Portrait of Simon Baker © Hugo Glendinning.
Two days before their seminal exhibition opened in early October, William Klein and Daido Moriyama were brought together in the dining room overlooking the Thames at Tate Modern, surrounded by a group of VIPs - friends, collectors, trustees and guests. But when the director of Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, took the floor, it was to praise Simon Baker, the man he hired in 2009 as the institution's first curator of photography and international art, commending him for his work in constructing the museum's photographic strategy. Baker - for whom it was the first major show he had seen through from beginning to end - bowed his head modestly.
The curator earned a PhD in Art History at University College London in 2002, received a Gould Fellow from Princeton University in the history of photography the following year, and took a post teaching art history at Nottingham University before his current appointment. He has been instrumental in turning Tate - an institution that had largely snubbed photography - into one of the main players in collecting and showing photography worldwide. Tate had waited until 2003 to program its first major photography show, Cruel and Tender, which explored realism in the 20th century, but Baker organised four simultaneous photography exhibitions in his first 18 months.
Rather than a revolution, his presence at Tate is a coherent and logical evolution. In the multiple endeavours he initiated since his arrival, Baker sought to align his initiatives with the global strategy and mission of Tate Modern. He has introduced photographic pieces into several exhibitions, such as the confrontational hanging of New Topographics photographer Lewis Baltz alongside American artist Donald Judd in the permanent collection. He has also used the artists' rooms series, instigated by Serota, to showcase the work of American photographer Diane Arbus. He's curated several temporary exhibitions centred around new work from photographers including Taryn Simon, Simon Norfolk and Luc Delahaye. The current show is a natural progression from these smaller events.
Installation shot © J Fernandes, Tate Photography.
"We are collecting photography in a new way, showing the kind of photography that has never been in the museum," says Baker. "But we are also doing so in relation to works that are already in the collection. We have an amazing collection of post-war Japanese art that my colleagues have been working on for many years. So Japan, because photography is so strong there, seemed like a good place to start." A few months after his arrival - upon hearing Moriyama had found new negatives from his Farewell Photography series - Baker (whose mission is to acquire and showcase new works that respond to other elements in the collection and propose new connections) suggested Tate acquire 30 prints. These were shown in November 2011 at Paris Photo, as part of an exhibition of new acquisitions, giving a preview of this year's double-headed blockbuster.
Like Tate Modern's previous two- and three-man exhibitions - Matisse Picasso (2002), Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia (2008) and Rodchenko & Popova (2009) - the exhibition featuring Klein and Moriyama explores the relationships between the photographers and their social context. Starting with Klein's movies and painted graphics, the display ends with Moriyama's silkscreens. More than similar aesthetics, the exhibition shows that both men developed innovative means to display photography.
"That is really where the idea of showing Klein and Moriyama at the same time came from. It is obvious that Klein influenced Moriyama, but what is more interesting is how they both take the idea of the book page. The two share this idea of how you connect what is printed on a page with the idea of an installation," explains Baker.
This monumental exhibition, which comes only three years into his tenure, proves what a skilled tactician and dynamic curator Baker is. Without departing from the museum's clear policies, he's breathing new life into them, and his influence can be felt beyond the Thames.
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