by Jean Dykstra
It’s been just over a year since Quentin Bajac became chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, becoming one of the most influential arbiters of photography at one of the most influential art museums. The four previous curators of the department, Beaumont Newhall, Edward Steichen, John Szarkowski, and Peter Galassi, left big shoes to fill. But Bajac, a Paris native, seems at ease in the role. He quickly delved into the museum’s collection to curate his first exhibition, A World of its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio, on view through October 5. And he has a few thoughts on what he’d like to see happen at MoMA, including a more integrated display of the collections across departments, and some revisions to the annual New Photography exhibition: “I would like to have it more like a biennale, on a larger scale,” he says. “In 2015, we will commemorate the 30th anniversary of New Photography, and that will be a good opportunity to make a change.”
Bajac has an impressive resume, having spent eight years at the Musée d’Orsay and nine at the Centre Pompidou, where, he says, “I was interested in the relationship between photography and the other arts and disciplines.” He has curated exhibitions on tableaux vivant from the mid-1800s, surrealism, and scientific photography and is the author of a three-volume survey of the history of photography.
His parents took him to museums as a child, and he loved the big shows at the Pompidou in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, such as Paris-Moscow and Paris-New York, but he initially went on to study literature, politics, and economics at the Institut d’etudes politiques. “In a way,” he says, “I’m totally self-taught in photography.” Bajac had been working in communications in Paris, all the while going to museums, galleries, and the cinema. “At one point,” he says, “I told myself, OK, you need to decide what you really want to do.” He passed the exam to attend the Institut national du patrimoine and began a new career.
Characteristically, his first exhibition at MoMA bridges disciplines and media while following a line of inquiry about where photography is headed. “I had the feeling that, especially in the U.S., a lot of young photographers were working in the studio, experimenting,” he says, adding, “MoMA has this identity of being closely connected with descriptive photography. I wanted to show that there was another history that could be written from its collection.” The show is organized thematically and spans the history of the medium, considering the studio as a stage, as a set, as a neutral space and sanctuary; it also considers the studio as a place to create virtual spaces, including works created without a camera.
Bajac will also be adding to the museum’s current collection, of course, and like every photography curator — indeed, every human with a computer — he has to wrestle with the unprecedented proliferation of images. “Sometimes it’s difficult to absorb,” he admits. “But the avant-garde critics of the 1920s and ‘30s had the same complaint about the illustrated press. As curators, we should not be conservative; we should not be nostalgic. We should adjust to contemporary photographic practices.”