Published on Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Elisabeth Sherman Talks the “Future” of Photography
Elizabeth Sherman at The Photography Show in 2018. Photo courtesy Julienne Schaer
During your AIPAD Talk on The Future of Photography, you stressed that it’s impossible to actually define the current state of photography. What makes you feel that way?
I’m always loathe to try and summarize any given moment. It’s always hard to see what we’re a part of, while we’re in it. Every moment is larger and more amorphous than could be easily defined. There are also young artists bringing their voices to the conversation, as well as artists who have been working for 5, 10, or 20 years. Some of the conversation we had at [The Photography Show] was also rejecting the idea of discussing where photography is going.
As a curator, then, how do you approach the topic of what’s next in photography?
I’m interested in looking at the cyclical history of the conversation, versus the linear one. And coming from the Whitney, we look at more than photography. The artists I’m interested in are often working through ideas in their work and through their medium in ways that are similar to what painters and sculptors and other artists are doing. The ideas are shared even if the forms are different.
What we’re seeing in a lot of younger artists is an interest in identity and autobiography and how they’re shaped by the environment and the world they’re living in. A lot of photographers today are turning to a more “traditional” form of photography – a lens-based approach that returns to the idea of the camera as a window. They’re thinking again about the documentary form of the medium.
Why do you think we’re seeing this shift?
I can only speculate, but I think it’s a combination of factors.
In some ways, it may be a reaction to a lot of the medium-specific approaches from 5-10 years ago about the technology itself and the rapid change it has gone through, and maybe wanting to move more toward the narrative potential of the form.
I think it’s also likely a combination of artists reacting to the moment as well as curators and galleries focusing on these kinds of approaches because of our moment. Photographers will likely always be taking this approach, whether or not their work gets attention. It also likely has to do with the cyclical nature of any given moment. Many of these artists were raised on the identity politics of the ‘90s, and those are the artists they’re looking back to.
What excites you most about what you’re seeing in photography?
All of it is exciting. I’m really interested in how there’s a looking back at certain conditions of the ‘90s. I’m excited about how photographers are looking back at traditions, whether it’s the top 20 names we can all think of, or book-making traditions, that kind of narrative structure is interesting – I’m very interested in the artists investigating these earlier works.
As a curator, how do photography dealers help you stay on top of what’s changing and evolving in the field?
I work with our photography acquisition committee, and I of course see shows at galleries all the time. In general, the supportive platform that dealers provide for these artists, that give them a space to exhibit their work, is incredibly helpful, and they facilitate the information and connection that curators want in that space.
Elisabeth Sherman joined the Whitney in 2009 and serves as Assistant Curator. She works with the Photography Acquisition Committee and, since 2011, has served as the curatorial liaison to the Whitney Contemporaries. She has written for numerous Whitney exhibition catalogues as well as contributed to Artforum and Art in America. She has served on the juries for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Artist Residencies and the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant and been a visiting critic for the Smackmellon Studio Program and Review Santa Fe. Previously, she was a curatorial assistant at the American Federation of Arts. She holds an M.A. from the Courtauld Institute, London, and a B.A. from Dartmouth College.