Photography is always subversive, says the senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
With 40 books and 20 exhibitions to his name, a doctorate in art history from Panthéon Sorbonne, 10 years teaching the history of photography, and another decade as curator at the Pompidou, Frenchman Clément Chéroux is the ideal replacement for the legendary Sandra Phillips at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. BJP caught up with him in an interview first published in issue #7853
The work of a curator functions on a principle of association between images and ideas. The greatest pleasure is when you introduce a tension between these two poles and a spark appears.
I worked at the Centre Pompidou for 10 years. It is an extraordinary place, located in the heart of Paris and in the heart of people. It will stay in mine.
I am very excited to discover San Francisco, its people, its sun and its fog. I will miss the gargoyles up on the Saint-Jacques tower that I used to greet every morning on my way to work.
Photography is not merely a passion. It’s a life.
I met photography on a train. I was 16, going to the Côte d’Azur. The loudspeakers announced an exhibition in car 14. I went to see it and have never left photography since.
My first exhibition was in my teenage bedroom. On the wall, there was a layout of postcards, family photographs and front pages of Japanese daily newspapers.
My first book was on the Swedish writer August Strindberg’s photographs. He thought walnuts were good for your brain, simply because of their similar shapes. There is a poetic fertility in this analogic approach that touches me greatly.
Photography is always subversive. Any snapshot tears reality.
In a little church in Rome, between the Vatican and the Tiber, there is a Museum of Miracles. There, I saw the most extraordinary photography exhibition. It consisted entirely of photographic documents presented as proof of God’s existence. It was a kind of metaphor of what all photography exhibitions should be.
The exhibition I took most pleasure in curating was Shoot! It mixed artists’ work with vernacular photographs. The exhibition [first shown at Rencontres d’Arles 2010] ended with an authentic photographic shooting gallery. If the shooter hit the bullseye, it triggered a camera that took a picture of them. They won their portrait as a shooter.
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes exerted a decisive influence on me. Not only for its theoretical analysis but also, and maybe above all, for the beauty of its prose.
My favourite hobby? Gazing out the window on the train.
I taught the history of photography for a decade. During those years I mostly learned the art of storytelling.
At the end of the 19th century, a man tried to photograph his thoughts by putting a photographic plate on his forehead. I always dreamed of doing the same thing. A part of my work consists of trying to project my thoughts on photographs.
My greatest achievement? To have been able to work with the most difficult artists. And to invent new topics. To sleep in an igloo. I’ve done all these at least once. I hope to do them again.
A few years ago I wrote a book on photographic mistakes. I learned a lot writing it.
For me, there is no art on one side, and photography on the other. What interests me is the relationship between the two.
I am often asked about the future of photography. I always suggest visiting a fortune teller.
We have arrived at the end of the process of legitimising photography as art.
Many people think we don’t need specialists anymore. There’s no more need for historians or photography museums. That would be a mistake. In the energy business, you don’t ask a gas fitter to deal with an atomic power station. In the coming years, one of the biggest challenges for photography will be to confront this dilution into art.
We are confronted with a massive flow of photographic images. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. I trust artists to help us face the infinitude. Just as artists from the 1920s and ’30s invented photomontage in reaction to the explosion of the illustrated press, artists today help us make sense of this ocean of images. They are like lighthouses or life belts.
This interview was first published in the November 2016 issue of BJP (issue number #7853), which can be bought via the thebjpshop.com