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  • Tim Greyhavens

LENS@LACMA: Interpreting Photography in Real Time

Rebecca Morse

LENS: Photography Council is the donor engagement program for the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It’s one of more than two dozen such photography councils at major museums in North America, but LENS offers rare opportunities for enthusiasts, collectors, students, and others by arranging visits to working photographer’s studios in the Los Angeles area.

I found this approach to be so intriguing that I arranged to talk about it with Rebecca Morse, the Associate Curator for Photography at LACMA. Rebecca is the primary staff contact for LENS, and she gave me her insights about photography today as experienced by LENS members.

Tim Greyhavens: Tell me about the Annenberg Photography Department at LACMA

Rebecca Morse: The department was formed in 1983, which coincides with the creation of the Getty’s photography department and the establishment of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Right now we have two curators and two full-time curatorial assistants, and nearly 16,000 photographs in the collection. Our scope is wide-ranging. In 2008, with funds provided by Wallis Annenberg, LACMA acquired the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, which had been compiled by the Los Angeles couple over a 30-year period. The Vernons began collecting in the ’70s when historical photographs were much more available and accessible than they are now and they amassed an incredible collection of photographs, 3,500 of which are now forming the backbone of our holdings in photography.

Over the years, the curators in this department have been very interested in experimental photography and photography made by artists based in Los Angeles and California. In some ways, those two strains complement one another. This region is incredibly creative, from the entertainment industry to the exceptionally high number of art programs and schools that have flourished here — there has been a lot of experimentation with the medium and our collection reflects that.

Is there any connection between your department and the Annenberg Space for Photography?

Wallis Annenberg provided the funds to acquire the Vernon Collection and with that incredible gift, LACMA named the department in her honor. But there’s no official connection between LACMA’s photography department and the Annenberg Space for Photography, which is an initiative of the Annenberg Foundation and its trustees.

LACMA has a somewhat unique members’ photography council called LENS. How does your program compare with those at other institutions?

This is the third year of our photography council called LENS. The group is comprised of those who have an interest in photography — from collectors to enthusiasts and even artists — and is focused on studio visits. Together we visit five or six emerging and mid-career artists in Los Angeles whose primary output is photography or time-based media. With the funds that we receive from membership we acquire for LACMA’s collection work by the individuals we visit.

Our goal is to visit artists whose work is not already in LACMA’s collection and who are working in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. This is a very particular set of circumstances that is only possible in a large city like Los Angeles. There are so many artists who live and work here and so many artists who are engaged with photography that we are able to visit a new group of artists every year.

It’s an excellent and unique experience for those involved. The individuals who make up the group are people who are experienced museum and gallery visitors, but not many of them have the opportunity to visit artists in their studios. As curators, this is one of the things that we enjoy the most and it is how we begin to understand who is making photographs, and why, and what is particular to that venture in this city where we all live.

We go on Saturday mornings or Wednesday evenings, usually three visits in the fall and two in the spring and in the early summer we have an annual celebration honoring the artists and the acquisitions we have made. We take the summer off, because many are traveling, and we start up again in the fall.

Over the course of the year, I visit as many studios as possible, upwards of 35 or so, and together with my colleagues make a selection of the artists we visit with the goal being an engaging and dynamic group of artists.

LENS members actively engage with local photographers through annual studio tours arranged by the museum. Later these same members select one or more photographs from the studios they’ve seen to be purchased for the LACMA collection. Photo courtesy of LACMA.

How many members who go on an average tour?

We have about 45 members in LENS and about 20 go on each a tour. A limiting factor is that the studio needs to be large enough for 20+ people to fit inside. We spend about an hour with the artist in their studio and often members linger to talk longer to the artist and to each other.

How do you focus the choices of which studios to visit? Do you get input from the members or are you looking for something that’s not represented in your collection?

I talk to my colleagues at the museum, because all of us involved in contemporary art are actively visiting artist’s studios, and I often ask artists for their recommendations as well. My goal is to create a wide range of experiences, with people working in different styles and photographic media, including those who are engaged with video and film. It is also interesting to include artists who are at different points in their careers — from those who have just graduated from an MFA program to people who have been working for 15 years or more.

Our goal is to seek out people who are lesser-known for any number of reasons ‒ age, working habits, subject matter, techniques. It’s all about broadening our perspective on photography as a medium.

Are you looking to fill possible gaps in your collection or is it more about what you find interesting at the time?

This isn’t really about filling in gaps because we’re not focusing on well-established individuals. This is more about seeing what’s happening on the ground now and talking to the people who are making it happen.

Do you select photographs on the spot while in a studio?

We tend to make the acquisitions all at once in the spring, in order to capture what emerges over the course of the year.

Here’s a key question: why a photography council? Is there something about photography that allows people to be more directly or personally engaged than other media?

I think that question depends a lot on the institution. At a museum that shows just contemporary art and has no departmental breakdowns, you might say, okay, why photography, why gather people around this medium? But here at LACMA, we have a major photography department, which is one of 13 different departments ranging from contemporary art to art of the Middle East to costumes and textiles. Here each department has some kind of support group, and because we have a large membership we have a lot of people who are seriously interested in photography. Those people want to share their enthusiasm for the medium with us, and we, in turn, benefit from their abiding interest.

Historically photography was priced at a lower price point than other mediums such as painting and sculpture and that is one reason new collectors turned first to photography. For others, it’s a personal interest in what this medium tells us and what we learn from responding to it.

For me, it’s really exciting to talk to ardent collectors because I learn a lot from them and the things they’re looking at all over the world. It’s really rewarding for us in the department to have that access to people who are really involved in photography on a personal level.

Some critics are saying that everyone is a photographer now due to the widespread use of smartphones. Do you think people on average have a greater understanding of photography at this time because it’s so accessible or is there more uncertainty simply because photography is so prevalent?

That’s a great question. I think that artists who use photography have a greater visual vocabulary now, and their understanding of the medium is based within that larger context. Certainly, you’re right that many more people are making photographs, they’re taking photographs on their phones and putting them out in a variety of different ways. For the most part, the artists who we are visiting are really engaged with what it means to make an image in the 21st century. They spend a lot of time thinking about the choices they make not only in creating an image but also how to process it and how it should be shown.

The collectors and people engaged in the medium are as knowledgeable as they have ever been, but they’re always learning from artists who are reconciling the various ways of making work. I think that regardless of the medium that’s the conversation everybody is interested in and we have a lot to learn from working artists.

How do the demographics of the LENS group influence who you might decide to visit?

I’m interested in exposing our members to the most viable and interesting artists who are making work now and where the most engaging conversations will be. The goal is to offer our members something that they can’t easily do by themselves. Not only is it rewarding for our members but also for the artists because they then have an opportunity to show their work to a variety of people in their own studios. I think many of them enjoy that process.

Do you ever get into heated discussions about a particular photographer or image — about what makes a photograph “good” or “bad”?

People certainly have strong opinions, but what I love is coming away from a visit and hearing how someone’s personal experience influenced their perception of a photograph or a body of work. Artwork reaches people in different ways, and people’s responses are rarely the same. To me that’s exciting because it’s about us as individuals and what we can learn from our visual experiences. I also think sometimes you may not be visually taken with something, and yet there’s a conceptual basis to it that really speaks to you. That can be really satisfying as well.

LENS is a self-selected group of more affluent members with a passion for photography. Does the collective personality of the group influence your selection of photographers?

I encourage the members to consider the visits we have made over the course of the year. Yes, there will be favorites, but what can be determined about photography and art production when examining the visits as a whole? Artmaking is personal and often includes a struggle, and it is an important reminder that it is not a frivolous act to be a serious artist, but a life of dedication, hard work, and often sacrifice.

This photo was selected by LENS members for acquisition by the LACMA Photography Department. Photo: LACMA.

You said there limitations to your site choices due to size and location of studios. Do you ever plan for redundancy ‒ looking for the same themes being explored in different ways?

For the most part, my goal is to expose our members to as many differences in art as possible. Sometimes there is a similarity in approach that can be traced back to the artist’s professor/mentor and that is interesting because it speaks to artistic relationships. However, I would say that artists are actively seeking out their own voices and redundancy is less common.

Does a LENS member receive anything in addition to the studio visits?

The members of the group have upper-level membership at the museum and are invited to two LACMA exhibition openings a year and to all of the talks and other public programs that happen on the museum’s campus. For the most part, the studio visits generate a lot of interactions among the individual members, and they like the social connections. Each year there are more and more opportunities to not only engage people but to really draw them into the inner workings of photography as an art form and that’s what LENS members appreciate most.

There’s no question that photography as a medium is hot right now. Do you think it will ever become prosaic?

Ha! Yes, photography is hot — for some viewers, it is the individual photographer who is hot and for others, it’s the medium itself because it is constantly changing and updating itself. There is no question that artists are at the heart of the museum and keeping apprised of what they are thinking about and making is vital to what we curators do. Through LENS we have the opportunity to share that rapport with a greater audience. It is a privilege to be able to work in a field that is filled with amazingly creative and interesting people who, I can say with certainty, are never dull or predictable!

Tim Greyhavens



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