The International Center of Photography Embraces the Future

BY Jordan G. Teicher, July 1, 2016

Since its founding in 1974, the International Center of Photography (ICP) has positioned itself as a center for discussion about the role of images in society. Now, with the relocation of its museum from Midtown to the Bowery, ICP leadership wants to broaden the conversation and include more people in it.

The 11,000-square-foot space, split between two floors at 250 Bowery, is across the street from the New Museum and in close proximity to the Lower East Side’s burgeoning art scene. A prominent architectural feature is 90 feet of glass frontage, a quality that ICP’s executive director Mark Lubell expects will facilitate a “two-way conversation between the street and what’s happening in the museum.” The entry area includes a cafe, a bookstore, and a wall for temporary exhibitions, all freely accessible to the public – an area that Curator-in-Residence Charlotte Cotton compares to “a village square,” where you might strike up a conversation with a stranger.

The physical transparency serves as an apt symbol for the future of the museum’s public programming and exhibitions, which Lubell says will embrace the democratization of the medium in an effort to boost attendance – which averaged more than 100,000 annually in Midtown – and speak to the visitors’ role as both producers and consumers of images.

“In the last triennial, we had a lot of material by artists that had been inspired by, or made, with new technologies, and it became clear to us that we really had to engage with the entire range of effects that new technology was having on photography,” said longtime ICP curator Carol Squiers.

Central to that spirit of inclusivity is the Center for Visual Culture, funded by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation over three years, which will host panel conversations, lectures, and symposiums.

“Exhibitions are fantastic but they’re expensive, they’re up for many months, and there are only so many you can do in a year – whereas the public programs can react to things much faster. The kinds of people we’re going to have come in and speak will only enhance that exhibition experience,” Lubell said.

Paul Rogers, formerly the vice president of public programs and exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, has been tapped to direct the center, and he expects to start presenting events there – as many as one or two per week – by the fall. A large focus of the public programming, in keeping with the terms of the grant that’s funding it, he says, will be the relationship between visual culture and social justice.

“How do images play a role in the various struggles of different groups in our society? How do images play a role in defining the nature of their struggle? How do they play a role in organizing or instigating or promoting their struggles? These are some of the more substantial questions I’m hoping the center will attempt to ask if not answer,” Rogers said.

In the decades since Cornell Capa founded ICP, with the goal of promoting the sort of humanitarian documentary work that he, his brother Robert, and their colleagues championed, the museum has presented more than 500 exhibitions representing the work of more than 3,000 photographers. In so doing, it has cemented its reputation as one of the world’s leading photography institutions.

This is not the first time the museum has changed spaces. Originally based on the Upper East Side, it opened a Midtown branch in 1985, and then, in 1989, moved to 1133 Avenue of the Americas, where it opened with exhibitions of Alexander Liberman’s artist portraits, James Nachtwey’s war photos, and Barbara Kasten’s dizzying images of architectural sites.

Longtime museum visitors can still expect to see the kinds of traditional documentary, art, and fashion photographs at 250 Bowery that have characterized the ICP’s exhibitions in its previous locations. But the museum’s
debut show, Public, Private, Secret, which will run through January, indicates that the museum is also looking to broaden its exploration of visual culture by better engaging with the billions of non-professional images created and shared across social media platforms daily.

“We’re living in really, really fascinating times with respect to what we would broadly call visual culture. Because of the advent of the internet and more importantly smartphones, the predominant visual culture today is being produced by the consumers of the visual culture themselves,” Rogers said.

The exhibition, which looks at privacy and identity formation in the internet age, features works from Zach Blas, Natalie Bookchin, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, and Andy Warhol, to name just a few of the 50 artists included. Martine Syms is showing work from her video series Lessons, about the black radical
tradition, and Broomberg & Chanarin are showing photographs made using Russian military facial recognition software that can render a three-dimensional portrait of someone using an image of only part of the person’s face. The show will also include 400 head shots by celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan that he called the “face book,” before the invention of Facebook, as well as a never-before-seen collage by Lyle Ashton Harris. Live programming by the Processing Foundation, which works with groups that have historically not had access to the worlds of technology and art, will be included in the mix as well. On monitors and projections, meanwhile, visitors can view images and videos posted by users in real time to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among other platforms, and sorted by relevant theme according to an algorithm. Expect more like that in the future, Lubell said.

“I think that trying to understand what is happening on a global basis with these platforms and the way we’re communicating is a very exciting space,” said Lubell. “I don’t see any other institution tackling these issues in the way that we can.”

The increasing ease and reach of digital media means most people have access to unlimited museum-quality images in their pockets. But while that may be seen as an existential challenge for physical spaces for photography like ICP, Lubell sees it, instead, as an opportunity for the museum to attract more people than ever before.

“Today, everybody that’s walking by is a potential visitor to our museum because everyone’s basically using images in one form or another. Whether they’re taking a picture or receiving one,” he said, “I guarantee they’ve done it within the week.”