Looking Where the Focus Isn’t: A Profile of Brian Sholis

December 30th, 2014  |  Published in *, December 2014

Brian Sholis, the new Associate Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, says from the start that he has no training—“none at all”—in Art History. He sees himself as “a contemporary art person who zeroed in on photography,” as he explained in an interview with Aeqai earlier this year. His undergraduate degree was in Urban Studies with a graduate degree in the visual culture of late 19th-early 20th century urban America, focusing on war memorials in New York City. Though the CAM is his first museum job, he was an independent curator in New York, mounting a photography show at a lower Manhattan non-profit gallery called apexart titled “The Permanent Way” about some of the ways that the national railroad system has shaped the American landscape. He worked as an editor at Artforum and subsequently at Aperture, and contributed a great many strong articles and reviews to those journals as well as Frieze, Print, plus a wide range of critical and catalogue essays. History is never very far from his mind when he looks at photography, but it also true that when he thinks about history, he tends to look for the sorts of traces historical events, processes, and actors have left in photographic images. He is intellectually happiest when he can combine what he calls “my American history brain with my photo brain.” Both, he has argued, are essential approaches to understanding how photography goes about its central task, which is to annotate the passing of time and the almost irrevocable losses associated with it.

Brian Sholis

When asked about some of the sorts of photographs and photographers he might like to see at the Museum, Sholis gave an answer that highlights his diverse interests and sensibility. He named the work of Ryan McGinley, a New York-based artist in his mid-thirties who “celebrates youth culture” by “photographing his friends skating and misbehaving.” They are, in his words, pictures of “surpassing beauty and strangeness” that “burn with the energy of youth.” Then he mentioned the work of Nathan Flint Baker, a Cincinnati artist who in the 1850s traveled to Egypt and photographed ruins with the better-known Leavitt Hunt before returning to Cincinnati and producing, so far as it is known, no additional photographs. The Museum has recently acquired an album of Middle East photographs that includes Baker materials and bought a significant and provocative McGinley print called “Petra (Pieces)” from 2013.

McGinley is an interesting choice because it underlines the importance Sholis sees in paying close attention to the directions in which younger artists are leading an essentially young art form. Sholis is the CAM’s second dedicated curator of photography, following James Crump, whose interests tended to focus on what Sholis calls the “established masters of post-modern art photography,” artists like Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sholis finds himself drawn to “works of my own generation—artists in their 30s and 40s.” These, he says, are artists you will “not find in every collection” and allow a curator the excitement of working actively and directly with living artists whose body of work is still changing and taking new directions, potentially altering what both artists and audiences understand as the nature and capabilities of the art form.

Ryan McGinley, from Whistle in the Wind

In part, this is going to mean that his curatorial choices are not designed to put his audience at ease. The art that Sholis highlights challenges its viewers and especially the institutions that hope to show and collect this work. Photography is an art form whose practitioners do not find the taxonomies on which institutions like the encyclopedic art museum depend to be particularly interesting, and are less than willing to honor. Sholis argues that “the artists themselves don’t care,” for example, about the lines between still photography and video. While the very nature of the curator’s job is to help sketch out boundaries and suggest the shape of a discipline, with photography, “the boundaries are ever more porous,” Sholis notes. And as Sholis thinks about how the work of the youngest generation of artists is changing the field, he observes that it is harder to say for sure just what it would mean to be a curator. In the age of digital images, “What will a curator buy? A print? A print with a backup? A disk with a file? A file you might buy but not exactly own, as the artist continues to make changes to it?” What will it mean to be a curator when the job no longer includes being a connoisseur?

On the other hand, Sholis also found himself intrigued by and drawn to the work of Nathan Flint Baker, the pursuit of whose work would represent an extreme exercise in connoisseurship. Born in Cincinnati in 1820, Baker went to Europe initially to study sculpture with fellow-Cincinnatian Hiram Powers. He returned home before setting out in the early 1850s for Europe again, where he linked up with Leavitt Hunt. Together, Baker and Leavitt learned the basics of photography and somehow mastered the calotype, the paper print process invented a mere decade before by William Henry Fox Talbot. They were the first Americans to produce a body of photographs in Egypt, but their work did not find commercial success, and Baker returned to Cincinnati, where it is generally thought that he gave up art for the rest of his life.

Baker’s work is remarkably rare and very difficult to find, but Sholis sees it as an important Cincinnati connection to the steadily-growing efforts at globalization of culture in the mid-19th century. Baker’s photographs seem especially significant to Sholis because they help demark the moment when the United States started to search further and further abroad for what Van Wyck Brooks was to call a “usable past”; what if it could be found in the ways that 19th century Egypt was juxtaposed against 19th Dynasty Egypt? It is characteristic of Sholis to find in the work of art a text that can be read and interpreted as an historian would. In a very suggestive review of an exhibition at Princeton University (honoring the tenth anniversary of 9/11) called “The Life and Death of Buildings” that appeared in Aperture in Spring of 2012, Sholis praised the show as a “meditation on the role photographs play in granting us access to pasts no longer extant. Buildings and photographs are both artifacts that can be located in history….Buildings accumulate pasts, which shadow every encounter one has with them in the present.” Sholis’s interest in historicizing photographs is the opposite of reductive; he wants to understand the complex ways that photography is capable of belonging to the past but showing us the past more clearly. In the same Aperture review, he writes about the 19th century’s “predilection for photographing ruins; it’s as if the awareness of death…is encoded in the medium.” To study and appreciate one is to study and appreciate the other.

Mark Ruwedel, Columbia and Western, 24 (2000)

Sholis has brought a historian’s eye to his work on railroads in America, including his curated exhibit called “The Permanent Way” (2012) and reviews of such artists as O. Winston Link and Mark Ruwedel. Sholis does not look to railroads or to the American landscape in hopes of finding the picturesque, though it could certainly be argued that the picturesque aesthetic belongs to its own historical moment. Instead, he is drawn to the traces of the old railroads as they are now, when they are ruins, as surely as the Egyptian temples of Karnak or Luxor are. It isn’t, he assured interviewer Mark Lamster in 2012, a personal thing about trains: “the exhibition is almost exclusively an intellectual exercise….I don’t have extensive experience with railroads. I’d like to visit Seattle some day, but the landscape of the West has no special hold on my imagination.” Generally, he looks for photographers interested in how the railroads have changed the physical environment and the forces that made those transformations possible. (In the spring of 2015, he will be presenting a small selection of photographs titled “Human-Altered Landscapes.”) What we mean by “landscape” in these photographs, Sholis has written, is the physical manifestation of “an unprecedented wave of industrial ambition and governmental largesse.” As that wave receded, we can uncover a visual scene where the landscape and the railroads have mutually abandoned each other. Sholis is alert to signs of cultures in transition. He reminds his audience to remember, when looking at the operatic staginess of O. Winston Link, that at the same time Link was doing his major work, President Eisenhower was signing the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, ensuring that the railroads were going to pass away forever. The notion of an American landscape is an intrinsically unstable one, altered (as he points out in his review of Ruwedel in 2009) by the railroads in the mid-19th century, but on and on subsequently, by “atomic scientists seeking uninhabited test sites to real estate developers hoping to turn ranchland into exurban subdivisions.” And photography is the perfect form to capture this transition, as Sholis notes in his catalogue essay for his exhibition “The Permanent Way,” because “as a technology, it grew up alongside railroads.”

O. Winston Link, Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Lurray, Virginia (1956)

At the core of it, Sholis has a strong idea of what he thinks a photograph does and how photography works. In his review of “The Life and Death of Buildings,” he has written that “Photographs freeze a specific moment, excise it from its context, and make aspects of that moment accessible at a later date.” It functions, perhaps, like a time capsule or perhaps like a time machine, to use an analogy Sholis employs in that same review: “Photographs possess a rare power, granting us something akin to the capacity to time-travel, but that power lasts only as long as does the ability to read their surfaces.” Photographs have a recuperative power, but a circumscribed one; perhaps precisely because photography decontextualizes the reality it appears to capture so effortlessly, there is only so much that can be recovered. It is part of the function of the curator, or the critic, or the editor—all of which are positions that Sholis has taken on with relation to photographs—to read the surface, to recontextualize, to help recover what can be recovered, and perhaps even to adjudicate what can or can’t be claimed and owned from viewing a photograph’s shiny and alluring surface.

Photography’s audience has an important and complicated role in the process of making the meaning of a picture. When asked what a viewer should do when face to face with a photographic image, Sholis replies: “First of all, be patient with it. Then, look for where the focus of the picture isn’t.” We need to be able to read an image against its ostensible subject. Only then can we start to encounter the “strange stuff in the background.” Sooner or later, a conversation about photography gets you into what Sholis calls the “fuzzy but useful notion of photography as a democratic medium.” Rightly or wrongly, Sholis contends, his audience feels both a kinship and an ownership of the photographs they are likely to encounter in the art museum. “People can’t imagine their way to the skill set needed to produce the art in nine out of ten of the galleries. But everyone who comes in the door can relate to the photos on the wall.”

To Sholis, it seems clear that this is an opportunity, but also a challenge. People are possessed of the means to make photographs and believe that they are similarly possessed of the means to read photographs, a reaction to an art form that Sholis wants to complicate. Perhaps this is part of the reason why his current CAM show, “Eyes on the Street,” has so little in it that connects with the visual immediacy of traditional street photography with its roots in photojournalism and the goal, however illusory, of capturing subject matter so faithfully that it speaks for itself. Instead, Sholis leans towards the work of artists whose work is marked by “intentionality, purposefulness, thoughtfulness.”

In a remarkable and strongly-written op ed piece published in the Cincinnati Enquirer this November, Sholis worked to explain his intentions in “Eyes on the Street”: “How many times were you photographed or videotaped yesterday?” he begins by asking. “The answer is likely to be higher than you think.” The democratizations enabled by photography are not just about our relative ease in imagining ourselves as the viewers of photographic reality or even as the makers of it; the current issue is the ease with which we might find ourselves the subject of photography. It is an odd form of empathy Sholis wishes us to bring to our encounters with street photography. If we are obliged, as Sholis writes, to ask of our culture’s uses for photography at the present time, “Who’s watching, and for what purposes?” it is in part because our real question of an image we see on a wall might be “Could that be me—and am I okay with that?” Sholis, who describes himself as “a city person through and through,” finds himself not drawn to the urban picturesque but to helping an audience “play a more active role in determining the characteristics and quality of our city’s public spaces,” as he wrote in the Enquirer. The best way to be an audience for photography—the truly democratic value of this notoriously but hazily democratic art form—is to hone one’s understanding of what these images do and don’t do, what they conceal and what they reveal, and the ways in which all images represent a rendering of shared public space. As Sholis concludes in his Enquirer piece, “visual literacy is a necessary component of civic responsibility.”

Brian Sholis is off to a very strong start as the Art Museum’s point man in helping Cincinnati experience and understand the issues raised by photography today. His “Big Pictures” project puts photographic images up on billboards across town to help create “a dialogue about public art.” He encourages people to join the Museum’s Friends of Photography group “and we’ll look through pictures together,” though he is also interested in attracting “members of the broader public who do not yet know they are photography enthusiasts.” The curator’s job, as he sees it, is both educative and collaborative: “The job here is one of interpreting, of communicating enthusiasm, and making coherent the stories of these objects for the people of Cincinnati.”

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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