In Profile

Kim Bourus

BY Sarah Schmerler, February 4, 2020

Mediums have always been slotted into hierarchies and categories in the history of art. Drawing always took a back seat to painting; and photography, a back seat to both. But thanks to dealers like Kim Bourus – a champion of under-served artists whose practices draw from multiple mediums – those categorizations are becoming increasingly blurred. When she opened her gallery, Higher Pictures, on Madison Avenue in 2007, she set out to show the kind of photography that acknowledged the inherently adaptive, resilient – what she calls “plastic” – qualities of the medium, challenging societal, conceptual, and commercial norms along the way.

This fall, Bourus showed Iterations (III), Jessica Eaton’s color-rich and labor-intensive images (homages to Josef Albers’s abstract color studies). Through February 8, Bourus is showing a series that Düsseldorf artist Barbara Probst made in 2000, when she positioned 12 cameras to shoot her simultaneously as she leaped into mid-air on a midtown rooftop. (The exhibition is a collaboration between Bourus and photographer and art dealer Janice Guy, herself an artist whom Bourus has shown.)  

 “I am interested in questions like: What is the material support for a photograph? Is a photograph only made through light-sensitive paper, or with a camera, or a negative?” asks Bourus.  “I think our understanding of what a photograph is has been somewhat limited. We need to bring some awareness to a market that isn’t just about the bottom line.” 

Bourus, 47, was born in Vietnam in 1971. Her Vietnamese mother and American serviceman father fled the country at the fall of Saigon, when Bourus was eight months old; they came to the U.S., first to an Air Force base in Texas, where, one month later, Bourus’s younger sister was born, and then to San Diego, where the family settled. Growing up bi-racial in the prevailing social and political climate of the ‘70s proved formative. “The Vietnam War was the most photographed war in American history,” says Bourus, “but what we were seeing in the media didn’t at all mirror reality. And I was a constant, walking reminder of that reality.” At Indiana University, Bourus pursued a five-year course of study that resulted in degrees in studio art and art history. After graduation, she came to New York City and landed a job at Magnum Photos – her true photographic education. In 2000, she began doing research, licensing images, and later (in the newly formed Cultural Department, with David Strettell) overseeing exhibitions, publications, and sales – and observing the medium’s transition from print archive to digital processes.

She left Magnum in 2006, and in 2007 she signed a lease on 764 Madison Avenue and opened Higher Pictures. Its first show, featuring photographers as different as Susan Meiselas and Leigh Ledare, was The End is Nigh. In 2011, she moved to her current digs at tony 980 Madison Avenue, between 76th and 77th Streets. “There is such a rich history of dealing and showing art in this neighborhood,” says Bourus, “but how much of that art was by women or people of color? And how is it valued? I intentionally wanted to have a gallery on the Upper East Side, because its presence, alone, is an act of resistance. You can go down the street and buy a Josef Albers for $1 million, or a Jessica Eaton for $12,500. If there is such a thing as progress, I want to be on its side.”