The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College Chicago has a track record of meaty, thematic exhibitions, often introducing lesser-known photographers. “We consider ourselves a think tank for emerging artists,” says Natasha Egan, the museum’s executive director. So a show by China’s most famous dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, was not an obvious choice. But in some ways, #AiWeiwei, which includes photos he took in New York in the 1980s and in Beijing in the ‘90s, among other work, made perfect sense, since the museum also embraces the broadest possible definition of photography. “When you work in a medium-specific museum,” says Egan, “people think it can be trapping. But photography is always pushing the boundaries.”
Egan became interested in photography by watching her father, an experimental filmmaker who had a darkroom. Her mother was a theater director, and Egan describes her parents as hippies who moved to San Francisco, where she was born, from the Midwest. When she was two years old, they moved to Santa Fe, and when she was 12, the family headed to Boston when her father was accepted to MIT as one of the school’s oldest undergraduates.
Egan returned to the West Coast for college at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, where she studied Asian history and religion, spending a year studying, traveling, and taking pictures throughout Asia. “I loved photography,” she says, “but I didn’t understand it on any conceptual level.” Interested in teaching, she attended a photography program at the University of Washington, where she took a fateful photo-history course with Rod Slemmons, curator of photography at the Seattle Art Museum at the time. “One of the first papers I wrote in that class was about the devastating role played by photography with regard to colonialism, and that’s when I started to question everything,” she says. Slemmons recommended her to Denise Miller, then director of MoCP, and Egan worked as her assistant while earning her MA and MFA.
MoCP has been Egan’s professional home since then, with the exception of a year when she and her husband lived in Germany. When they returned to Chicago, where they live with their two children, ages 13 and 15, she was hired as associate director of the museum. A couple of years later, she was reunited with Slemmons, when he moved from Seattle to become the MoCP’s director. “He was someone who really gave my colleague Karen Irvine and me a curatorial voice,” says Egan, who became executive director in 2011.
The MoCP is a college art museum, so Egan and Irvine always have the students in mind. For re:collection, opening July 13, Irvine, now deputy director and chief curator, is working with four graduate students to organize a show from the permanent collection. “They’re starting like a game of telephone,” says Egan. “They begin each series with a cameraless photograph, which leads to a picture that has some connection to the first, and so on. Each series becomes a story that is also about the trajectory of the history of photography.”