“To collect photographs is to collect the world,” Susan Sontag once wrote. She continues, saying “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” Experience is then translated to paper, culled from chemical baths and light exposure until it is a physical thing, but not like a movie or a television show, which “light up walls, flicker, and go out,” as Sontag described, but something that endures.
That history of acquisition is rich in New Mexico, as diverse and all-encompassing as the varied landscapes. Since its inception three years ago, PhotoSummer—a season-long series of exhibitions, events, talks and workshops—aims to provide access and celebrate the tremendous work being done in the medium locally. A collaborative effort between UNM Art Museum, 516 ARTS, and in Santa Fe, CENTER, Axle Contemporary, American Society of Media Photographers, and Santa Fe University of Art and Design, from June until September, photography enriches the landscape of these two cities like mountains and sunshine. In anticipation of PhotoSummer's official kickoff on June 17, at the UNM Art Museum, one of the organizers, Traci Quinn, who is also the curator of education & public programs at the UNM Art Museum, took the time to unpack and preview this year's PhotoSummer lineup, which focuses on “Photography as Action, Activism and Empowerment.”
Alibi: Can you tell us about how and why PhotoSummer was started?
Quinn: [It's] really the brainchild of Kymberly Pinder, the dean of the College of Fine Arts, and Suzanne Sbarge, the executive director of 516 ARTS. … The common feeling about summer programming [for some time had been] that since the campus is less active that the museum should not invest too much in what is offered from June-August. Kym felt otherwise. … She wanted to capture a different audience and maintain the energy we have during the academic year. … She spoke with Suzanne … who came up with the title PhotoSummer. … The inaugural year was so successful, and we continue to gain momentum and support for our PhotoSummer initiatives every year. The collaborators recognize the vibrant community of people and organizations that support photography—and we really just want to bring that energy to focused attention. Exciting things can happen when multiple organizations recognize [that] they are interested in similar ideas and … start organizing around them.
What do you hope to showcase with the artists and exhibitions that are presented?
We hope to draw on the regional strengths of photography and photographers in the area, and showcase the excellence of the photographic medium in New Mexico. … also highlight the complex issues that photographs inherently deal with and bring to the fore. For instance, this summer the initiative is organized around the power of photography to bear witness, challenge inequitable structures and initiate change. Recognizing the fact that photography has been instrumental to critical discourse surrounding social movements from the earliest years of the medium, PhotoSummer 2017 offers a look into the history and contemporary use of photography as a powerful force in society.
How does PhotoSummer programming fit into the historical legacy of the medium in New Mexico?
New Mexico has always had a strong connection to photography, from the images of Timothy O'Sullivan to one of the most purchased photographs of all time, “Moonrise over Hernandez” by Ansel Adams. … UNM Art Museum has been a part of this rich photographic history since its [founding]. … [UNM] continually ranks in the top five … graduate photography programs. There are many great organizations in Santa Fe like CENTER, photo-eye, RADIUS Books and others that support professional photographers. … Today, photo [and] art enthusiasts journey to New Mexico from around the world, inspired by the state's artistic legacy. We think that many people recognize the artistic relevance of the photographic medium, and if there is any [doubt] in their minds, we hope that PhotoSummer can remind them otherwise.
What do you hope audiences gain from the experience of visiting some of the exhibitions or other events?
Every year, we hope that people enjoy the exhibitions and program we present and take away something that they didn't realize or know about the medium, a place, an idea or social issue. That is the thing about photography … it is really great at connecting people and telling stories. … This year we really hope that audience members take the time to recognize the impact that photography has had and continues to have on how we understand and change our world. Images are powerful. We hope that power is evident in the exhibitions and programs that are a part of PhotoSummer 2017.
What can you tell us about some of the artists and exhibitions happening this time around?
Here in Albuquerque the UNM Art Museum is featuring work by photographer and environmental activist Subhankar Banerjee. The exhibition Long Environmentalism in the Near North draws attention to environmental justice engagements that last not mere weeks or years, but decades, and become intergenerational. 516 ARTS is also featuring work about land and destruction [in] Landscapes of Life & Death, [which] examines how photography poses a unique opportunity to look at loss, extinction, death and renewal, spanning emotional landscapes … as well as environmental landscapes of destruction. In Santa Fe, CENTER has partnered with photo-eye to bring an exhibition of photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales from her project, Through Darkness to Light. The artist spent 10 years researching and retracing the journey of escaped slaves along the path of the nearly 1,400 mile Underground Railroad. CENTER is also hosting a workshop with Mother Jones Photo Editor Mark Murrmann and photographer Dorie Hagler on photography and social justice action. Axle Contemporary, a mobile art gallery, will be projecting their recent online exhibition at the PhotoSummer kickoff party.
Why do you personally feel photography is important to celebrate, experience and recognize?
… I love talking with people about photography, because it is a medium that everyone in our society is familiar with … it makes the first step in the conversation much easier. We see photographs all day every day. … Photographs in the context of a museum or gallery space allow us the time to slow down and really think about what we are seeing and why the image was made in the first place.
Stay attuned to the whole summer's programming by visiting the PhotoSummer initiative online at photosummer.org.