Clément Chéroux joined SFMOMA as senior curator of photography last spring, after a decade at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, following his former colleague Quentin Bajac to the U.S. The two Frenchmen landed on opposite coasts (Bajac is chief curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) and now head two of the most influential photo departments in the U.S. “In the United States,” says Chéroux, “the recognition of photography as an art was part of modernism. In Europe, it took longer. In the U.S., photography is everywhere.”
Chéroux’s first two exhibitions at SFMOMA have had a decidedly American flavor: Walker Evans, which he organized while at the Pompidou, closed at SFMOMA February 4, and The Train: RFK’s Last Journey, opens March 17. The starting point of The Train is 26 photographs by Magnum photographer Paul Fusco, who was aboard the train that carried Robert Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, D.C., in 1968, after his assassination. Spontaneously, some two million people came to the tracks to pay their respects, and Fusco took almost 1,000 photographs of them.
Trains, as it turns out, have played a significant role in Chéroux’s relationship to photography. When he was 16 years old, he was on a train to the south of France when he heard an announcement that there was a photography exhibition on board. Such a pop-up exhibition was unusual enough, but Chéroux found a train car filled with work by Pierre Molinier, maker of transgressive, erotic images; French performance artist Michel Journiac; and Minot-Gormezano (the duo Pierre Minot and Gilbert Gormezano). “That was something crazy,” Chéroux says. “It was probably such an incredible thing that they never repeated it again.” But it pointed him in a new direction: “It was a shock, to discover that photography could be something besides family photographs or advertising. That was the starting point for me.”
Chéroux promptly joined his school’s camera club and began studying the history of photography, earning a degree from the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles and ultimately a Ph.D. in art history from the Sorbonne. “I was educated as a photographer and a historian,” he says. “I always had this double interest.” More than double, perhaps: he’s drawn to the multiplicity of the medium – vernacular and fine art photography, contemporary and historical images, reportage and film.
This interest is reflected in one of his favorite curatorial projects, Shoot!, presented at the Arles Photography Festival in 2010. Rooted in vernacular photography, the show grew out of a shooting-gallery game common at fairgrounds after World War I. Participants shot at a target; if they hit the bullseye, a camera took their picture. Several famous artists had these pictures of themselves – Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, May Ray – but most were anonymous. The shooting galleries disappeared by the 1970s, but Chéroux created a modern-day version of the game for visitors, who could receive portraits of themselves as shooters – a prize potentially both charming and incriminating.