Curator and author Charlotte Cotton is both an authority in contemporary photography and at its cutting edge; "pace combined with deep heritage is a pretty intoxicating combination", she tells BJP
The British curator spent 12 formative years working at the V&A. And in the 12 years since, she’s done the opposite, moving from post to post either side of the Atlantic, including senior directorial and curator positions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Media Museum and ICP. She has written numerous books, including two notable surveys, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2004) and Photography is Magic (2015). This article was first published in BJP’s April issue, available from www.thebjpshop.com
My first encounters with photography were through my parents, who are furniture historians and had a photo studio at home. I loved the precision and drama of the photo shoot, even when the subject was just a chair! My dad took me to see an exhibition of pre-Revolution Russian photography at Oxford’s MoMA when I was a teenager. This was when I fell in love with photography.
I look back at my years at the V&A as a time of incalculable learning. I learnt how to communicate, how to be helpful, to learn something from everyone I meet, and to treasure the sheer imaginative pleasure of having an archive of photography’s histories to delve into.
I can still remember where I was standing when I unpacked a donation to the V&A of Frederick Sommer prints. It was an utter delight scrutinising his dazzlingly detailed Arizona landscapes, knowing that this was the last time anyone would see these treasures in bright sunlight. Finding an unattributed Eugène Atget print in one of the hundreds of boxes of miscellaneous photographs in the museum’s storage was a red-letter day. Tea with Henri Cartier-Bresson and my lovely boss Mark Haworth-Booth isn’t something to forget, either.
The V&A was the cultural love of my life. I had at least two career rebound relationships after I left.
Pace combined with deep heritage is a pretty intoxicating combination. I kept going with short term alliances with organisations because of the possibilities that I see in places that are actively seeking change within the reanimation of their photographic programmes.
The biggest regret of my career so far is not particularly epic but I can see its impact.
When I can retrospectively see myself having come adrift, it’s where I haven’t held my self- confidence or haven’t listened to my internal logic. I hate the word ‘should’. I align its insistent influence with the mistakes I suspect I have made.
Nothing that I create is in isolation, everything involves collaboration. The key to successful collaboration is a willingness to share a vision with others. Trust your cohorts, and don’t be insecure that you are wavering your authorship by working with others.
As a woman in a field that isn’t overcrowded with my gender, I feel the responsibility to carry on being vocal and present. This is despite the personal complexities of communicating publicly at this troubling juncture in history. Some of my male friends are thinking through the pros and cons of carrying on with “business as usual” in their public speaking, writing and figure-heading of culture.
My favourite place in the world to go alone is the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. I try to make a visit every time I am in New York. The best place for me to be with friends is the Magic Castle in LA. It’s my place of wonder and escape.
The role of a curator is to “take care” of the cultural issue at hand. I don’t think the role is devalued by our present-day image environment, merely that the forms with which curatorial ideas manifest have many new factors to take into consideration. I’m propelled more than daunted by what this means for curatorial practices. Curating is the act of doing things for other human beings, creating a structure or form that focuses the attention of others in ways that enrich and enliven. I think everyone can curate.
My fascination for fashion photography goes back to my early years as a curator. There’s something very manageable and explicit within its social and aesthetic, only-100-year history that appeals to me. I keep coming back to curating fashion image-making because it’s a tightrope-like exercise to represent its cultural value in ways that are meaningful and truthful.
This year is bringing what I value the most, which is deep learning. I’m working with Lauren Bon at Metabolic Studio in LA as construction begins on Bending the River Back into the City, which will result in the cleaning of river water for free distribution to East LA public parks.
I’m looking forward to chairing a discussion with the board of the Woman’s Building in LA. It will be about the history and legacy of their naming of the women’s creative work.
This interview was first published in BJP’s April 2017 issue, which can be bought from www.thebjpshop.com