The Parisian curator has spent the past two decades working in three of the world’s leading cultural destinations - starting out at the Musée d’Orsay, he moved to Centre Pompidou, and then the most coveted post of all, chief curator of photography at MoMA in New York
I take pleasure in being photographed by someone I have a personal and intimate relation with. Photography then becomes a game, an act of friendship, of love. Otherwise I don’t – and that has nothing to do with the photographers, but mostly with me.
One thing I owe my parents is an interest in all kinds of art. Even if they were not working in the art field, they were art lovers. I was raised in a household surrounded by books on painting, sculpture, but also architecture and occasionally photography. We went to museums, but also to the cinema at an early age to see old US silent movies with Czech subtitles.
What do I miss most about Paris? There is a book I love called Paris Versus New York, made by that talented graphic artist Vahram Muratyan and based on simple and accurate visual contrasts between the two cities. To reference it: I miss the French café, not the US coffee; the jardins publics – Luxembourg and Tuileries – as opposed to the parks (although I love Central Park); and the demonstrations, or manifs. Here there are only parades.
I love stories and narratives. Nineteenth-century novels, mostly English ones such as Vanity Fair or Dickens; the French, like Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen and the Russian Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov or Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Or, closer to our modern day, Georges Perec’s well-named Life: A User’s Manual, which you can come back to again and again.
There are so many films that I watch over and over. I once did a rough calculation of how many years I’ve spent in front of cinema screens. The result was rather disappointing: probably not more than a year and a half, which isn’t much compared with the pleasure it gives me.
The first photobook I bought, when I was 20, is the one I hold most precious. It was on Robert Capa, edited by Richard Whelan. Why I bought it at that moment, I’ve no idea. Probably because I was interested in the Spanish Civil War. I didn’t have any special interest in photography at the time. I still have it and it moves me every time I look at it.
From academia and people of my generation, the person I find most impressive is Olivier Lugon, who teaches photography and film at Lausanne university. It’s in his sharp analysis and how he expresses ideas in a way that’s clear yet elaborate and complex.
I don’t think the change in French photography after the 1960s was to do with the weight of a tradition. It was more related to economic, social and cultural changes. It was the time Paris lost its place as the centre of artistic and cultural life and there was probably stronger resistance to acknowledging photography as an artistic practice than in, for example, Germany.
I believe in luck or chance. Thanks to an open-minded director at the Musée d’Orsay, Henri Loyrette, I was lucky enough to curate shows and write catalogues at an early stage in my professional life. I did not to have to wait years before being given responsibilities.
My strengths as a curator are my curiosity, knowledge and instinct. They enable me to draw interesting and, I hope, unexpected connections between images, periods and artists inside and outside the photographic field – things that seem unrelated. I often have the impression that my mind is much more digital than analogue.
Former generations who were interested in photography as art had too little access to too few images. Our situation is completely different today. Give people the tools to deal with this overwhelming presence of images, to understand them and regain control over them.
No curator dealing with contemporary photography or art can afford to be nostalgic. We have to adjust, adapt to the changes and embrace them.
Of all my predecessors, they say it is Szarkowski that had the biggest influence on photographic history. MoMA has lost the monopoly over the history of photography that it has had for almost 50 years but we must acknowledge that – without nostalgia and without feeling the pressures of tradition and history, which would prevent us from going forward.
Two hundred works from MoMA’s permanent collection, including photographs by Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Alfred Stieglitz, Diane Arbus and LaToya Ruby Frazier, are on show at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris from 11 October to 05 March in the jointly-curated exhibition Etre Moderne, reflecting on the museum’s history of collecting and re-examines the canon of modernity it helped to define. fondationlouisvuitton.fr www.moma.org