Courtesy Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

The walls were bare in Drew Sawyer’s Brooklyn Museum office when we spoke in May, since the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator in charge of photography, had been on the job for just over a month. But Sawyer was already knee-deep in plans – familiarizing himself with a collection of 18,000 works and planning an exhibition of color work by Garry Winogrand. The museum had been without a dedicated photography curator since Patrick Amsellem left in 2011, so part of Sawyer’s job involves making the public aware of the museum’s extensive photography program. 

With institutions like the Met and MoMA just across the river, says Sawyer, it doesn’t make sense for the Brooklyn Museum to try to tell the history of photography. Better, he suggests, to organize shows that “relate to other collections or expand the canon.” Take Winogrand’s work in color: the photographer took but never printed nearly 50,000 color Kodachrome slides, now held by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. “It was very expensive to make dye-transfer prints,”  says Sawyer, “but who knows what he would have done once the technology was cheaper and less laborious?”

That questioning impulse is something Sawyer learned in the laboratory school he attended in Cedar Falls, Iowa – that, and a love of learning. “We were constantly questioning standard ways of doing things,” he says, “and that has really stayed with me, which is probably why I love art. So many artists question things that people take for granted as the way things are.” When he was 12, his grandmother offered to take him on a trip, wherever he wanted to go. He wanted to go to the Louvre, so she took her grandson to Switzerland and France. “That really opened my eyes to the world,” he says.

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Sawyer started off as an economics major, but he took an art history class and loved it. “I kept taking more classes, to the point where I didn’t care about econ anymore,” he says. He went on to graduate school to study American art at Columbia University. His focus was not on photography, though, until he discovered that Columbia holds the archives of the Community Service Society, which includes thousands of photographs by Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and Jessie Tarbox Beals, among others. Sawyer dove into the archive to organize the exhibition Social Forces Visualized: Photography and Scientific Charity. “That was my entryway into thinking more broadly about photography in dialogue with other disciplines, other media” he says.

He carried that approach to the Columbus Museum of Art (where he became associate curator in 2015 after a three-year fellowship in MoMA’s photo department). He co-curated the traveling exhibition Art after Stonewall, 1969-1989, which will open at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum next spring, in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Around the same time, the Winogrand show will open in Brooklyn. Questioning, as he does, the standard way of doing things, Sawyer will present the works via installations of slide projectors rather than prints.