It’s easy to forget, given the steady stream of photography exhibitions on view around the country, that photography is still a relative newcomer to the hallowed halls of museums. Many museums didn’t begin collecting photographs with any dedication until the 1970s. The George Eastman House, though, was a real pioneer in the field. “There’s nothing like working at a place that has been collecting photography since 1947,” says Lisa Hostetler, the museum’s curator of photography. “What I love about it is that you can see all sorts of photography, from art to commercial to advertising to fashion. That’s informative when you start to think about our contemporary culture, which is so image-saturated.”
Hostetler has been at the Eastman House for just over a year, arriving from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Before that, she was the photography curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where she co-curated the widely praised Color Rush: 75 Years of Color Photography in America with Kate Bussard and organized a survey that introduced the work of Taryn Simon to a larger audience. But the show that is closest to Hostetler’s heart, she says, is probably Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940-1959, which she organized at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2010. The show grew out of her dissertation, which she wrote on street photographer Louis Faurer when she was at Princeton University, studying with legendary teacher and curator Peter Bunnell.
Hostetler’s dad introduced her to photography – he was an amateur photographer who turned the bathroom of their New Orleans home into a darkroom on the weekends. “When I was five or six, he showed me how the image emerged from a blank piece of paper bathed in liquid – it was just magic. I loved it,” she says. Hostetler grew up in Louisiana and Tennessee, but went to school at NYU, majoring in art history and minoring in studio art. “I made enough art to realize I wasn’t really good at it,” she says.
She took a job she didn’t love, so she found herself heeding the advice of her professors, who had encouraged her to go to graduate school. She applied to Princeton’s art history department, where she was interested in both architecture and photography. “I chose photography because I knew how to make a photograph, but I didn’t know how to make a building,” she says.
Like a number of curators and dealers, Hostetler got her start at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. She then moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art before taking the post in Milwaukee. Once at the Eastman House, she quickly turned her attention to the exhibition currently on view (through May 24), History: Photographs by David Levinthal, the artists most recent work. The show consists of history-painting-sized photographs of iconic cultural moments. The works, says Hostetler, “make us think about how visual culture has made us feel like we understand the past. And that’s great, because we feel closer to our ancestors, but there are some complications, because life was really different then. The show explores the idea of how pictures of history have substituted for actual history, and how fact and fiction intermingle. Plus,” she adds, “the pictures are just big and beautiful and fun.”