinkers and champions of the medium, including Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, and Minor White. The mission, as stated in the inaugural issue of the magazine, still resonates today:
‘Aperture has been originated to communicate with serious photographers and creative people everywhere, whether professional, amateur or student... Aperture is intended to be a mature journal in which photographers can talk straight to each other, discuss the problems that face photography as profession and art, share their experiences, comment on what goes on, descry the new potentials. We, who have founded this journal, invite others to use Aperture as a common ground for the advancement of photography.’
Sarah Meister, Executive Director of Aperture sat down with Darius Himes, Christie’s International Head of Photographs, to discuss their current program and projects, highlight the founding principles upon which the organization still stands, and what exciting things lie in the near — and distant — future.
Darius Himes: Over the past 70 years, so many things are radically different than they were in 1952 — the Internet, the blossoming of hundreds of photography programs at state and private schools around the world, the efflorescence of a market for fine-art photography — and yet, in some ways, much is the same, including most obviously the need for thoughtful social action in our lives and the role that photography can play in shaping the discourses of society. What is true for Aperture today that is both different and similar than at that special moment in 1952?
Sarah Meister: I admired Aperture long before I was associated with the organization. For me, it feels just as thrilling from the inside to be looking at and thinking about what Aperture’s voice and program means, as it ever did. A through-line of my career and my interest is thinking about how the past can be relevant in thinking through the challenges of our contemporary moment: this was, and remains, important to Aperture.
DH: What are some specific ways that you see the past informing the ‘challenges of our contemporary moment?’
SM: There are several artists that have historically been important to Aperture and will continue to be touchstones for younger generations because of the distinctive ways in which they used a camera to help understand the perils and promise of the world around them. Artists like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank or August Sander. Our connection with these estates is not a backward-looking relationship; quite the opposite. It’s a forward looking one, where we grapple with why this work remains so relevant.
DH: Can you share about any projects which you see reinvigorating the relationship with these artists and their work?
SM: Absolutely. With Arbus in particular, there is much going on. This year, in fact this month, is the 50th anniversary of her posthumous MoMA retrospective, and her acclaimed Aperture monograph was published at the same time.
In 2018, alongside the Smithsonian American Art Museum, we published a scholarly book on her portfolio A box of ten photographs. And we’re excited to announce that the major catalogue accompanying her 2003 traveling retrospective exhibition Revelations is now an Aperture title.
DH: In respect to the art market, we have seen many of the great post-war and contemporary photographers — or their estates — shift from having representation by photography galleries to being added to the rosters of the world’s blue-chip mega-galleries. In respect to the ‘market,’ photographers have been taken in as top performing ‘artists’ in a way we’ve never seen before. How has your own thinking shifted in relation to this old binary of identification: photographer on the one hand, and artist on the other?
SM: It has taken a long time in my career to adjust my thinking. Essentially, I no longer think in terms of a binary distinction between “photographer” and “artist.” My own internal shifts really crystallized in the last couple of exhibitions I curated when I was at MoMA. I’m thinking of the exhibition Dorothea Lange, Words & Pictures. Lange, of course, was one of Aperture’s founders. She never called herself an artist. In fact, she actively resisted that. “Artist” was insufficient to describe the ambition and impact she imagined for her work.
‘I like to think about how the term “art” is perhaps more limiting than “photography”’ — Sarah Meister, Executive Director, Aperture
More recently, I’ve been thinking why the title of ‘artist’ was insufficient to describe the ambition and impact she imagined for her work. Between that and my very last show at MoMA, which was of Brazilian amateur photographers — most of whom also wouldn’t have identified as artists (these were doctors and lawyers) — it was Aperture that helped me! I was looking back at earlier issues of the magazine and realized that the audience Aperture’s founders were trying to speak to was an audience of people who simply couldn’t be defined, or limited, within the boundaries of art.
I’m not so interested in whether photographers should call themselves artists, but rather that the term artist might be a more limiting term than photographer. I don’t accept that a photographer who calls themselves a photographer is any less of an artist.
Take a major figure like Gordon Parks. His work was on the pages of LIFE magazine and circulated among an audience of millions. The work wasn’t fetishized as fine art prints. Yet of course its artistic qualities abounded, and it had a deep and lasting impact.
What I appreciate about being at Aperture now is thinking about how to balance this understanding of the very democracy of the medium. How these pictures have an impact beyond the boundaries of ‘art’. These figures we’ve been speaking about are undeniably artists, but I like to think about how the term ‘art’ is perhaps more limiting than ‘photography.’
Now I find myself asking, how do you create, how do you invigorate, a platform that attends to the expansiveness that is Photography?
DH: And what does a ‘platform that attends to the expansiveness’ of the medium look like?
SM: I think an organization like Aperture is perfectly poised to do this for several reasons, not least of which is that we have embraced the fundamental complexity and democracy of the medium for 70 years.
In 1952, the founders wrote the following: ‘Aperture draws no boundaries between amateur and professional, pictorialist and documentarian, journalist and scholar.’ They are pitching this incredibly wide tent that honestly, I spent most of my career trying to simplify, creating hierarchies with art at the top, above a a morass of vernacular photography. That’s just not accurate.
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SM: What I’m learning is to be more comfortable with the fact that art within photography is omnipresent. It’s what allows you to appreciate the artistry of a snapshot, or the artistry of an Edgerton. And certainly, the artistry within an effective photograph for advocacy. Part of how you get people to pay attention longer — certainly Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams understood this — you must make a compelling photograph.
The platform that is going to nurture these possibilities going forward is one that meets people where they are. Take our magazine, for example, as a major component of this platform. You’re effectively getting a book every quarter that allows you to fall into the nature of the achievements of both historical and contemporary photographers.
To look at one recent example, the Kwame Braithwaite exhibition at the New York Historical Society. It started on the pages of the magazine, and then it grew into a book, and then it grew into an exhibition which is traveling around the country. The book is now in its 5th printing, and I find that amazing, and worth celebrating!
DH: One of the most moving and powerful issues of the magazine from recent years was titled Vision & Justice, and was guest edited by the very talented Professor Sarah Lewis. Can you tell us about the future of that project?
SM: That issue has now been reprinted multiple times, and is evolving into a book series within our overall publishing program with Sarah Lewis, Leigh Raiford, and Deborah Willis as series editors. We are all committed to publish at least two titles a year, and will be working with an incredibly distinguished Advisory Board to make the most of this opportunity.
Since 2016 Vision & Justice has had a contagious effect on our thinking about the urgency of the work that lies ahead in relation to issues of photography, racial justice and representation. It is a significant part of what made Aperture an organization I wanted to join, and it’s at the heart of what my colleagues and I want to prioritize in our work going forward.