How to Show me your Photographs

Museum

Natasha Egan is the executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago (MoCP). She has organised over fifty exhibitions with a focus on contemporary Asian art and artists concerned with societal topics. John Duncan, an editor of Source spoke to her about what she was looking for in work submitted to the Solas Prize.

John Duncan: When somebody shows you a new piece of work, how do you decide if it is interesting?

Natasha Egan: It has to ask a question in some ways. It has to hold me long enough for me to want to look deeper into the picture. That can either be through the content or more formally. If there is too little information I might pass it by but I won’t if it is more complicated, either visually or looking at the world from a different vantage point. I want to understand where the artist is coming from.

When I am doing portfolio reviews I often end up attempting to cross-referencing work against all the other bits of photography that I know. I am curious do you do that as well?

I do. I am not interested in work that I feel like I have seen over and over so I want artists to show me something new. Both of us look at a lot of pictures for a living and it is hard to do something new. Some people want to know, ‘what is on trend?’ and I say ‘if there is a trend, run the other way’. You can create something new but it is very common for me to say, ‘have you seen the work of this person because it reminds me of that’. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it seems that they are joining the conversation. At other times this other artist owns that style.

Do you have a mental map of contemporary photography?

My map is more of a network. There are a few galleries that I work closely with. Not necessarily buying work from them but sharing an understanding of what would be good for their gallery and then they look at what we are showing, and maybe pick that person up. Once a month we look at everything that is being submitted to us, but when one of those galleries writes to me and says, ‘we have started work with these new artists’ I will go the extra step in learning more about them.

Egan

Is there anything you like to see in an artist's statement or text introducing the work.

My biggest advice in an artist's statement is to be clear and direct about the project. Many people think that because you are looking at a picture that you understand it. They leave out important information that they think you should be able to see. Be very descriptive, be very clear, do not include a bunch of art theory unless it is super relevant. Just be real about what it is, like you are speaking ‘this work is about this’. When I am teaching, I always say, if we were to throw all the statements up in the air we should be able to match the statements to the work. It is amazing how hard that is. If there is a metaphor, tell us why you use that metaphor. Don’t think, ‘of course they are going to understand the metaphor’, we don’t.

For anybody entering the Solas prize, what is the most important thing you think somebody should consider?

I want to look at work where I can tell that the intent is serious, where I can tell that the artist has spent a lot of time thinking about the subject. Whether it is a personal issue, or a political or social issue. That it is well informed.

What shows do you have coming up?

I am working with the guest curator Marc Prüst on an exhibition that explores how we see North Korea and how North Korea projects itself though its propaganda imagery. He sent me a proposal of some ideas and I sent him a list of some artists and we grew that show together. The next show after that is Grace of Intention: Photography, Architecture and the Monument which is being curated by my colleague Karen Irvine. Because I am the Director of The Museum I am involved in all the shows so if there is an artist I see – like during this prize – that will fit one of our future shows, collections or education projects then I will suggest them. I look at a lot of work for a lot of different reasons.

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