“I knew we had a solid core of Pittsburgh photographs from the 1850s through the 1960s. But I think our audience is interested in photography that goes beyond that core.”
Linda Benedict-Jones, Carnegie Museum of Art’s First curator of photography
Carnegie Museum of Art’s first curator of photography shares her vision for modernizing one of the museum’s most accessible collections.
By John Altdorfer
Linda Benedict-Jones, shown in the recently reinstalled contemporary galleries, says she has a “large appetite” to include contemporary, fine art photography in the museum’s collection. photo: Josh Franzos
Right now, Linda Benedict-Jones wants to talk egg warmers. She’s explaining the connection between the tiny quilted pouches on a table in her office on the third level of the Heinz Architectural Center and her role as the first curator of Carnegie Museum of Art’s new department of photography. It’s a link nearly 175 years in the making.
“The English use these to keep their soft-boiled eggs from getting cold. If you look right here,” she says, pointing at one of the warmers, “you can see an oriel window from Lacock Abbey, which is the birthplace of William Henry Fox Talbot and photography. In 1835, Talbot photographed a window just like this and made the first negative of an image. That’s why these are dear items to me.”
As curator of photography, Benedict-Jones is responsible for more than 4,500 dear items in the museum’s collection, which includes works by local notables such as Clyde Hare and Mark Perrott. But the former executive director of South Side’s Silver Eye Center for Photography says she didn’t sign on to be a caretaker.
“When I was hired, Lulu Lippincott, the museum’s chief curator and curator of fine arts, asked me to put together a collection plan,” says Benedict-Jones. “I knew we had a solid core of Pittsburgh photo- graphs from the 1850s through the 1960s. But I think our audience is interested in photography that goes beyond that core. We have to acquire work that moves in different directions.”
Her plans include adding work by emerging Pittsburgh photographers such as Dylan Vitone, who creates stunning panoramic views of everyday city life, and established pros like Charlee Brodsky, Benedict-Jones’s co-curator for the museum’s memorable Pittsburgh Revealed exhibition in 1997. Still, that’s only a snapshot of her long-range goals.
“I have a large appetite to include contemporary, fine art photography in the collection,” she notes. “We should have something by Martin Parr, Gregory Crewdson, Laura McPhee, and other prominent American photographers who are unrepresented in our collection. As is the case in the museum’s other collections, our photography collection should be international in nature, with a primary focus on western and eastern European, since much of our population here comes from those regions.”
Expanding the collection is a huge undertaking, she notes, especially since contemporary photographs seem to fetch higher prices each year, and museum acquisition funds are always tight. Benedict-Jones says the challenge can be met—a belief Lippincott shares.
“Linda is the perfect person to be our first curator of photography,” says Lippincott. “She has a deep knowledge of contemporary western Pennsylvania photographers from her Silver Eye background and an extensive background on the history of photography as an instructor at Carnegie Mellon. And she understands that photography is an art that’s accessible to nearly everyone and that nearly everyone can practice in some way.
“You don’t see many people painting in oils on the street,” Lippincott notes. “But most people have a camera and can better relate to photos. I gave her a big job to do. That’s why we hired Linda.”
Along with cataloging the museum’s collection and securing new acquisitions, Benedict-Jones is developing two exhibitions. First up is Digital to Daguerreotype: Photographs of People, opening June 20 in the museum’s Works on Paper Gallery. Then the museum will host World of Steel, a show Benedict-Jones calls a “wonderful monster” of more than 220 images depicting the history of steelmaking from Pittsburgh to Beijing.
“One of the show’s messages is that steel isn’t just a Pittsburgh story,” explains Benedict-Jones. “It’s an international story with parallels in Germany, China, India, and other places. I worked with the show’s curator, Howard Bossen, to whittle down the initial group of photographs from 800 to around 220. That was my first big job here.”
She’s currently busy preparing Digital to Daguerreotype. “Most people think the show’s title should be reversed,” she notes, as a daguerreotype was the earliest viable photographic form. “But it’s not a chronological history of photography. We’re starting with what’s happening now. In fact, the first images in the show will be digital inkjet prints. As visitors go deeper into the exhibition, they will see older forms of photography”—with a twist.
As viewers examine a 1903 cyanotype (a blue-tinted image) of two boys in front of the 16th Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, they’ll also see another cyanotype made in 1992 by local photographer Karen Kaighin. The “everything-old-is-new-again” approach is a reaction by photographers seeking a more human touch than is offered by the technology of today.
“I want people to see that photographers bring a 21st-century outlook to a 19th-century method,” says Benedict-Jones. “I want people to think about why photographers are working in these older forms instead of digital. There’s a reason for that.”
To drive home that message, Benedict-Jones reveals that the final image of the show will be a daguerreotype of a historic presidential inauguration. Before you picture a shot of Abraham Lincoln on the steps of the Capitol, think again. This gem is a photograph of President Barack Obama taking the oath of office this past January, captured during an eight-second exposure by New York City photographer Jerry Spagnoli.
“This is a one-of-a-kind image of a one-of-a-kind event,” says Benedict-Jones. “And to think of the daguerreotype as an event camera is amazing when you remember that it was primarily used to take pictures of people in a cozy studio setting rather than outside on a frigid winter’s day. It’s a nice little twist at the end of the show that reminds us that the past is the present. How cool is that?”