In Profile

Joel Smith

BY Jean Dykstra, May 1, 2015

The Morgan Library & Museum grew out of financier Pierpont Morgan’s collection of rare books and manuscripts and Old Master prints and drawings. Although there were photographs in its collection, the Morgan did not have a photography curator until 2012, when Joel Smith became the Richard L. Menschel Curator and quickly began assembling his first show, A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play. “Until now,” concluded The New York Times, “the Morgan hasn’t been a go-to place for photography fans, but it will be if this inaugural show is an indicator of what’s to come.”

Smith, whose light-filled office overlooks the museum’s Renzo Piano-designed atrium – currently illuminated by the multi-colored panes in a Spencer Finch installation – says the exhibition was something of a manifesto. “I wanted to do something that was about the space between photographs,” he says.

Smith wound up sequencing the show on his computer while he and his wife, Mia Fineman, a curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sat in a maternity ward, waiting to bring their newborn adopted daughter home to New York. Smith says that as he was organizing images from some 25 different collectors, he began to think of them as “adopted thoughts that made their way into the world, and now you’re bringing them into this family, and they have a different meaning than they would have had.”

Smith grew up in Fresno, California, but when he was in 7th grade, his father, a professor of philosophy, had a sabbatical, and the family moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, for the year. He loved to draw (and still does), and he spent a lot of time at the Met and MoMA. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, he wrote his senior thesis on German painting between the wars, a subject he thought he’d continue to study as a graduate student at Princeton. But he took a course with the photo historian Peter Bunnell and quickly switched to the history of photography.

After earning his Ph.D., Smith became a curator at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, returning to Princeton in 2005, where he succeeded Bunnell as curator of photographs at the Princeton University Art Museum.

While he was a student at Princeton, Smith met the photographer Emmet Gowin, the subject of his latest exhibition, Hidden Likeness: Emmet Gowin at the Morgan, on view from May 22 to September 20. Surprisingly, this is Gowin’s first solo museum show in New York, and in it, he is both subject and co-curator. The show includes Gowin’s own photographs as well as objects that he’s chosen from the Morgan’s collection. It’s an expansive idea of curating that reflects Smith’s mission at the Morgan. “This is not just a museum of art,” he says. “We have things that are interesting to contemplate for many other reasons, and photography fits into that beautifully. I think of it as a destination full of great examples of artful communication on the page.”