In Profile

Mia Fineman

BY Jean Dykstra, July 1, 2019

Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art July 3 through September 22, focuses on the role of photography in the scientific investigation and artistic interpretation of the moon. The show glides back and forth between science and art, sometimes weaving them together. Inspired by the 50thanniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the exhibition is specific in its subject matter, but representative, in many ways, of the sorts of shows organized by its curator, Mia Fineman. “The thing that interests me about photography is its variety,” says Fineman, who has been at the Met for more than 20 years, “the fact that it’s not only an art medium, but also a medium of communication, documentation, self-expression. I’m interested in photography in all of its cultural forms.”

Consider other shows that Fineman has curated: Faking it: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop, 2012; Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, 2016; and Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations between Artists, 2017, which Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, called “one of the savviest, wisest, most revealing museum exhibitions of the summer.”  It’s one of Fineman’s favorite shows: “The artists were collaborating with each other, I was collaborating with them and then working closely with the design department – I loved doing that, because what I like best about working in a museum is the collaborative process.”

Another favorite show of Fineman’s was one she organized in 2006: On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag, an intellectual hero of hers. “She was really important to me when I was younger,” says Fineman, “as a model of a public intellectual and a woman who was thinking aloud about photography in all of its manifestations.”

A native New Yorker, Fineman has spent a good chunk of her life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She grew up in Queens, but attended Hunter College High School. After graduating from Wesleyan and going to Yale for graduate school, she became a fellow at the Met, and then a curator there. She lives in New York City with her husband, Joel Smith, the photography curator at the Morgan Library, and their six-year-old daughter, whose current passions, says Fineman, are mermaids and candy.

Photography was an early passion for Fineman. Her father was an amateur photographer, but the hobby was serious enough that he took a class with Lisette Model at the New School and entered his photographs in contests. “He liked making color slides of nature,” says Fineman, “and Model was not at all interested in that. She told him to photograph more people, he said no thanks, and that was that.” Most weekends the family went up to Bear Mountain State Park in New York to take pictures, with Fineman taking photographs along with her father. She considered becoming a photographer, but says, “I didn’t feel like my visual ideas were as original as they needed to be in order to succeed at that, so I decided to study the history of photography.” It can’t have hurt that Fineman is also a gifted writer, who contributed to the New York Times, Slate, and this magazine (she was a columnist from 2004 to 2006), among other publications. With only so many hours in a day, Fineman has phased out the freelance writing, but her job at the Met offers plenty of space for a curious mind to play. “Photography is something that’s used by everybody and touches everybody’s life every day, “ says Fineman, adding, “The Met and museums in general are a great places to look at photographic art in a larger context.”