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Simon Baker: “MEP distinguishes itself by this amazing memory”


English curator Simon Baker, former director of photography at the Tate in London, was appointed director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, in Paris, on Wednesday 24 January 2018, succeeding Jean-Luc Monterosso, director and founder of the institution. He spoke to The Eye of Photography about his new role.

At the beginning of the year you were nominated at the head of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. You’re now leaving England for France, a country you know well. What’s your personal opinion on the Maison Européenne de la Photographie?

Well, it’s a great honour to be nominated at the MEP. It’s a very important institution, with an important collection. The former director, Jean-Luc Monterosso, has done tremendous work over almost thirty years. It’s a very exciting challenge to take over and I’m extremely honoured to have been considered. I was surprised to be nominated, as they were very strong applicants and it was a very tough process.

When will you be starting work?

In May. Jean-Luc will finish at the end of March. There will be a gap in April and I’ll be coming up in May. Shape Of Light: Hundred Years Of Photography and Abstract Art, the very last show I’m working on at Tate Modern will be installed at the end of April. Then, I’ll be arriving.

You were head of the photography department at Tate in London. How do you consider your new job at the MEP?

There’s a huge difference between the two institutions. Tate is a massive machine, a huge collection across all media. And in fact, I was not the head of the department, as such, because all the curators work together here. We never had the French or the American way of constructing a photographic department. But I was really the advocate of photography within the museum. But MEP is already a great and powerful advocate for photography. I won’t have to convince people. I plan to collaborate with the team, to use their expertise. I see photography as the heart of many intersecting practices. I’m very interested in how photography touches other media: fashion, design, music, performance. I’ve come from this context where photography is embedded in other kinds of practices.

Is this something you’ve tried to accomplish at Tate too?

Yes, the abstract photography exhibition we’ll be showing is a good example. We have many abstract paintings in the show, and works in other media. We’re interested in showing how photographers can be as experimental as other artists in painting or sculpture. The shows we’ve done here, like William Klein or show on performance and photography were exploring how and why photography was so important in relation to art in general.

The last decades somehow saw a rising interest for photography in museums. Tate or Pompidou now have great exhibitions on photography, major departments as well. There is now competition between general museums and historical museums devoted to photography, like MEP. What should be the way for MEP with regards to this balance of power?

The context for photography, the reason for establishing the MEP has changed. When Jean-Luc created the MEP, photography was not broadly understood. It was almost a niche, there were a relatively small number of passionate collectors and curators. They had to argue for the importance of this medium. That moment has passed. Now, everybody has a camera on their phone.

Was the collection one of the main reasons you’ve applied for the direction?

Of course! You know, we have a great collection at Tate but it’s as old as my time here at Tate. Other than national museums, the MEP is the only collecting institution devoted to photography in Paris. It distinguishes itself from Le Bal, The Cartier-Bresson collection or Jeu de Paume. It has a unique role. The job of the new director is to respect and show this collection. To make the most of it, make sure it’s well used. At the same time, we have to accept that photography has changed. We need a global understanding of photography. What we need is to understand new practices in photography as well as respecting its heritage.

About the collection: who would be the artist you’d like to push to the fore?

Until I get there, it’s very hard to think about this. I’ve seen the collection just as the public has. I’ve seen it when it was exhibited in Arles, three years ago. I think until then many people didn’t realize how amazing the collection is. Last summer I was in Paris and they had this wonderful show on their Japanese collection (Mémoire et lumière, photographie japonaise 1950-2000: la donation Dai Nippon Printing Co Ltd). It was breathtaking. It was really well chosen, they were masterpieces.

Is there still a lot of work to have a better understanding of Japanese photography nowadays?

Yes, of course. It’s really just the beginning. The rise of Japanese photography, especially the interest on phonebooks, has only started seriously ten or fifteen years ago. We have only just started to understand what’s important in Japan, like the series based on books. I think we had a fairly superficial view of Japanese photography through several big names but there is more depth and complexity and subtlety still to discover in the history of photography in Japan. In the last years, I’ve been working with the Masahisa Fukase Archive. Fukase was known for Ravens and for a couple of other things. But there is so much work to discover. When you go inside the practice of an artist, you find a lot of treasures to show. Also, with Japan especially we need to understand photography in relations to books. There is another history which lies on the page, rather than on the wall. And you get another tradition. My personal interest for photography came out from surrealist magazines such as La Revolution Surrealiste, Minotaure or Documents where they published Brassaï and Man Ray. So I’m used to thinking about photography on the page. It has changed but I still believe that thinking photography on the page rather than on the wall is relevant today. For many Japanese photographers, for example, the publication was the work. It wasn’t a supplement of the work but the work itself. And often, photographers said, “Oh actually, we never exhibited the whole series on the wall. There was not a demand for walls but for books”. The MEP has an amazing book collection, a wonderful library that helps constitute the history of photography. They were really, really in advance in this respect.

What will be your ideas to develop the museum as a living space?

That’s something any new director would probably say. The way the general public expect to visit a museum has changed. At Tate, people come here and they expect to feel at home, they expect to be warmly welcomed, whether they are young, old, whatever background they’re from. There is a different kind of attitude of people in the museum space. It’s not as though the MEP couldn’t be like that. Times have changed. The museum of the future will be a much more open institution. We must stay very welcoming, very warm, inviting, so that the museum be a warm social space as much as didactic space.

It seems “respect” is one of the keywords in how you conceive directing a museum?

The issue of continuity is directly linked to the issue of perpetuating a collection. If you’re just like a Kunsthalle, a new director can come in and completely rewrite the program. But if you’re in a collecting institution, the collection is the memory of the institution. It doesn’t go away. Everything that is collected in an institution is part of that institutional memory. The difference between the MEP and its neighbors is this amazing memory. A new director can’t erase this memory, they have to draw on this memory to build the future. Of course, I might have different ideas compared to Jean-Luc. We come from different countries and generations. But we probably also have so many things that we agree about. Anyway, when I was reading his introduction in the book on the collection (Une collection. Maison Européenne de la Photographie), I found surprisingly strange that when he set down his rules for collecting it was pretty much what I wrote down when I came to Tate

What would be these rules?

These ideas: collecting in series, collecting in relation to the photo-books, having more works by fewer artists and having the whole series if possible. He started the collection with Robert Frank and William Klein. The first show I’ve started with at Tate was Klein with Moriyama. Even though he started long ago before me, collecting like that was something we agree on. The series is actually often how photographers conceive their work so that’s how we should understand and show it. There is relatively few photographers that would say, “I just make one image and it’s self-contained and hermetic”. It’s quite unusual. And showing a series helps the public. The more of the work you show, the less wall label you need (laugh).

What’s your vision of the French photographic environment compared to the British one?

Well, I would say there is one [environment in France] (laugh). Here, in London, it’s very small, it’s relatively low-profile. We’ve tried to increase this and there have been some successes. Publishing, for example, is really good here. But we still have relatively very few galleries dedicated to photography. We still have only one dedicated institution (The Photographer’s Gallery). If you compare that with Paris, whether they are four, it’s really, really different.

Right after my nomination at MEP, many photography journalists from newspapers and magazines wanted to speak with me. And they just aren’t as many specialised photography journalists in England. While in France, I’ve done interviews with France Inter, with Le Monde, Paris Match, Le Figaro. That level of press wouldn’t cover photography in England. It’s not that important. It’s very, very different. Two years ago, your former president Francois Hollande came to Arles. I can’t imagine a Prime Minister or Head of State coming to a photography festival in the UK. When you had a Cartier-Bresson exhibition at Pompidou, you had nearly half a million visitors. It’s unbelievable that this could happen here. That’s what we had for Damien Hirst or Matisse. The level of scrutiny, the enthusiasm in France is much stronger. It doesn’t mean I’m negative about England. Working here was great, and I am happy to have contributed to the enthusiasm for photography.

Are you happy with the work you accomplished in the UK?

I think we have just started here. There were some advances and defeats. We’ve done a lot of photography shows at Tate. Whitechapel has done brilliant exhibitions too. And of course, PhotoLondon has started up. There is a long way to go before we reach the same level as France.


Interview by Arthur Dayras

Arthur Dayras est un auteur spécialisé en photographie qui vit et travaille à Paris.

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