Photo: Friedrich Nill

When John Jacob joined the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in 2015, his first public act as the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography was to introduce Trevor Paglen, that year’s Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecturer. The seeds of a show were planted: Paglen is currently the subject of one of the biggest exhibitions the museum has ever done – Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen, on view through January 6, takes up an entire wing of the museum. Calling Paglen “a conceptual artist with activist intentions,” Jacob adds, “The museum has a history of working with artists who use landscape to tell us something new about their moment, and Paglen fits within that history, given his use of the tools and technologies of geography to see what’s new about ours.” 

On view concurrently (through January 27), and also organized by Jacob, is a smaller show of work by an artist who couldn’t be more different. Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs came about because Jacob started his new job by surveying the museum’s collection, beginning alphabetically, as fate would have it. He quickly came across Arbus’s portfolio, A box of ten photographs, which she worked on from 1969 until 1971. The exhibition that resulted, he says, is “a piece of the Arbus story that hasn’t been told, and it overlaps with the museum’s story. Not only do we have the only copy of the portfolio that’s publicly held, but in 1972, after her death, she was the first American photographer to be presented at the Venice Biennale, in an exhibition organized by Walter Hopps, then a curator at SAAM. She was represented in Venice by the portfolio, which Hilton Kramer discovered there. He wrote about it for the New York Times, essentially launching her posthumous career.”

Formerly director of the Inge Morath Foundation and program director at the Magnum Foundation’s Legacy Program, Jacob discovered photography – or stumbled upon it, as he puts it – at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He had applied for an internship in architectural preservation, and one of the required qualifications was “skill in photography.”It was a skill he didn’t happen to have, so he swiftly signed up for a photography class. “Within a short time,” he says, “I’d abandoned all previous goals in favor of photography.” 

Jacob’s father was an international school teacher and principal, and he grew up in Europe and South America. After college, he moved to New York and fell in with a group of Fluxus and post-Fluxus artists. “I had learned photography, but I learned a lot of other things from these people,” he says, including mail art and book art. “Making books and putting pictures on the wall are not dissimilar,” he says, “and I eventually found that the curating was what I was best at and what I cared most about, though I still do a lot with books.” 

One of those books, yet unpublished, may become an exhibition at SAAM down the line. Looking back at spirit photography within the practice of memorial photography, Jacob investigates the ways that people in the 19th century looked at photographs differently from people today. “It was a time when miracles were still believed in,” he says, “and photography was a miraculous medium.”