Published on Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Sarah Greenough Talks About Her Passion for Photography
Sarah Greenough receives the AIPAD Award at The Photography Show, 2019. Photo: Kristina Nazarevskaia, Gallery Intell. © The Photography Show
Sarah Greenough is the senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the recipient of this year’s AIPAD Award. The AIPAD Award was established in 2017 “to honor and recognize visionaries who have spent their lives at the forefront of the field of photography.” The 2019 Award was presented to Greenough on Wednesday, April 3, during the Opening Preview of The Photography Show. You can read more about the AIPAD Award and Greenough’s biography on The Photography Show website.
To learn why Greenough has spent her life at the forefront of photography, we asked her about the origins of her interest in the field and what drives her passion for it to this day. What follows is our conversation.
What was your reaction to learning you had received the 2019 AIPAD Award?
I was awed and more than a little bit humbled, especially when I saw that [the AIPAD Award] is given to someone who is described as a visionary in the field of photography. That certainly humbled me. John Szarkowski and Beaumont Newhall were visionaries. But I don’t feel that term really describes who I am or what I’ve done. I know I’ve been persistent — some might say doggedly so — and I’ve been hardworking, and I’ve been at this for a very long time. I’ve never swayed in my love for this thing we call photography and my fascination with it has never waned. But I don’t feel like a visionary.
Can you share a bit about your history with photography, along with where your passion for it comes from?
Like so many other people, I became interested in photography as a young child. My father used to give me his old cameras so that he would have an excuse to buy new ones. When I was seven or eight years old, he gave me a 2-and-¼-inch Yashica camera — probably because he was going to buy himself a spiffier 35mm camera. He also gave me a teeny light meter and showed me how to use it, but it was like Greek to me, so instead I just read the instructions on the film package.
I became immediately entranced with the magic of photography and like anyone who’s worked with analog photography, I was awed by how you could take a picture with your camera, go into the dark room, expose the print, and then put it in the developing bath and see that image seemingly miraculously appear before your eyes. It’s bound to bring about a sense of wonder.
I was fortunate that when I was in high school, I was able to take an art history class, and when I went to the University of Pennsylvania, I continued to take art history classes. But, at that point, there were no courses in the history of photography. Luckily, I managed to stumble into some other programs that introduced me to the history of photography. I was in Philadelphia, so I went up to MoMA and started seeing the exhibitions that John Szarkowski was organizing there. I was also fortunate to take a studio photography course off campus with a photographer who had people come and speak to the class about their work. One of those guest speakers was [Diane] Arbus, which was extraordinary. I vividly remember her, as well as some of the other photographers, talking about the photographers who had influenced them. Arbus spoke at length about Lisette Model, who I had never ever heard of at the time. It opened my eyes—here was this thing called the history of photography, and no one was doing very much with it. I became fascinated with learning everything I could about both the pictures that had been made in the past and the lives of the artists themselves.
Sarah Greenough with Georgia O'Keefe and J. Carter Brown. Photo courtesy Sarah Greenough
After college, I decided to go to the University of New Mexico where Beaumont Newhall was just beginning to teach the history of photography. Back then, it was the first place in the country where you could study the history of photography within art history. I was very fortunate to study with Beaumont who was an exceptionally generous scholar and a wonderful human being. He was, in essence, a shy New Englander, something I could easily relate to, but when he began to speak about photography, it was as if he became electrified. His passion, his enthusiasm for photography were contagious. I learned from him that if you could convey that passion to others—if you could speak in a strong, insightful, and articulate way about why photography matter—you could, quite possibly, create other converts. That was really my beginning.
What value do you see in art fairs as a resource for curators, collectors and those new to the medium?
I think fairs present wonderful opportunities to see a lot of work you might not encounter on a daily or even on a monthly basis, both by artists you know as well as those you don’t know. I find that especially exciting.
They also provide a great opportunity to see old friends, whether it’s gallery directors or collectors, curators and others. You can find out what they’re doing, whom they’re interested in and what’s happening in their lives. Fairs can be exhausting, but they can also be wonderful experiences, providing a lot of opportunities to connect with both people and new work.
How do you feel the internet and technology has affected the art marketplace, as well as museums?
Obviously, technology — and especially the internet — has had a profound impact on the marketplace. It’s now so much easier than it ever was before to find out a vast amount of information about works of art or the artists themselves, and to understand how a specific piece fits into the evolution of an artist’s work. The internet has made it easier, as well, for museum professionals to reach out and share that information, that love and knowledge, about the work of art with the whole world.
But, as a museum person, I will never stop believing that it’s imperative to see the original work of art in person. Nothing will ever replace that unique experience you have standing in front of a great work of art.
A friend of mine does a little dance whenever he sees something in person that moves him profoundly. To me, it’s a wonderful expression of how a great work of art can give you a visceral experience that you can only have when confronting it in person. When it comes to seeing images online, they’ve usually been manipulated and altered. The color depends on your monitor, for instance, and the proportions depend on your monitor’s size. I think it is too easy to assume that if you’ve seen it online, you know it. But you don’t.
Where do you see the art of photography heading in the next decade?
I don’t like to make predictions, because, like I said before, I don’t consider myself a visionary.
But I do know that after every major sea change in photography--the change from analog to digital in the 1980s and 1990 or the invention of the hand camera and the film processing industry a century earlier in the 1880s and 1890s--after each of those changes, people predicted that photography was dead, that it was never going to be the same again. In each of those instances, it’s true that photography did indeed change but it never died, it always morphed into something that had new possibilities and raised new questions.
The art of photography has continued to morph in response to those technological changes and to the changes to our world as a whole. Photography will always be with us, I think, in one form or another, because it fulfills such a profound need that we all have to see, know, and respond to the world around us, and to record and memorialize our place in it.