Who are the folks behind the scenes at our most important cultural institutions, the people who present pictures in a different way, show us new work, illuminate trends? Welcome to “The Curators,” our new column, which we’re kicking off with Sandra S. Phillips, photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Widely regarded as an astute and thoughtful curator, Phillips is also known for her expansive embrace of photography in all of its manifestations. Earlier this year, she co-organized, with the Guggenheim’s Jennifer Blessing, the high-profile Rineke Dijkstra retrospective, and she also published a book on vernacular photographs from the Vatican, what she calls a “unique trove of images.”
Since joining SFMOMA in 1987, Phillips has taken the lead in exploring pictures as carriers of cultural information as much as the fine art object. Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence, in 1997, was perhaps the first exhibition to explore police photographs in a museum context. That show got her thinking about the idea of surveillance, and in 2010, she curated Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870.
She was also an early proponent of postwar Japanese photography, organizing Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog (1999), a show of work by Shomei Tomatsu (2006), and The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography (2009). SFMOMA now has one of the best holdings of Japanese photography in the United States.
“I still do the same kinds of exhibitions I did when I first got here,” she says, “exhibitions about ideas, about under-standing movements and phenomena. I think there is a taste for experimentalism here, but that’s also who I am.”
A New Yorker born and bred, Phillips was part of an artistic family: her father was an architect; her mother was a landscape architect who designed for such wealthy families as the Rockefellers. The late painter Elizabeth Murray was a relative. Phillips remembers seeing The Family of Man and later New Documents at MoMA: “But at that time,” she says, “you went to look at paintings because that was serious, then you looked at the photographs because they were strangely interesting.”
She studied painting at Bard College and married the head of the art department (they since divorced). They had a son, and she earned her Ph.D. at CUNY, writing her dissertation on André Kertész. “He was living in New York,” she says, “so I would visit him every week for a year or two.” Her 1985 book André Kertész: Of Paris and New York, with Weston Naef and David Travis, remains the leading work on the photographer.
After a brief stint as a curator at Vassar, Phillips received a call from Van Deren Coke, SFMOMA’s previous photography curator, asking if she’d be interested in his job. It was a rare opportunity, and she snapped it up. The move west opened her eyes to photographers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, particularly after she curated Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, about land use in the West. “Coming from New York, it was a revelation to me,” she says. Then she adds, sounding like a true California girl: “I still think that people like Adams aren’t really understood back East. You guys don’t get him!”