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Weston Naef, itinerary of a great passion

Over the course of forty years, Weston Naef served as curator at two of American’s most prestigious museums. He began his career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then joined the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for which he proceeded to acquire one of the world’s largest photography collections. It has been a long career distinguished by exhibitions devoted to the medium’s pioneers, including William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Gustave Le Gray, Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, Dorothea Lange, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Carleton Watkins. The preparation of a book devoted to the latter was one of the most demanding undertakings of his career. La Lettre spoke to the voluble curator over coffee one sunny Sunday morning in Chelsea.

Jonas Cuénin : Weston, you have had a long and distinguished career and you remain active today. How did you first come to photography?

Weston Naef : I first came to photography through French engraving, which I studied at university. I chose to write my dissertation on French print-makers working at the same time as Honoré Daumier. Then I applied for an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was accepted in the summer of 1969, and where I was quickly invited to work in the museum’s department of prints and illustrated books, which also included the rare photographs. At the time, I had only a basic knowledge of photography. I had seen Nadar’s portraits of Daumier, but until then I had been interested in photography mainly for its parallel evolution with lithography in the 1840s. Suddenly I fell in love with the medium.

Jonas Cuénin : You began at the Met, but then after…

Weston Naef : In 1970, the Met hired me as a full-time employee. I stayed there until 1984, when I left for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where I served as their curator of photography for almost twenty-five years.

Jonas Cuénin : What was the Getty’s photography department like when you arrived?

Weston Naef : It practically didn’t exist. I persuaded the director, John Walsh, and other executives to start collecting photography. We acquired about twenty different collections at once, and six or seven in their entirety.

Jonas Cuénin : What role did the curator Daniel Wolf play in these acquisitions?

Weston Naef : Daniel and I worked closely together.

Jonas Cuénin : What impact did this event have on the world of photography?

Weston Naef : It changed everything overnight. These thousands of rare items were suddenly the center of the art market’s attention. Collectors wanted to sell their collections at what they considered to be fair prices, according to both the rarity and fame of the images. They said to themselves: “If the Getty is buying photography, maybe we should sell now.” Museums and art collectors who only used to buy paintings, drawings and sculptures began to take a great interest in photography. It was the apogee of photojournalism, and also a period of transformation for journalism itself. Life shut its doors not long after. When the Getty decided to purchase photojournalism, some works of photojournalism became artworks.

Jonas Cuénin : What do you think now, looking back on the Getty’s acquisition policy over the past twenty-five years?

Weston Naef : I feel proud, certainly. I put in place a policy that seems to me today to be very important. It is indispensable to collect the work of the best photographers in the greatest possible number of prints. Among the fifty photographers most represented in our collection, there are about a thousand by Walker Evans, a thousand by August Sander, two hundred by Le Gray, two hundred by Fenton, one hundred and fifty by Kertész, etc.

Jonas Cuénin : And what about their publication?

Weston Naef : We have worked to offer a variety of publications. We have smaller, more affordable books that provide the opportunity to discover the major figures of the medium. And we have more substantial and expensive books intended for professionals, curators, collectors and journalists.

Jonas Cuénin : You have organized so many exhibitions over the course of your career. Do you have a favorite?

Weston Naef : How could I? Well, if I have to respond, I would probably say Manuel Alvarez Bravo, for the beauty of the story behind it. A ninety-year old man called me one day and came in with sixty photos by Don Manuel, all of the highest quality. He brought them in a cardboard laundry box.

Jonas Cuénin : Carleton Watkins is surely the photographer that you have cherished the most over the past thirty years. How did you discover his work, which is largely forgotten in today’s history books?

Weston Naef : I first encountered him during an exhibition that I organized for the Met in 1975, Era of Exploration. It featured the work of five photographers: Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Andrew Russell and Carleton Watkins. I noticed that Watkins was rarely represented in exhibitions on the same theme and in encyclopedias of photography. When I saw his photographs, I immediately recognized how underestimated his work had been. I subsequently noticed that several pieces to his life’s puzzle were missing. A few of the mysteries proved very difficult to solve. I studied his work and reassembled the pieces over the course of fifteen years. Then another fifteen years were necessary to complete and publish the catalogue that will come out this week. The book is nonetheless a group effort.

Jonas Cuénin : Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs is your latest work, but it is hardly your only work. What importance does it have for photography?

Weston Naef : The tragedy of Carleton Wakins’ life is that he took pictures before they could be mechanically reproduced. He could only supply publishers with his photos by giving his clients original albumen prints, or sometimes even the original negatives. If he had only lived longer, he would have welcomed the era of photographic reproduction with open arms. For photographers, if you cannot reproduce your images, you risk falling into obscurity. That’s the story of Carleton Watkins.

This interview was conducted by Jonas Cuénin. It has been back-translated from the French.

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