In Profile

Rebecca Senf

BY Jean Dykstra, September 1, 2016

When Rebecca Senf left the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to join the staff of the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) in 2007, it was a homecoming in many ways. A Tucson native, she studied the history of photography as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, where the CCP is based. The current building opened in 1989, and Senf first visited in 1990. “The Center is my mecca,” she says. “It’s why I’m a photo historian. I have a memory as clear as day of standing in front of a Joel-Peter Witkin print of a severed hand and foot, as a 19 year old, and marveling at it. I was just lost in the experience of looking at that photograph.”

Senf has a joint appointment: in addition to being chief curator at the CCP (a job she assumed earlier this year), she also serves as the Norton Family Curator of Photography at the Phoenix Art Museum, drawing on the CCP’s collection for the shows she curates in Phoenix. As a city museum in the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the country, the Phoenix Art Museum attracts a general-interest audience; the CCP attracts visitors who are well informed about photography. As she puts it, “No one accidentally finds themselves at the Center.”

One of the things that draws people to the CCP is the strength of its archives. Its founding archives include the work of Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, and Ansel Adams – the subject of Senf’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University. After an internship at the MFA Boston, she became a research assistant there, working on an Ansel Adams exhibition that involved three years of work and several trips to the West Coast. The show opened in August of 2005, and Senf’s son was born in April of that year (her daughter was born three years later). She spent the next year and a half finishing her dissertation, and then joined the CCP in 2007.

Senf is among a handful of museum professionals who saw a lack of networking opportunities for mid-level curators and, in 2011, founded FOCUS, an organization for mid-career museum curators, academics, and non-profit executive directors. Senf, Paul Martineau, Julia Dolan, Kate Albers, Joshua Chuang, Russell Lord, Todd Tubutis, and Erin O’Toole founded the group as a way to share ideas, compare notes, and work through problems. “I’m so proud of my colleagues and the work that they’re doing,” she says. “We talk about ideas, and we’re supportive of one another.”

Senf has curated more than 30 exhibitions at the Phoenix Art Museum, including shows on Richard Avedon, Barbara Bosworth, Edward Weston, and of course, Ansel Adams, and she is the author of Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe (2012). But like many curators of her generation, she is also active on social media and online: last year, photo-eye’s Rixon Reed invited her to curate an online exhibition on the Art Photo Index website. She curated a slide show with text, called Not MY Family Values, about the challenges and rewards of parenting. “It became very personal about my own parenting experience,” she says. “It had this movement online through Facebook that physical shows don’t have, and it got a huge reaction. People saw me as a whole person; it was a powerful experience that has interesting implications for museums.”