Julia Dolan had lived in nine cities and completed several fellowships in photography by the time she arrived at the Portland Art Museum in 2010 to become the Minor White Curator of Photography. Only the second photography curator at the museum, the 40-year-old redhead is filling the sizable shoes of Terry Toedtemeier, who died in 2008. Wasting no time in making her mark, she has already curated ten photography shows, including Flesh & Bone: Photography and the Body, and Ray K. Metzker: AutoMagic. A retrospective of Portland native Carrie Mae Weems is on view through May 19, and Dolan is working with Robert Adams on an exhibition of his Oregon photographs.
The museum has more than 7,000 photographs in its collection, including, says Dolan, “a wonderful run of 125 photographs that Minor White made here in Oregon and great photographs by pictorialists who were taken up by Alfred Stieglitz, including Myra Albert Wiggins, Lily Edith White, and Sarah Ladd, all of whom were on the national radar at the time, even if they’re not well known today.”
Dolan came to Portland from the Philadelphia Museum of Art where she was the Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography. Before that, she was at the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe, working on her dissertation on how Lewis Hine’s photographs of the Empire State Building served in the popular press. “I was interested in the way the workers would stand in for the tourists who would eventually come to the building,” she says.
Born in Buffalo, Dolan grew up in Montreal and in Baltimore, where her mother was a teacher and her father was a U.S. customs inspector who also happened to be interested in photography. There were photography books lying around the house, which Dolan pored over, along with copies of National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines.
Her elementary school in Montreal had a darkroom, where she learned to print when she was just nine or 10, a skill she honed later on at the Maryland Institute College of Art, earning a BFA in photography. At some point, though, she says, “I figured I was better suited to thinking about photographs than making them.” She earned an MA in art history from Penn State and a PhD from Boston University, but she considers those early years in the darkroom invaluable: “I have a real understanding of how to make a photograph.”
That understanding serves her well, whether she’s considering historical photographs or work by contemporary photographers. The other major venue for photography in Portland is the Blue Sky Gallery, founded in 1975 by five photographers, including Toedtemeier and Chris Rauschenberg. Dolan works closely with the gallery’s director, Todd Tubutis, collaborating on ways to expand the photography scene in a city sometimes associated with coffee, rain, and the sardonically funny Portlandia. “Portland is a great museum,” says Dolan, “and there is a real desire to become more widely known and more international.”