The two most recent photography exhibitions at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art suggest a couple of things about Carol McCusker, the museum’s photography curator – the breadth of her interests, for one, and her commitment to showing women photographers, for another. VAST: Sea, Salt, Sand, Sky: Photographs by Joni Sternbach, on view through April 22, includes more than 70 photographs Sternbach made using processes ranging from wet-plate collodion and cyanotype to platinum-palladium. “I’ve been curious about women landscape photographers who have been working since the late 1980s,” says McCusker, who’s been at the Harn since 2012. “There’s a new breed of women using large-format cameras, which prior to that was largely the preserve of men.”
Sternbach is best known for her romantic tintype portraits of surfers, but the show McCusker organized last year, Aftermath: The Fallout of War – America and the Middle East, focused on a very different genre. McCusker’s interest in photographs of the armed conflicts in the Middle East began when she was a curator at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego (from 2001 to 2009), and read Dexter Filkins’s book The Forever War. The show included 90 photographs by 12 photographers – nine of them women – including Eman Mohammed, a Palestinian photographer and the only female photojournalist working in Gaza. “I wanted to emphasize more women photographers,” says McCusker, who has been doing exactly that for her entire career, organizing shows like Breaking the Frame: Pioneering Women in Photojournalism (at MOPA in 2006).
The seeds of McCusker’s interest in photography can be traced back to a Christmas gift an Irish Catholic priest gave to her family in Boston – a copy of The Family of Man. Her older brother also had a darkroom, where she remembers being captivated as she watched prints develop. At the Massachusetts College of Art, though, she double-majored in fiber arts and art history; it wasn’t until she met art historian Eugenia Parry that she began to concentrate on photography. McCusker had gone to Albuquerque to study at the University of New Mexico, where Parry taught. “She was a huge influence in terms of developing a strong point of view and taking risks,” says McCusker. “She made photographs so relevant, so deep and extensive and far-reaching.” McCusker worked at the art museum at the University of New Mexico for two years, then moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she completed her dissertation on the way photojournalism influenced the realism working its way into Hollywood films in the post-World War II era, and also worked with Alex Novak to launch his website, iPhoto Central.
She’s worn a number of hats, in other words, but the through line is a commitment to the creative act of curating. “In this day and age, finding meaning is essential to me,” says McCusker. “How we live and what we surround ourselves with has everything to do with what we produce. The act of curating becomes the outward expression of a life lived with intention.”