Karen Sinsheimer is the Curator of Photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA). Jim Kasson interviewed her at the Museum
JK:How’d you get into this business?
KS:I was married to a photographer, William Current. We lived in Carmel in the late ‘60s, and our friends were Brett Weston and Wynn Bullock. We moved to Pasadena in 1970 to work on an exhibition and book on the architecture of Charles and Henry Greene, the Craftsman architects.William taught me a lot about photography. I worked in a darkroom and knew how to print, but I was working at Caltech, and I was writing books. William was doing the photography, and we were producing shows.
JK:Before that, what was your academic training?
KS:My major was art history.I went off to the Peace Corps for a couple of years. I thought I might go into the Foreign Service, but the Peace Corps cured me of that. When I came back, I took graduate courses at Berkeley, including one with Jack Welpott, and then we moved to Carmel.
JK:You were a photographer yourself?
KS:I wasn’t. I couldn’t even dignify myself with that title, but I was interested.
JK:And serious enough to sign up for a class with Jack Welpott.
KS:Exactly. That was a lot of fun. Judy Dater also came; she and Jack were together at the time.
JK:How did you make the connection with museums in general, and this one in particular?
KS:After doing several publications and catalogs for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, my second husband and I were in Santa Barbara, and Theresa Heyman, the founding curator of photography at Oakland, called and said, “The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is going to be doing an exhibition on California photography. That’s right up your alley. You should offer your services.”The SBMA planned a major exhibition on California photography for their 50th anniversary celebration. I was hired as a consultant in July of 1990, and, as the saying goes, “When the nose of the camel is in the tent, the rest of the camel follows.” Here I am seventeen years later.
JK:Tell me about the Museum.
KS:The Santa Barbara Museum of Art began showing photography in 1946, the same year the museum opened its doors. They had important solo exhibitions of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Frederic Sommer, George Hurrell, and Wynn Bullock. But did they buy anything? No. The whole show probably could have been purchased for $500 at the time.
JK:Or, “Oh, please, would you like to donate…”
KS:That, regrettably, too.
JK:The museum has a collection now.
KS:Yes, when I arrived there were 2,500 photographs. We have been building it steadily since 1990 largely through donations and/or gifts. The size of the collection now is about 5,500 exhibitable prints.
JK:Who came before you?
KS:Fred Parker and Timothy Hearsum. Paul Mills, the director from 1970 to 1982 never hired Fred as a curator, but he said, “If you can get grants, you can do photographic shows here.” Fred did a stunning show in the 70s called Attitudes. He looked at work by photographers from all over the country and produced an exhibition of 450 photographs. It was an enormous undertaking and a landmark exhibition. Fred was amazing. He left in 1984 or so, and he was followed by Timothy Hearsum, who became a part-time curator.
JK:Tell me about some of your exhibitions that stand out in your mind.
KS:I began here to organize 101 Years of California Photography: Watkins to Weston. Then Michael G. Wilson, a well-known collector, suggested a series of four 19th-century exhibitions, each a traveling show. The first was an exhibition called Travelers in an Antique Land, which focused on Egypt. The second was Revealing the Holy Land, about the photographic discovery of Palestine. Of Battle and Beauty consisted of Felice Beato’s photographs of the Second Opium War in China taken in 1860. The final of the four shows, which concluded just last year, was First Seen: Portraits of the World’s Peoples. It was a large show of early photographs made on every continent.
JK:A 19th-century Family of Man?
KS:It really was, in a way. It opened at the Dahesh Museum in New York, and they brought up the Family of Man. It looked at the ways in which people were pictured and the reasons why photographers traveled. Another wonderful show that I was thinking about this morning was called An Eclectic Focus and wasan exhibition from the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon collection, which ranged from Talbot to contemporary photography. Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography brought to light a superb portraitist and established Hollywood as an important genre. Ruth Harriet Louise was 22 years old when she came to Hollywood and began working at MGM as the portrait photographer. She was quite an extraordinary woman and photographed all of the starlets, and Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.She had learned from Nikolas Muray in New York, and her photographs were greatly influenced by his. He loved theater and he was a great portraitist, so she learned well. Many of her portraits were featured in the show we recently did called Garbo’s Garbos, all from Greta Garbo’s private collection. There were portraits from every movie she made by a number of photographers, Ruth Harriet Louise among them, and Clarence Bull primarily. That show is still traveling. It was in Europe and in New York and it’s now in Wichita.
KS: I did a show called A Poetic Vision: The Photographs of Anne Brigman, an important Bay Area photographer at the turn of the last century. Alfred Stieglitz featured her in Camera Work. That was the first time that a large body of her work had been seen in years. Also, a show called Imaging/Imagining Science in ’98. I was looking at scientific photographs and work by artists who understood science. That was a tough slog, because many artists and laypeople have difficulty understanding scientific concepts, and because science has become more and more specialized and complex.
JK:Tell me about the images by scientists.
KS:I included imagery that transcended its scientific role. Felice Frankel, who works with scientists at MIT, understands the science, and her mission was to enable scientists to explain their work better. She has developed techniques to photograph scientific experiments or scientific elements in a way that is artistically aesthetic. Susan Rankaitis has worked with scientists and has created multi-layered pieces that have scientific or genetic imagery imbedded in them. My husband is a scientist, so the intersections of art and science interest me greatly.
JK:And the way photographers deal with science?
KS:I also did a show in 2002 called PhotoGENEsis. That looked at the age of genetics and how artists were looking at and thinking about the issues raised by this new work. I still have people call me about it because it really touched a nerve. There are so many issues the genetic age poses.
JK:The things that were the stuff of ‘50s science fiction.
KS:Exactly. We had a huge number of works in that exhibition, which looked at cloning, ownership of genetic information, and discrimination. Let’s say an employer finds out you’re genetically predisposed to certain diseases. Will this be used to discriminate against you in employment, or insurance, or in other ways?
JK:I don’t know how I would deal with those issues in a photograph.
KS:We commissioned Carrie Mae Weems, and she produced an extraordinary piece printed on fabric. She expropriated photographs, and hung them as banners, and put sayings with them. They were marvelous. Ten years ago, I think few people would have understood the broad issues. But now the human genomic map is in everyday vocabulary. DNA is in everybody’s vocabulary and in the public discourse.
JK:How many of the exhibitions that you do are contemporary photographers, and how many are historical?
KS:My mandate is to present a balance. I’ve been working on a series of California masters. These photographers are not exactly contemporary, but they’re still with us. And they were an important part of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. I also have some contemporary work coming up. I don’t have dedicated gallery space, so I’m always trying to get my photographic foot in that gallery door.
JK:Are you interested in seeing portfolios?
KS:I feel it is a responsibility, and I like to do portfolio reviews. I’m jurying a photo forum every year that has two major contests, one for amateur photographers, and one for students, both college and high school. I like to see what people are doing. I like to see what they’re thinking, and I enjoy talking to the photographers themselves. I like to do photo reviews in Portland and Santa Fe.
JK:Will you review photographers’ portfolios individually?
KS:If people call me up and they say, “I’m going to be in Santa Barbara on these days, would you be willing to look at my portfolio?” I will do it. I feel it’s part of my responsibility, part of my duty to my profession to know what artists are thinking.
JK:Tell me what you think of the present state of photography.
KS:The digital world has transformed and defined the next generation of photographs. It’s also changed the size of the work; now photographers are working in very large formats. It’s not always true that larger is necessarily better.
JK:There’s an old saying, “If you can’t make it good, make it big.”
KS:I can’t tell you the number of photographers who say, “I want to make it bigger,” when they have perfectly beautiful 11x14s, or 16x20s, or 17x22s.
JK:Other comments on photography today?
KS:Photography is not as ghettoized as it once was. A lot of photographic artists don’t consider themselves photographers. They say, “I’m an artist using photography as one of my media.” As has been true throughout history, when technological changes occur, photography changes. We’re seeing a huge array of digital possibility, but also you see photographers going back to old processes.
JK:There are more people today who are great printers in what we now call alternative processes than there were when those processes were current.Yousee incredible albumen prints, gum bichromates…
KS:…and ambrotypes and Van Dyke prints. I’m doing an exhibition this summer called Made in Santa Barbara. It is work by artists who are based in or who have lived in Santa Barbara a long time. The last inclusion was two weeks ago when a couple came in and showed me 48x48” Van Dyke prints, and they are stunning. There’s a piece that the artist claims is the largest ambrotype ever made. I find it charming and fascinating. And you’re right; they’re beautifully printed.
JK:Sometimes these beautiful alternative-process prints are more about the print than the content. You get some pretty mundane subject material that you wouldn’t consider hanging on your wall if it weren’t printed a special way.
KS:True. I think there’s a desire to have a sense of the handmade, the hands on, and that drives some of that impulse. There is something wonderfully seductive about a beautiful print, but it’s not the only thing. There’s that argument between the object as “fine art object,” versus the conceptual message. When the two are married you find the power. The magic is when the concept meets the technique. Take the Starn Twins’ prints. They demystify the object, printing with ragged edges on mulberry paper, but somehow the idea is enriched.
JK:When digital photography was first democratized, when the prices got down to the point where many photographers could afford to use it at least at some point in the process, I had the sense that there were people playing with these marvelously powerful editing tools, but they hadn’t really figured out what to do with them yet. We had oversharpened, oversaturated images, and weird composites. Are we getting better?
KS:Initially, there were a lot of computer nerds who knew how to use the software, but were not artists. Photographers have now become adept at using their computer as their darkroom, and now you’re finding artists for whom Photoshop is their darkroom. There are people who use it better than others. There are prints that looked ‘shopped and some that don’t.
JK: If you are a platinum or a palladium printer, you get to pick your paper, but for silver, the paper and the emulsion come together, and the paper surfaces are limited. With digital, you can put an image on almost anything.
KS:I know. There’s a photographer who came to me. He had a series he’d been sitting on for 30 years because he couldn’t realize a print in his darkroom that was what he was trying to convey, and now he can.That’s exciting.
JK:How do you decide in what areas to collect?
KS:When I’m bringing things into the collection, I’m trying to build areas of depth and breadth that will not duplicate what’s readily available elsewhere. Here I sit, 90 miles from The Getty. At this stage, one can never put together a photography collection with the historical or artistic breadth of theirs. I look for opportunities to speak to or for a particular kind of photography. For instance, we just purchased the Steichen photograph of Greta Garbo that he made for Vanity Fair. It’s an important Steichen image and an extraordinary portrait. The exhibition A Decade of Collecting focused on the areas in which I was trying to build. Today, in the afternoon, I’m installing an exhibition of pre- and post-war Japanese photography. On the Pacific coast, we need to be looking to the western Pacific Rim, rather than to Europe, and so I’ve been interested in the last decade in acquiring and showing western Pacific Rim material.
JK:How do you decide in what areas to exhibit? Is it the same as collecting?
KS:When I’m thinking about exhibitions, I’m trying to acquire things for the collection, and I also try to work from our permanent collection in new ways. After the Japanese show, we’re going to do a show of Ansel Adams recent acquisitions. We have been given a number of prints in the past eight years that spanned his career ranging from parmelian prints to a mural-sized print that he did in the early ‘50s, which Adams printed at a billboard company. We were given two gorgeous prints by Maggi Weston—classic vintage 16x20 prints of the Snake River and of Yosemite. What a jewel of a little show, all given to us by generous donors.
JK:How many of the exhibitions that you do are from the collection?
KS:It varies, because I don’t have a dedicated space. For this summer, I’m organizing Made in Santa Barbara. Half of the work comes from our permanent collection, because we have some important artists who live here and who have a significant reputation and résumé.
JK:What do you consider the proper conditions for an exhibition? I’m interested in the light level, the signage, distance around the prints, the number of prints. What are the major tradeoffs in how you exhibit the work?
KS:We’re always trying to upgrade our physical ability to show work to its maximum effect. Humidity and light controls are carefully maintained and monitored. Our director is concerned about the look of both graphic and didactic material, and also color choices; he found a team of professional designers to take on that aspect.
JK:There’s a conflict between looking good aesthetically and informing. What looks elegant ends up so unobtrusive that people have difficulty reading it, and this also restricts the amount of information that can be put on the wall.
KS:There is a tradeoff; you want to tell people a lot about the work, but museum surveys tell you that people spend about six seconds in front of any given work and that they are not going to read anything beyond 100 words on a label. They’re not going to read every label, and they’re not going to stand and read copious amounts of text on a wall. They want to get the gist of it, but they don’t want to stand on their feet and read 25 labels. You don’t have their attention for long, and in this culture, you probably have even less of their attention because people are multi-tasking. Museums are looking at how to keep from becoming part of the entertainment industry, and, at the same time, better reach our audiences.
JK:You don’t want what’s happened to the classical music audience to be the prototype for what happens to the museum audience.
KS:Exactly. You can fossilize yourself right out of existence. At the same time, I chafe at the idea that we’re infotainment.
JK:Could you be comfortable with being education?
KS:Education is incredibly important. We did a couple of exhibitions with audio that you could download to your iPod. That’s a perfectly good thing to do. We can’t do it with every exhibition, but it was effective. You’ve got to try to find ways to connect with your audience.
JK:You go to a photographer’s house and you look at their pictures. They throw a lot of light on them and they look great. You go into a museum and it’s murky and dim.
KS:You’re practically there with your miner’s lamp. When you borrow things from another institution, they’ll tell you the max is eight, or even four foot-candles. We just brought in an exhibition, and the curator said, “One of the lenders will be here with his light meter.” When you’re borrowing from other institutions, you have contractual agreements that you must abide by, and our job is preservation and conservation. We know that Steichen’s dark, moody prints look fabulous when they’re just bathed in light, but we can’t do it.
JK:A standard light meter with a visual correction gives more credit to the green light than the blue, even though blue light is more energetic and causes more harm. UV light, which the light meter doesn’t see, does even more damage. Is there a possibility to come up with illumination whose spectrum is concentrated in wavelengths you can see that are carried by lower energy photons?
KS:We’re, in fact, installing a new light system. We’ve installed one in the gallery that has photos at the moment, and we’re reinstalling a whole Asian collection for that reason, because there are these advances in types of lighting that really do add more luminescence without adding necessarily more lumens.
JK:Make it brighter without making it more damaging.
KS:Wall color can make a huge difference. It can appear so much brighter that it makes it seem like it’s got more light on it than it really does. I remember having someone from The Getty come up and say, “There’s far too much light on our piece. I just know there is,” and I said, “I don’t think so. We carefully measured.” We went and got the light meter and sure enough, it was OK.
JK:What was the trick? Do you darken the wall?
KS:The trick was the color of walls, and the walls made it seem like the piece was advancing and that it had more light on it.
JK:Are we photographers doing ourselves any favors with our convention of pure white mats?
KS:Our preparator uses a variety of white-hued mats, depending upon the exhibition. She doesn’t use stark white mats.
JK:During your time at the Museum you’ve experienced tremendous appreciation in the value of photographic art. How’s that affected your job?
KS:Read the Wall Street Journal. The photography marketplace has gone beyond what most museums can possibly hope to pay, and even the price of a lot of contemporary work is very high. It is harder and harder for museums. To bring the work of certain artists into your collection, you must hope that a collector will give them. I don’t have an acquisition budget, so it’s especially hard.
JK:There are great photographs and there are great photographers. The marketplace seems to ascribe more value to a lackluster piece by a great photographer than a great photograph by an unknown photographer.
KS:Have you watched people? They’ll go straight to the label and decide if it’s important to look at.
JK: In acquiring work, how do you make the tradeoffs between the greatness of the photographer and the greatness of the work?
KS: Having mediocre works, no matter whose they are, doesn’t serve your collection.
JK: You try to put your blinders on when you look at work and to pretend you don’t know who did it?
KS: It’s not that simple. You look for opportunities. When there are gaps in the collection, and if it’s a good work by a really good photographer, and if it fits in a certain genre, or decade, or period, or kind of photography, then an acquisition might make sense.
JK:During your portfolio reviews, you must have come across a photographer who’s got an uneven collection of work, but there’s this one incredible image. What do you do about that?
KS:You focus, probe, and encourage.
JK:Would you say, “I want that?”
KS:Absolutely. When I was in Portland a few years ago, there was a photographer doing extraordinary landscapes. He was doing paper negatives along the Columbia River with a camera he had built; it weighed over 50 pounds. He said he worked pretty close to his car. But they were extraordinary things, and they had this evocative 19th-century feel but there was something really quite modern about them. I thought they were really great photographs, so I bought them. Michael Wilson is now buying a lot of contemporary work. He said, “You have to have a lot of guts to buy contemporary work. But if 25% of it pans out… ”
JK:If you’re buying an image by an unknown, you don’t have a lot of downside when you spend $400 for a photograph.
KS:Rick Wester, in a collecting seminar was asked the question, “When buying contemporary photographs, how do I know if it’s a good investment?” He said, “If you look at it as an investment, you’re buying penny stocks. Most of them may not ever take off, but you’re investing in the artist. You’re investing in art itself. You’re investing in the process. You’re investing in the belief that making art is something that one needs to support.”
JK:How is your buying decision as a curator different than your buying decision when you’re buying for yourself?
KS:I can only buy things for myself that aren’t going to be competitive with what the Museum collects.
JK:Let’s say you had a twin.
KS:When you’re buying for a collection, you’ve got to remember that that institution is going to care for anything you buy in perpetuity, and this is not a cheap thing for them to do, whether or not you ever pull that thing out of the vault. Michael Wilson estimates that every object in his collection costs him $100 a year, no matter what.
JK:A $400 photograph isn’t so cheap…
KS:…because you’re going to take care of it forever. The SBMA will put it in a vault, track it, measure it, provide the appropriate humidity and security for it. You might show it occasionally, but you’re going to maintain it forever.
JK:That makes the decision weightier.
KS:Also, it may not be something I personally like, but that’s not the point. The point is: Where does it fit in the context of the collection you’re building, and how is it going to be used?
JK:It’s more an intellectual than an emotional decision?
KS:Absolutely. And, we have a collections committee that has to vet everything that I buy. If I present it, and I make the case for it, and I tell them all the reasons why it fits in the collection, they generally say yes. But I can get some tough questions.
JK:Even if you have a donor?
KS:If I have a donor, it’s a little easier. But, if you’re spending the institution’s money, they ask you a lot of questions, and they want to know that this is something you thought through. Not just, “Oh, this is so beautiful.”
JK:Your emotional reaction to an image has to be at least part of how you decide the quality of the image, right?
KS:I’m not sure it’s emotional as much as it is a multi-layered meaning in the photograph. Half the meaning of any photograph comes from the viewer. The viewer brings experience, knowledge, emotions, perceptions, whether they know it or not. So it can’t just be personal. It can’t be just yours. It’s got to have a multi-layered dimension, because it’s not just there for your pleasure. If you’re going to hang it in your house, you can say, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. I really like it.”
JK:If you can’t use your own emotion, how do you decide what makes an image great? It can’t be all an intellectual decision, can it? If you walk into the room and see something that takes your breath away, it’s not a reasoned, intellectual decision.
KS:Right. An image has to have staying power. At a big art fair I see a lot of images, and there are a lot of times when I want to walk away and come back the next day and see how it stays with me.
JK:Where is the SBMA going in photography?
KS:The director and I are thinking about that. We have a strong commitment in our collector’s group that’s dedicated and passionate about the medium, and Santa Barbara has long been known as a photographic community. There’s also a trend in museum permanent collections that integrate painting and sculptures and paper and photography, and the idea is that there isn’t just a curator of a medium, but there is an integrated approach.
JK:Have you done, or would you consider doing a show with a curator from another medium representing that medium?
KS:Sure. However, people don’t like you stepping on their turf, so there are issues.
JK:A final word?
KS: Aspiring photographers, don’t get discouraged. Curators get deluged with material to consider, and the opportunities are few. Pirkle Jones had his first retrospective at SBMA when he was 87, after 60 years of working in photography.