SIMON BAKER

 
Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.
 

 

Nearly nine years ago in an eagerly anticipated appointment, Simon Baker stepped into post as Tate’s first dedicated photography curator. The announcement, and subsequent flurry of press coverage, both acknowledged and accentuated a longstanding disconnect between photography and other artforms within the institution, echoes of an archaic hierarchy ringing out throughout its galleries.

Tate’s recent curatorial appointments (compare with those in western photography epicentres New York and Paris), along with an updated programming and display ethos demonstrated its renewed commitment to the medium. Tate went on to stage a total of 17 major exhibitions addressing photographic practice from 2009-2018, increasing from only 10 in the twenty years prior. An acquisitions committee was established in 2010, where its work helped the museum to quadruple its photographic holdings in just four years.

Simon leaves for pastures new as director for the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris. His is not Tate’s only recent departure— the other half of the institution’s much admired photo duo announced their departure only two weeks earlier, initiating a substantial shake-up of the department, but not before they had cemented photography’s place in the galleries. The need to continually push and argue for photography, this argument has been won at Tate” asserts Simon, however he still believes there is more work to be done for photography beyond Tate, a task and responsibility for London's wider art ecosystem.

 

Words: Laura Norman
Portraits: Phil Hewitt

 

 
 
 
Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.

You started off as a professor at Nottingham University, then became the first photography curator at Tate, and you’re now heading over to Paris to become the director of the Maison Europeene de la Photographie. It’s very exciting. What are you most looking forward to?

Being in charge! It’s a very different institution from Tate: it’s much smaller in size but it has more of a history in relation to photography. The MEP has been collecting for 25 years, and has an established audience, it also has a beautiful cinema and a library. It’s lower profile than Tate on an international level, but is more deeply rooted in photography, so it’s a very different challenge.

Is there anything you’ll miss here in London?

Well, I only I’ll be a couple of hours away by train. I have amazing friends in London, but I won’t be far from them. One thing is perhaps being a little further away from the contemporary art world: here at Tate, we often take patrons or donors around fairs like Frieze or Basel. But I can always still go to Basel by myself, if I feel particularly masochistic.

[Laughs] What are you most proud of having achieved whilst at Tate?

The first thing I want to say is that everything that I've done at Tate has also been the work of Shoair Mavlian, who’s been working as my partner in crime for the last seven years. So everything that happened at Tate should be jointly accredited to her, in equal measure. At Tate we work in teams of many people, along with others, of course, but it has mostly been Shoair and I. She’s just left to become the director of Photoworks in Brighton.

Regarding your question, the main thing, which is something that anyone can see, is that when I first visited Tate, there just wasn’t much photography on view. There was an Andreas Gurksy that you’d pass on the escalator, where you’d have to crane your neck to see it. And you’d have to really search out photography in the galleries.

During my first few years here, along with Shoair when she joined, we really had to push our colleagues to accept the idea of having big rooms of photography. We argued that they were equally interesting, and we had to convince them that we should have as big a space for Bruce Davidson or Lewis Baltz as we had for Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso. When you walk around the building, you can now see photography everywhere. Not only is it everywhere, but it’s not all work that I have chosen personally – my colleagues and the wider team at Tate have really taken the importance of photography on board, particularly the fact that it should always be part of the history of art.

Since we’ve announced our departures, Shoair and I have been speaking about this and we agreed that our biggest achievement is that, in a way, we’re not really needed anymore – well, not that we’re no longer needed, but that the argument for photography has been won at Tate. It's a big argument to have won, and whoever replaces us won't have the same kinds of discussions. They won't have to constantly explain their reasoning, and that's a really nice thing to know – that all of the amazing staff at Tate and all of my colleagues in their different areas of expertise, right up to the director, they've all got it and they're all happy with it. So that’s what I’m most proud of, the fact that photography is here to stay, and that when we leave it won't suddenly disappear again. It's a really nice feeling to know that the head of displays, Matthew Gale, will make sure to include photography. There’s plenty already planned for next year, so it’s not as though he’ll suddenly decide not to incorporate it anymore, just because we're not there to give him a hard time!

So you think you left a legacy? You, Shoair and those around you?

Definitely. Collectively, we’ve totally changed the institution, with the caveat that the institution really wanted to be changed. Frances Morris was the person who pushed for my appointment. She allowed Shoair to work with me full-time, and if it wasn’t for Frances, I wouldn’t be here, and nor would we have had the resources to achieve so much. A big institution like Tate needs to want to be changed. You can’t just go in and make a big noise and expect everything to change – it has to want it. Frances has been here for a long time: more than 20 years, and even though she was from the pre-photography Tate, she was the person most responsible for making the Tate photography-friendly. So, in a way, she should really have all the credit.

You’ve had an incredible career path. But you’ve said before that it wasn’t a planned trajectory. What drew you to exhibition making?

I started making exhibitions when working with Dawn Adès, a Professor of the history of Art at the University of Essex, who was responsible for some of the most significant exhibitions on Surrealism and Latin American art from the 1970s onwards. She’s a really important figure in the history of art, and exhibition-making. We worked on projects at the Hayward Gallery and then at the Fruitmarket Gallery. I was always a junior partner in her projects. I learnt many things from her, and that was what really made me want to shift direction. In academia, it’s really easy to pinpoint a very small audience of other professors and graduate students, or those who know lots of theory, but Dawn, although an expert academic, is totally captivating and not only interested in those smaller audiences. She’s made exhibitions of huge public appeal that had amazing stories, whether it was about Surrealism or a particular artist, and it really changed what I thought was important. She never sacrificed academic credibility, but nor did she disappear into the pothole of academic navel gazing; she always made something that was accessible and interesting to a general public.

At Tate, we’re really lucky to have a huge audience. It’s also free to enter – the displays are free – so if you have an idea, it has the potential to reach literally millions of people. It's a very different conception of what one could do with research: instead of pure research about a particular subject, writing a very wordy article or book with lots of footnotes, you could instead create something slightly less in depth but more useful, with a much broader audience appeal.

So you’ve preferred this way of working, circulating ideas to a wider demographic?

Yes, I went from being an academic who only wrote academic articles, to an academic who created exhibitions on the side, to somebody who creates only exhibitions and is no longer an academic in any way. To be honest, I haven't written anything with lots of footnotes or published in an academic journal for about ten years. I’ve really changed the way I think, the way I write, the way I approach learning and sharing ideas with people. It’s not that I’m not interested in the academic approach, but it’s no longer enough for me to find things out and then to bury them in a book with a tiny circulation.

I see that you studied Art History, at UCL, where you did your BA, MA and your PhD.

Yes, I never studied curating. I studied the history of art, and I learnt everything just by watching Dawn. I watched how she would organise the space, how she’d place objects and how she might deal with a really famous, knockout Picasso. How do you give something enough space in a room? How do you put paintings and photographs in the same room? How do you deal with sound, or with the architecture of the space? How do you make the catalogue? I learnt all of these things from just watching and listening to Dawn. Anything I’ve learnt about curating is totally from her: she was an inspiring mentor.

Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.

Was there one particular show that you worked on with Dawn that proved to be a turning point for you?  

Yes, it was the first show I worked on, Undercover Surrealism, which was at the Hayward Gallery in 2006. It was actually a very niche idea; it was about one of the magazines published by a group of dissident Surrealists including Georges Bataille and Robert Desnos, and Carl Einstein from Germany. It was a weird magazine, where they pulled together contemporary art of that time, along with archaeology, or ‘ethnography’ as it was called then. It had features about old coins and historical objects, along with beautiful photographs, and they would review the latest talking films or new releases by musicians like Duke Ellington. Bataille would also use it as a platform to publish his philosophical essays. We turned it into a show and borrowed as many paintings as we could find, plus photographs, objects, etc and even screened the films. We used the magazine as a kind of toolbox and made a show out of it.

It was interesting to experience an exhibition where you walked in and saw a 1929 silent film on a huge screen next to a Picasso, or African masks next to Ethiopian scrolls. It was a strange exhibition, but it really tried to bring something more interesting about popular visual culture in the 1920s and 30s to a larger audience. It was a different way of presenting academic research.

Why are you leaving Tate?

Well, I've been here eight and a half years. I think that's a good length of time to do a job. When I left Nottingham University, I’d been there five years and I already felt that was a long time. It's really a question of what you do after a job like Tate. It has such a global profile and is such an amazing place to work.

I definitely haven't done everything that you could do at Tate, but we’ve gone a long way in terms of our goals, which were those we’ve just discussed: getting photography into Tate, building the collection, having an exhibition programme where we have a photography show every year. We’ve also secured huge donations, brought significant works to the museum, and put together an acquisitions committee.

At MEP I have found a new opportunity, which I think is really exciting and where I can have a different experience. I mentioned the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, which has the most amazing director, Fiona Bradley, and she has an incredible team. In the back of my mind, since working there with Dawn, I’ve dreamt of being a director of somewhere like that, where it's small enough that you know everyone and work together closely, and it's not too bureaucratic, either. Obviously some opportunities are limited by the scale of organisations like that, but if I can create the same spirit at the MEP that Fiona has at the Fruitmarket, I’ll be really happy. It’s like a laboratory where you can really communicate ideas, interest people, collaborate. Fiona knows her audience in Edinburgh intimately, and I think that would be a great experience to do something similar, after Tate.

Another option would have been to become head of photography at another big museum, but then I’d be doing something similar, perhaps in a different city or country, but essentially still the same criteria. Additionally, I feel strongly that Paris, and France in general, really respects and celebrates photography. Paris respects culture. If you do a good job in the cultural sector, it's appreciated, which is so important.

Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.

How do you feel about attitudes in London, more specifically institutional attitudes towards photography? What changes have you seen while you’ve been in your post?

It's a bit of a cliché, but the grumpy older British photographer who feels neglected has every right to feel that – they haven't been very well served by their national institutions. It’s not just Tate, but the entire ecosystem, the process by which you have a small show at a smaller institution, then a medium-sized show, then you have a big retrospective, hasn't really happened for British photographers, or for photographers based in Britain.

For example, after nearly nine years of Tate, I'm just now working on Don McCullin’s exhibition at Tate Britain, which will be the first retrospective of a living photographer since I arrived. That means that many British photographers will be sitting at home thinking ‘Well, Simon didn’t do a very good job for us.’ I managed to do a good job for Daido Moriyama and for William Klein. I think the question is, has Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain, got an appetite to change Tate Britain’s attitude? It’s also true of smaller institutions in London: The Photographers’ Gallery, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Hayward Gallery, the Serpentine galleries – have any of them got the will to show more mid-career shows of British photographers, so that later on they can have their big show at Tate?

Most of the smaller spaces in London are more concerned with what’s fashionable in the current art world, because they’re seeking support from their patrons or from commercial galleries. To be frank, it’s much harder for them to put a show together and find support for an exhibition of a photographer whose work perhaps doesn’t sell for high prices, and who doesn’t have wealthy supporters or a big gallery with lots of money behind it. It’s not anybody’s fault in particular, but I just think that there’s a problem in Britain. If you’re a British photographer and connected with Britain, you’ll feel it. Think about this: in Paris, there are four dedicated photography spaces, so most French photographers in their 60s will have had one or two small shows. They will have reached a certain level, so now they can be looking forward to a bigger show knowing that they're moving along – which is probably true of most painters and sculptors in England. They get the smaller shows, then one at Tate. It’s very difficult to explain to anyone, even to myself and especially to very brilliant, successful, photographers. If you think of people at that level (maybe Chris Killip, Paul Graham etc.), people of their level and generations, why would they not have had that show? These are questions they ask us. Tate isn’t to blame on its own, but it’s interesting to see how things will change in the future and how Tate addresses it.

I also have to say that there is a difference between Tate Modern and Tate Britain. For most of my time, I’ve been working at both, and I’d say that Tate Modern is different in the way that it’s collection is displayed, but the attitude of the directors – Vicente Todoli, Chris Dercon and now Frances Morris - has always been so supportive and enthusiastic. I haven’t had the same experience at Tate Britain. It isn’t the fault of Tate Britain, as such; it’s not because the directors haven’t been interested in photography, but because they’ve found it much harder to integrate it properly within their galleries. We've had a number of photography shows at Tate Britain but we haven't managed, in the same way, to embed it everywhere in the permanent collection. It hasn't been as visible or successful. Kate Bush has now been appointed as Adjunct Curator of Photography at Tate Britain, so I hope that her presence there and her strong character will allow her to push a bit harder.

One of the exhibitions at Tate Britain was the Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process exhibition. Why was Nick’s work right for Tate, at that moment?

Nick is a very important photographer with a strong history of publishing but, in my opinion, he has been under-exhibited in the UK. When the V&A announced that they would do the Alexander McQueen exhibition, I started thinking about the possibility of showing Nick’s work – his behind the scenes work with McQueen. We looked at the book together and tried to work out how to turn it into an exhibition. It was a really great experience for me to work with him.

How was it that Tate came to work with Nick? Can you remember how you first met?

I don’t remember how we first met, but I had followed his work for a long time. I think we really became good friends over the course of discussing and planning the show - often in the pub! We still meet for a drink every know and again, when he comes back to London. What I respect about Nick is that he takes his work very seriously, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. Also, he’s not really a photographer, as such, he’s an artist in the broadest sense – he’s a great painter and produces these amazing sketchbooks. Like many great artists he’s interested in many different things, music, literature, politics, fashion, skateboarding.

I want to ask you about the inextricable links you’ve built during your time here between art and photography. It’s important, critically and philosophically, to reiterate how photography should be considered as part of a wider art history, but I also wonder if it’s strategic for Tate, for example, for funding acquisitions or exhibitions?

When I was applying for the job, I discussed with Frances and Vicente Todoli what was strategically important for the Tate moving forward. We had to find something unique that we could do, that no one else could do. The V&A has a collection of 800,000 photographic prints, The Photographers’ Gallery is a dedicated photography space, and the National Portrait Gallery has photographs in its collection, so what is it that Tate can do? Well, Tate is a place where you can come into a museum and see photography in relation to painting, sculpture, film, video, performance and live art. This guided the principle of integration. That was really our ‘USP’ – what we can do better than anyone else. Rather than competing with the V&A to have the best photography exhibition, we’ll support the V&A, we’ll support The Photographers’ Gallery, because we think we can do something here that none of them can do. Just think of the group shows that we’ve created: they're huge. They're 1300 square metres. Some of the single rooms are the same size as an entire exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery. So the scale and the profile and the mixture of media is only available here. For Shape of Light, we’re using paintings and sculptures and even kinetic works from Tate’s collections alongside photographs, and I don't think anyone else can do that. I doubt if The Photographers’ Gallery would be able to afford to insure a Mondrian, a Bridget Riley, a Jackson Pollock or a Carl Andre... Perhaps they could, but it makes so much more sense to do it here and to utilise our collection.

Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.

Leading on from programming and display, I want to ask you about acquisitions. Obviously you, Shoair and the team have worked incredibly hard on this and I wondered, amongst all of the important additions to the Tate’s collection, whether you had a favourite? Was there one that meant much more to you than any other?

I should probably say Martin Parr’s photobook collection, because it’s the biggest single donation, and an amazing acquisition, but that isn’t the most important for me on a personal level. It’s not that it’s not important, but it’s not as symbolic, in the way that some other things are. For example, the first Boris Mikhailov we bought. He’s a really amazing photographer, whose work you just never expected to see while wandering around in the permanent collection of Tate. We acquired his Red series, and he gave us Dusk. I mention it not only because I was really star-struck with Boris, and so impressed to meet him, and really believed in him as an artist  – his work had been shown in Cruel + Tender and he’s been exhibited in London by Saatchi and some others – but also because the symbolism of his Red series at Tate was really important for me personally, and for Tate institutionally. It said that we’re open to street photography, we’re open to somebody with a really subversive political take, we’re open to something that looks a little messy, but which is extremely sophisticated. Art photography that’s obviously art photography is really easy to get into a museum. It's never hard to sneak an Andreas Gursky or a Thomas Struth or a Jeff Wall into Tate, but to get a Boris Mikhailov into Tate – that was something else. There are many others for whom I feel the same, but Boris’ Red series was one of the first I’d worked on when I came here, and I remember thinking ‘Well, this is actually making a difference’, because it changed the kind of thing that people will see quite radically: we’re not inching from Gursky to something else, we’re cutting straight to this tough, subversive Ukrainian prankster. It’s such beautiful, poetic and sincere work.

It’s also important to consider the impact of that work when we opened the Blavatnik building, where we’re sitting now. We put the Red series up in the mixed displays with Kader Attia, Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu, and to me that was super super important. These artists are with huge galleries and their work sells for millions, and Boris had the same amount of wall space and his work looked amazing. It was an incredible feeling to see that it was worth the hard work and worth arguing for - so I’m picking Boris!

How do you go about putting together an argument for a piece? Who has the final sign off?

Everything is done collectively, and there are different levels and stages. The first level is that all the curators, at Tate Modern or at Tate Britain, sit round the table and the Director of the International Collection chairs the meeting. That was Frances Morris, but it’s now Gregor Muir. And we say ‘This is the work we think Tate should acquire, this is why, this is the other work that’s already in public collections around the country, and these are the other museums that have these works.’ So you make a case: you say how it would fit in with the collection, what we’ll show it with, and whether there are any practical considerations – will it fade, for example. Then we all discuss it. Sometimes there's very little discussion and curators will say ‘That's a no-brainer, totally!’ other times they'll say, ‘That’s an interesting artist, but perhaps it's not the right work by that artist.’ Other times, people will say ‘I don't think that artist is at the same level as say, Picasso’! If you win that argument, it then gets proposed by the director of the International Collection to all the directors and heads of collections of the different museums. They all discuss it together, and if they agree, it then goes to the trustees. So it goes through this process of being accepted at higher and higher levels. But the first job is the research and the proposals are all made by the curators and assistant curators.

You’re a well-known advocate for Japanese photography, and more broadly, the collections and acquisitions at Tate are also diversifying in terms of geographical scope. Is that a collaborative effort across the board, or is there one driving force behind it?

Well, as I mentioned before, Frances should probably take all of the credit for photography being here. She also definitely takes all the credit for the globalisation of our strategy and for moving into regions from which we’d previously not collected, and for collecting more female artists. When the newly expanded Tate Modern reopened, the headlines were: more female artists, broader geography, more photography, film, video and performance. That’s all France. It’s all her vision.

Regarding photography specifically, we identified areas of the world and areas of practice that fitted with that strategy. Photography in relation to performance, for example, which is really exciting. We have a great postwar Japanese collection of paintings and sculpture, so it seemed sensible to go in that direction with postwar photography. We also have lots of interesting work from Latin America, so we tried to build that strategy alongside what people were doing in other media, too, and then seeing how we could connect photography to it.

Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.

You mentioned previously that you wouldn’t want to collect something if you could borrow it from another institution or collection.

For sure, it’s important not to waste money and time. We wouldn’t buy things that the V&A have, we wouldn’t buy things that were owned by The National Media Museum in Bradford, as it was previously known, and we wouldn’t buy things that were likely to be given to us later on by patrons or collectors. We also wouldn't buy things that had gone stratospheric in the market. For example, if we wanted to buy something by Man Ray, we might need $600,000, with which you could alternatively buy a huge number of works by Daido Moriyama. We respected the fact that the V&A has a particular collection and a particular character. The V&A has a few Man Rays, so it didn't make sense for Tate to try and make that kind of collection again. We wanted to do something different. So when deciding how to build a collection, faced with those kind of choices, we try to go for things that, through research and through hard work, make the best use of the resources we have. We’ve raised lots of money, secured many amazing donations, like the Eric Franck donation and the partial donation of the Martin Parr photobook collection, along with a huge number of donations from Michael Wilson. We’ve had many donations, but when spending money we’ve raised or money that partrons have given to the Tate, we’ve tried not to go into areas where the market has overheated. I met with other photography people in London, and we talked about what they were buying, and what we were doing. We shared things, and shared ideas. We quite quickly worked out that regionally there was very little Japanese photography, so it seemed like a good thing to do.

You’ve said before that the locus of photography is moving away from London, from Paris, and in fact away from Europe. I wonder if you could talk a little about that and explain why you feel that is?

Well, as it has been written, the history of photography was evidently in America and France – they were the two places that really authored the history of photography, took control of it, and for many years they were the places that were seen to be the centres of photographic discourse. I think, mostly through Paris Photo, Paris has really stolen that mantle, particularly from New York. New York still has amazing commercial galleries and it has very strong collections in museums, but Paris is slightly more exciting because it has a rich tapestry of smaller institutions along with their larger ones – art fairs, book fairs and so on. But there are so many things happening elsewhere: there are photo festivals in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and many more places. It’s no longer possible to see the history of photography as the one we all remember from reading from the likes of John Szarkowski, Helmut Gernsheim and Jean-François Chevrier. And I think that's a really good thing.

I also think, although it’s a very obvious thing to say, that the rise of the interest and knowledge of photobooks has meant that things circulate more. When you go to a photobook fair, it's possible to meet publishers from China or Latin America. You meet people and you see work. People send books to curators – it's like a network, or an ecosystem. The photobook ecosystem enables communication in exactly the same way. One of the main reasons why Surrealism was effective as a movement was because they made magazines that they would post. That kind of thing is also possible with the photobook – who knows what the possibilities are? The other day an artist came to meet me from Lithuania. He'd made a book and he’d sent it to me, and we then arranged to meet. So the photobook makes this possible.

At the same time, you have an increase in national museums and fairs, and you also have an increase in the transmission of information, whether via Instagram or websites, or through posting physical books, or whether via those who travel to book fairs or photobook fairs, which has really connected the world in a nice way, rather than a commercial way. I see that as very positive. When I visited Brazil for the first time last year, I went to a gallery and they had a small book shop full of artists’ books where I bought a few things. I didn't know who they were by, or what they were, but that's how we start researching now: we go to the bookshop and start looking at the handmade books. It's a really practical, sensible and effective way of learning. It means that if photography curators are clever enough and if they go to enough self-publishing book fairs, they’re more in tune with other places than their colleagues in other departments. Most of our colleagues here are specialised in other regions and they have to keep travelling to that region to see exhibitions and meet people, whereas the photobook has really helped to open that up.

If posted, the work of the emerging practitioners comes straight to you.

Yes! They arrive through the post, and they’re a really great medium. In the absence of a strong commercial market for emerging artists in photography, publications are particularly effective because we know there aren't that many good galleries selling work for under £1,000 in photography, but there are lots of good small publishers who produce books cheaply, perhaps in a run of 500 copies. Or you can make your own.

It reminds me of a project created in the early 1990s called the Nano Museum: it was a tiny picture frame that was passed from artist to artist and it displayed, in miniature, their respective ‘exhibitions’, a quality shared by the photobook. It’s a portable exhibition.

For sure, and it’s really nice when you’re at a fair, or at Rencontres d’Arles, and people will come up to you and ask ‘Can I show you my book?’, which is much nicer than ‘Can I show you my portfolio?’ because they’ve made it: they’ve thought of a sequence, a printing process, a cover – it’s done. I always respect people who go to the trouble of doing that. Often, the self-published books are better than the ones that publishers have got their designers to work on; they’re just really natural and really pure. I also think it makes the photography world really down to earth and really nice. It doesn’t cost thousands and thousands of pounds to make a photobook: you can make books with a photocopier and some staples.

Many of the other curators are jealous of the people I get to work with. Many of them have relationships with commercial galleries with lots of money, which in turn exude a certain type of persona or attitude. When we had Offprint here in the Turbine Hall, they couldn’t believe how friendly everyone was. No-one in self-publishing has any money! It breeds a completely different culture: one of reciprocal help and understanding, a desire for others to succeed. It’s been one of my favourite parts of the job, getting to speak to people that like that. It’s fun.

 
 
Simon Baker © Phil Hewitt, Courtesy Photolocale. Do not use without permission.