In Profile

Fred Ritchin

By Jean Dykstra, August 12, 2015

Big changes are afoot at the International Center of Photography: having vacated its midtown building in January, the museum is scheduled to reopen in early 2016 in a new facility on the Bowery. The ICP School is remaining in midtown, but it is undergoing its own transformation – last October, photo editor, curator, and scholar Fred Ritchin came on board in the newly created position of Dean of the School.

Among the new initiatives is a year-long New Media Narratives program beginning this fall that will explore the future of storytelling, data visualization, and programming. “You just have to have a cell phone to enroll,” says Ritchin.

On the other hand, he says, photography in the traditional sense is having a comeback, and the school is paying attention to that as well: “Traditional photography is valued more than it used to be; students are taking more and more darkroom courses,” he says. “There’s something exciting about the lab, the chemicals, the process.”

Ritchin has written more than most critics on the impact of digital media on our visual landscape, including articles and essays as well as the books In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (Aperture, 1990) and Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary and the Citizen (Aperture, 2013). Photography, he suggests, has moved beyond the traditional dichotomy of “mirror” and “window” towards a more flexible, elastic model. “There’s the sense that a photograph is a quotation from appearances,” he says. “But with digital imagery, there’s so much post-production, it’s more like a mosaic that’s meant to be reshuffled and rethought.”

New media calls for new ways of thinking, and the ICP School has also launched public programming to address some of these issues: a series of monthly meet ups, open to the public, have focused on photography and new storytelling platforms, drones and surveillance, and the impact of Instagram.

Before joining ICP, Ritchin was a professor of Photography and Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and co-director of the NYU/Magnum Foundation Photography and Human Rights program. He is a former picture editor at the New York Times Magazine and was the founding director of the ICP’s Documentary Photography and Photojournalism Program. A Brooklyn native, Ritchin was a student at Yale during the politically volatile Vietnam era, when he became interested in the impact of pictures and words. He became a picture editor at Time-Life Books and met people like Larry Fink and Gilles Peress. “It felt part of a new way of thinking and working,” he says.

He has a similar feeling today: “It’s a major moment in the media revolution,” he says. “Imagine you were a writer when the printing press started. What would you think? You have the opportunity to reach many more people. Now we have all of these distribution and publishing possibilities, but we have to figure out how to do it.”