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Clément Chéroux: “Defending photography by combining it with other art forms”

Clément Chéroux: “Defending photography by combining it with other art forms”

The French curator has just been appointed as head of the photography department at the New York MoMA, the most famous American institution dedicated to modern art. Until recently the head of the photography department at SFMoMA, he offers Blind a glimpse into his upcoming plans and the challenges he is facing.

Clément Chéroux, Photo: Frederic Neema

What are your plans for the New York MoMA? 

I would like to preface this by saying how happy I am to have spent three years working with an amazing group of people at the SFMoMA, which is a really extraordinary museum. Together, we have produced some twenty exhibitions. I personally curated seven projects. The photographic community in San Francisco was most welcoming and extremely kind to me, and it is not without some regret that I am leaving San Francisco. The MoMA in New York is an incredible institution, with a fantastic collection, and it has been teeming with extraordinary energy since it reopened, which is what prompted me to accept this post. It is difficult to come into a new institution and say, “I’m going to change this,” “I’m going to change that,” especially if you are looking at it from the outside. My principle has always been to arrive at a place, in a new context, and take a closer look at what’s on the ground, to evaluate the immediate needs, and then to build a project. At the New York MoMA, there will be a phase of acclimatization and analysis, and only then I will make some proposals.

You are succeeding Quentin Bajac, another French curator who now heads the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. Do the French excel in this field? 

It is true that photography was invented in France! (Laughs). But, seriously, since the 1990s there has been a new generation of French researchers, historians, curators, heads of institutions in photography, which means that France is indeed a country that is well placed in the field of photographic studies. There is a level of excellence and great inventiveness in this area. And then, there is of course coincidence. I don’t think that my appointment necessarily stems from a desire to hire a French curator. This has more to do with the situation at a given moment: “who is available,” “who is the best match for MoMA’s current project.” Beyond any plaudits that are always nice to hear, I believe that there are also a number of circumstances that have to do with the situation at hand more than anything else. 

Installation view of Early Photography and Film (gallery 502), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Do you already have any exhibition projects in mind for the coming months? 

It is far too early to make any announcements. Of course, when interviewing for this type of position, you discuss a certain number of possible projects. I proposed several. But it’s too early to talk about them right now. I’m going to come in, I’m going to settle in, I’m going to examine the situation a little bit, and then I’m going to build a program for the team and the projects I hope to carry out at the New York MoMA. Since I joined SFMoMA, I have been working a lot on Chinese photography. I have done a number of research trips to Hong Kong, which have been utterly fascinating. I am very keen to continue in this direction. It will be one among many avenues of exploration. It will translate into acquisitions and, I hope, exhibitions. 

I have always tried to take an approach that is the most representative of photographic diversity

Do you have an obligation to enhance the MoMA collection or are you quite free in your proposals? 

In its new installation, MoMA has placed high stakes on the collection having a strong presence. Foregrounding the extensive photography collection, which comprises around 50,000 works, will be one of the challenges. Another will be to display the collection while integrating it with works from other departments—this is a great task MoMA has undertaken since its reopening.

Gordon Parks, Untitled, 1957. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 Gordon Parks Foundation

What is the MoMA collection like? 

MoMA was the first institution to open a photography department in 1940. It started out as a collection focused on American photography, European avant-gardes, but over past years it has greatly diversified its acquisition policy. I believe this was one of the things Quentin Bajac worked really hard on in order to ensure that Latin American, Eastern European, African, Indian, and Asian photography would be better represented. The issue of diversity will remain relevant for many years to come, and I will try to continue along those lines. 

Do you like diversity? 

I must say that my approach to photography is very holistic, that is to say, I am not at all the type of curator who defends one type of photography or one school of photography over another. Documentary photography versus experimental photography, experimental photography versus autobiographical photography, for example… I have always tried to take an approach that is the most representative of photographic diversity, and I intend to continue in that direction at MoMA. 

Shigeru Onishi. Untitled. c. 1955. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

You have brought vernacular photography and amateur photography into the art world… Perhaps you will carry on along these lines? 

I certainly will. Vernacular photography and photography as practiced on social networks are areas that I am very interested in and which I will continue to defend. But it is also a question of defending the work of artists within an institution such as MoMA. One of the main challenges is to raise the question of the specificity of the medium. This is an absolutely key question of the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, defending the specificity of the medium was the main pathway to getting photography recognized as an art form. For photography to be recognized as an art form, it was thus necessary to highlight what other art forms lacked: its documentary value, its reproducibility, its precision… We did this by isolating photography. We did this by isolating it from other art forms. Today, no one questions the fact that photography is an art form. Not to say that the medium lacks specificity, but I believe photography must be defended not by isolating it, but by combining it with other art forms. In the recent exhibitions I have been able to produce, I’ve always tried to show photography alongside film, alongside sculpture, alongside painting… precisely in order to foreground photography’s particular character. I think this will be a big challenge at MoMA. The role of a department head is also to build the collection. There is an acquisition committee made up of about forty people, so my role is to propose acquisitions to this committee, which then validates them.

Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA

Interview by Coline Olsina & Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

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