May is a difficult time to leave Rochester, but I seem to be getting my lilacs elsewhere this spring. When the academic year ends for the Photo Department at the end of April, I have the chance to get out a bit and see what?s going on in the rest of the world. This year, three of the next generation’s leaders in photography combined efforts (and budgets) to get me all over Europe in a whirlwind ten day trip. My thanks to Bernd Fechner of Fotobild Berlin, Frits Gierstberg of the Netherlands Foto Museum (Rotterdam) and Krzytof Cantrowicz of Fotofestiwal Lodz for making the trip possible and for giving me so much to see and do.
I flew from Rochester to Berlin on May 7 to begin three days of portfolio review at Tempelhof Airport. The building, built in 1923 is a somewhat daunting example of fascist architecture and it’s still a working airport, though plans are to close it shortly, and Fotobild’s presence this year marked its next life as a cultural center. The reviews went well:
Berlin has become an international magnet for young artists and the city is full of talented and sophisticated photographers. At the Fotobild welcome dinner, held in Bernd’s typically spacious East Berlin flat, Renate Gruber, widow of seminal photographic figure Fritz Gruber, spoke fondly of Eastman House and of her long friendship with Eastman House Director Tony Bannon. While in Berlin, I was able to see most of the Contemporary Biennale and a huge Wolfgang Tillmans show at Museum Hamburger Bahnhof, a converted railway station. Like many contemporary photographic artists, Tillmans is much more about installation than about singular images and it helped me a lot to see this work as the artist had intended. I also managed a studio visit to Australian Nathalie Latham, currently in residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, a former hospital now home to international artists and their studios. Nathalie’s video piece Eating up Beijing was an important part of the photograph exhibition Vital Signs: Place at Eastman House in 2007. Her new work continues to explore our role as stewards of the environment and world cultural heritage.
I left Berlin quite late on the 12th, not looking forward to wrestling my already book-laden luggage on the late night train from Schipol to Rotterdam, but Frits picked me up-we are old friends from Oracle— and whisked me to a hotel on the Rotterdam docks. The Netherlands Foto Museum (NFM) has just moved there too, to a vast former warehouse space right on the water. I was there early the next morning and was inspired to see what they have accomplished; state-of-the-art storage for four million negatives and a million prints and albums, study areas, ambitious exhibition spaces, and a radical take on offices. There are none! Rather, the curators, archivists, and administrators arrive daily with their laptops and mobile phones and choose to sit in whatever room suits their plans; there are designated spaces for reading, computer use, telephone conversations, meetings of all sizes, and work with collections material.
I commented on the wonderful natural light that filled most work spaces and was told it would be illegal in Holland to keep workers in
offices without windows. (sigh…) The exhibition I had come to see was Babies: Picturing the Ideal Human, a brilliant and wide ranging survey containing quite a lot of Eastman House material, including a Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype and Candace Bergen’s unforgettable Klan Baby. The curators, Hedy van Arp and Iris Sikking, and Frits and I discussed how we might make a similar show using mostly Eastman House photos for tour in the United States. We also talked about getting a Ryerson intern to NFM next year and how we might work together on their latest acquisition, over one million 19th- and early-20th century photographs and related records from the Rotterdam Ethnographic Museum. (It comes with a curator).
Next was train back to Schipol and a quick flight to Warsaw where I met up with Celina Lunsford from Fotografie Forum International in Frankfurt (founded by Eastman House trustee Manfred Heiting). Celina and I know each other from Houston and Rhubarb and it was pleasant to catch up on the three hour bus ride to Lodz. This biennial festival is part of Polish Month of Photography and features more than 50 exhibitions, nighttime projections a la Arles, publications, performances, and portfolio review. Krzystof and I were both part of Meeting Place Beijing in 2006 so I was delighted to see his theme this year was “made in China” and his major show featured many of the artists we had met then, including Feng Bin, whose Hutong at Night series was the surprise hit of our Vital Signs. Eastern Europe is booming artistically; Polish photographers are sophisticated and internationally aware. Our last night included a bus trip to Leczyca, a small town where a former prison had been taken over by artists for 40+ rooms of installation. Krzytof plans to spend several weeks with us next winter to increase his knowledge of American photography by studying our holdings and to complete a survey of Polish photographs in US collections. I look forward to welcoming him and reciprocating his hospitality. (Special thanks to Kristina Niedswieka who works in the Eastman House Cafe for her desperate attempts to teach me survival Polish).
I took the train from Lodz back to Berlin and I write this from Tegel Airport, (which is starting to feel like a second home) as I begin today’s journey back to Rochester via Paris and Boston. I carry back ten kilos (22 pounds) of books, artists’ CDs, and exhibition brochures, but also lists of artists to get to know better, and a strong sense that Eastman House is a vibrant and significant collaborator in photography’s international scene. I’m also realizing that I have seen world-class institutions, exhibitions, and installations housed in former hospitals, airports, prisons, factories, warehouses, train stations, and the like. Moribund industrial spaces have been given new life, purpose, and economic viability as centers for art and culture. I can’t help but feel this is food for thought and discussion in Rochester where our rich industrial and architectural heritage cries out for such inspired recycling.
Alison NordstrÃ¶m is the Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Previously the Director and Senior Curator of the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida.
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