by Jean Dykstra
It was probably for the best that Joshua Chuang, associate curator of photography at the Yale University Art Gallery, got “crushed,” as he puts it, by organic chemistry in college. He entered Dartmouth as a pre-med student, but a basic drawing class, he says, “really unlocked something in me. It unlocked the fact that I was a visually oriented person, but I’d never had the chance to explore that.” He continued on the pre-med track for his first year, but then came organic chemistry, along with the fact that he found himself drawn to more art classes. On a trip to Florence, he was so moved by the city’s beauty and history that he switched his major—to photography. “For the rest of my time at Dartmouth I took every photo class I could,” he says.
After graduation, Chuang accepted a faculty internship at Dartmouth; he taught part time and worked on his own photography, a series on the Chinese diaspora that was shown at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas in 1999. He considered moving to New York, and one of his Dartmouth professors, Brian Miller, encouraged him to apply to several galleries in the city. He landed a job at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and then with Pace/MacGill. “At the time,” Chuang recalls, “Pace/MacGill was kind of a nexus for the photography world. I got to work with William Christenberry, Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld. Both Peter and Howard taught me a lot about connoisseurship.”
Thinking about his next professional step, Chuang applied to grad school at Yale. That may seem like a predictable move, but the degree he received was not an MFA, but an MBA. “I was a strange cat in the business school,” he admits. “But I wanted to think about alternative models for supporting creative production.” While at Yale, he interned at the NEA in Washington, D.C., as well as at the Yale Art Gallery.
Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale Art Gallery, hired Chuang out of grad school in 2005, and in 2007 he was named the first dedicated curator of photography at the museum. In his time at Yale, Chuang has co-organized the extensive traveling exhibition of work by Robert Adams, The Place We Live (on view through November at the Josef Albers Museum in Germany) and curated Remembering 9/11 and First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography.
“Yale,” he says, “began seriously collecting at a time when a lot of the great collections had already been placed at other institutions. The collection we’ve built is narrow but deep in the area of post-war American photography,” he adds, mentioning the gallery’s collection of work by Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, and Judith Joy Ross, among others. His aim, he says, has been to “build a collection that is interesting, sustaining, and distinct. We’ve chosen to commit to a handful of living artists whom we feel are important; collect their work in depth; and collaborate with them on book projects.”
For a former pre-med, MBA grad from the Jersey suburbs, Chuang is pretty happy to be right where he is. “One of the things I love about the photography field is that even though it’s become more global, with more money, people are really willing to help each other. Maybe it’s the fact that photography itself was an orphan for a while. I’m happy to be part of this community.”