Criss-Crossed Conveyors - Ford Plant, 1927, Charles Sheeler
Karen Haas has been the Lane Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston since 2001, where she is responsible for a large collection of photographs by American modernists, Charles Sheeler, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. The Lane Collection, which has recently been given to the Museum, numbers more than 6,000 prints and ranges across the entire history of western photography from William Henry Fox Talbot to the Starn twins. Before coming to the MFA, she received her MA from Boston University and held various curatorial positions in museums and private collections, including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the BU Art Gallery, and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover.
For this post, we asked Filter Friend, Columbia College Grad, and former fellow-Bostonian Jess T. Dugan to interview Karen Haas.
Charis and Our Camp, Galveston, Texas, 1941, Edward Weston
Jess T. Dugan: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in photography? Was there a particular moment of discovery or inspiration?
Karen Haas: I fell in love with the history of photography as a graduate student at Boston University and studied there with Carl Chiarenza, a really inspirational professor and photographer. Having caught the photo “bug” I never really looked back and have been lucky enough to work with photographs – particularly the amazing Lane Collection at the MFA, Boston – ever since. It is an incredible luxury to be able to study almost the entire oeuvre of a photographer like Sheeler or Weston, which is possible thanks to the very broad and deep holdings of works collected during the 1960s and 70s by William and Saundra Lane directly from the artists’ families.
JTD: Is there a particular aesthetic or subject matter you like to review?
KH: I am happy to review any type of photography and I enjoy the challenge of that, but am especially drawn to figural work and creative approaches to the American landscape. I am less knowledgeable about the field of photojournalism but very interested in the photograph as social document and tool for change.
JTD: The field of photography is changing rapidly, though arguably it has been doing so constantly since its invention. Do you see any current trends or developments in the field that you are particularly excited about?
KH: We try not to get too caught up in all the latest trends, at least as far as our acquisitions strategy, but my colleagues and I have recently been excited by everything from chemically manipulated abstractions to portraits made with a camera obscura, and have been thinking about snapshots and their influence on contemporary practitioners, as well as looking at the new wave of photo-books. I have a personal interest in “the camera in the garden” – photography of the agricultural, man-altered landscape, and I’ve recently been struck by the growing interest in fantasy and fairy tale in contemporary photography and video.
Champ-de-Mars, View from the Eiffel Tower, 1931, Ilse Bing
JTD: I believe this is your first time reviewing portfolios at the Filter Photo Festival, correct? Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to? What makes a portfolio review feel successful to you?
KH: Mostly I’m looking forward to reviewing work that I haven’t seen elsewhere, which happens every time one does a festival like this. It is always a really humbling and eye-opening experience to discover thought-provoking photography in other parts of the country and by artists who might otherwise fall outside our curatorial radar. It makes such a difference to see the work in person and to meet and talk to the artists about their practice. We certainly hope that we can give good advice to the photographers taking part, but it is also a very good opportunity for curators like me to get a sense of what is happening outside the fairs and galleries and museums that we frequent otherwise.
JTD: What advice would you give to Filter Photo Festival Review Attendees?
KH: I would say that editing one’s work is the most important thing. Bring fewer prints rather than more and make sure they have a cohesive feel, even if they aren’t from a single project or series. Consider the sequence and scale of the prints and how you would like them to be experienced by the reviewer. People sometimes think that they should bring a wide range of their photography, but it usually ends up being impossible to characterize or discuss in a brief review. I also think that attendees should be prepared to talk about what motivates and inspires them, as I like to have a conversation with an artist rather than simply be expected to advise them on how to get work into an exhibition or museum’s collection.