by Taous Dahmani
This year, Photo Oxford focuses on women. The 2020 festival highlights the variety of their viewpoints and relationships with photography. Asking myself what photography meant to others, I interviewed 6 women working with/for/on photography. They are all women for whom I have tremendous respect and it was a pleasure to be able to ask them 4 questions each, curious to hear their personal and professional photography stories. All these interviews are considered as a continuation of the conference « Let Us Now Praise Famous Women : Discovering the work of Female Photographers » This interview features curator Damarice Amao.
Dr Damarice Amao is an art and photography historian and curator. She currently works at the French National Museum of Contemporary Art (Pompidou Centre). She is a specialist in inter-war photography and Surrealism, she recently co-curated a show on painter, poet and photographer Dora Maar (1907-1997) which travelled to Tate Modern last year.
Taous R. Dahmani: Where does your interest in photography come from? Can you tell me about your first photographic passions?
My initial interest in photography stems from a personal amateur practice that began before I started my art history studies, stimulated by a fairly old family passion for the medium. Of course, it was not a question of taking great photographs, nor even of exercising enlightened amateur practice with thorough knowledge and darkroom practice. But, at home, as in many families, we always had cameras and camcorders lying around — the simple ones you can get from any old shop. It was very important for my mother to have a camera at home, so she regularly bought them through mail order catalogues such as La Redoute [editor's note: similar to Brian Mills]. We had disposables, compacts, I even remember a very rudimentary digital camera. They functioned more or less well, and took photos of more or less good quality. Next to the albums, in a cupboard, there were these devices which quickly became obsolete. Because of careless handling, my brothers, sisters and I quickly damaged them and then they vegetated for a while in the cupboard because film processing was not included in our budget. We used to take traditional photos of events such as parties and birthdays, but there are also a lot of photos that we used to take to play — portraits without primers, badly framed, not well taken, burnt with flash — which also show a bit of our daily life at the time.
When I arrived in Paris in 2002, at the age of 18, to study, I became more seriously interested in photography, during my preparatory/foundation course (prépa littéraire) and even more as I started reading art history. Alongside the photos I took with my Olympus OM-1, all manual, bought second-hand on Ebay (I had 3 successive ones), I borrowed loads of photobooks from the Georges Brassens library in the 14th arrondissement, which had a great collection. Surrealism, which is one of my other passions, came later on. At first it was mostly black and white documentary photography: Eugene Richards, Eugene Smith, William Klein and also Japanese photography. My knowledge really came through photographers' books; these were objects that fascinated me and that I still love, more than ever. Nan Goldin's Devil's Playground is one of the first photobooks I bought for myself, in a book shop located in the south of Paris. I don't know why but it was cheaper there than elsewhere ; but it was still expensive for me! I bought it after going to see it 3 or 4 times. I still have it of course: with the original protective plastic cover! Yes, I’m a bit of a photobook nerd.
Then, I discovered Parisian venues that held photo exhibitions, there were not many of them at the time: the MEP and the Jeu de Paume. And one day, I don't know how, I was 19 or 20 years old, I saw somewhere that there was a photo festival in the south of France, in Arles. So we went there with a friend, first for a day and then almost every year in the middle of August for longer visits. At university, at the beginning I didn't think I would specialize in photography, I hesitated for a long time between 18th century French art, Islamic arts and photography. But then photography won out since it had become part of my everyday life outside my classes. I liked that it was a practice / an art on the fringe: it questioned the hierarchy of artistic genres. At the time I also followed Françoise Ducros’ classes on the inter-war period, which captivated me because, at last, there was a course entirely dedicated to the medium, which explained its history and its implications. It wasn't easy — and it’s probably still the case today — to benefit from in-depth courses on the history of photography. I still have the notebook in which I meticulously recorded my notes.
Taous R. Dahmani: How did you discover Dora Maar's work? Can you tell me about a particular work that resonates with you personally?
It was at university that my passion for photography was combined with my passion for surrealism. During the two years of my Master's degree I worked on the link between photography and surrealism in Belgium. A subject that had been entrusted to me by one of my professors at the time, Guillaume Le Gall, who was working with the curators of the MNAM / Centre Pompidou (Quentin Bajac and Clément Chéroux) and Michel Poivert on the exhibition "La Subversion des images" (2009). The exhibition project was an opportunity to launch students on research topics that would accompany this re-reading of surrealism's relationship with photography. For two years, I browsed through archives in Belgium and of course, in parallel, I forged my knowledge of Surrealism and its key figures: Dora Maar, but also Eli Lotar, Jacques-André Boiffard, Brassaï along with magazines and photomontages. On the occasion of my master's degree and the exhibition at the Centre, I did an internship, helping the curators to plunder countless numbers of magazines of the period. We needed to index all the photographs we found in these journals. At the same time, I acquired knowledge about the MNAM's collection: the Lotar collection, which was not inventoried at the time and which became my thesis subject, but also the collection of negatives by Dora Maar, which was added to the collection in 2004. When I took up my position as Curatorial Assistant in 2014, after my PhD, one of my first assignments was to carry out an inventory of the artist's negative collection.
One of my favorite Dora Maar's work is probably a collage entitled Danger held in a private collection. The image is an enigmatic scene depicting two men on a beach. One of the men, in profile, is dressed in Belle Epoque style and he raises both his arms in the air like a magician, a medium, or a puppeteer. The other man has his back to us and is kneeling with his arms raised too, but mimicking the gestures of an arrest of sorts. It looks like it could be on the cover of a detective book or be the poster of a popular soap opera. I love this image but we don't know much about it, not even its real title. I wonder what it meant to Dora Maar.
Taous R. Dahmani: Dora Maar has long lived in the shadow of her partner Pablo Picasso, sometimes reduced to the role of the muse and leaving aside her wide and diverse artistic production. Can you tell me what is at stake, as a historian and curator, to get out of this persistent narrative?
Thanks to her relationship with Picasso, Dora Maar has been the object of special attention. Authors, mostly women, and from all walks of life were often more interested in her relationship with Pablo Picasso than in her work as such. So this gave rise to many stories, and sometimes fantasized testimonies about their so called ‘destructive love affair’. When dealing with this type of figure, embedded in myths and rumours, subject to a prolific literature, it is necessary to take time to situate one's work, one's approach, one's identity as a researcher. Together with Karolina Lewandowska, with whom I curated the exhibition in Paris, in the course of our work we took the time to discuss our positioning as art and photography historians. What working methods should be adopted, and what should be the limits, in the face of all these stories and gossip, mostly focused on the number and identity of her lovers or her supposedly bad temper. And we both agreed that our role was not to deal with slander. Biographical aspects of her life, backed up by sources and not by hearsay, were only useful to us when it enlightened us about an aspect of her work, her art, her intellect and her plastic choices. For us and our colleague Amanda Maddox, curator at the Getty Museum, with whom we designed the exhibition and did the research, it was very clear from the outset that it was her trajectory as a photographer that we wanted to highlight. Numerous shadowy areas remained, and still remain, as exemplified by her commercial work for fashion or illustration work. Dora Maar is an exciting example of how one takes up photography to evolve socially and economically, but also to invent oneself and to contribute to photographers being recognized as creative authors. In the context of a monograph, the biographical dimension is difficult to get rid of completely, but one must always think about its rightful place. We did not want to make a Picasso / Dora Maar exhibition. Firstly, because Picasso does not necessarily ‘need us’ and an umpteenth exhibition on his work, and secondly because historical accuracy invited us to place this encounter into perspective in her wider trajectory. It is a fine example of a loving and artistic complicity. However, Dora Maar's career began long before her history with Picasso and continued long afterwards. We wanted to refute the idea that after her affair with Picasso, she became nothing, that she had been completely washed away intellectually and artistically by this story, as is often repeated in the writings dedicated to her. However, historical honesty and the sources force us to admit that Dora Maar survived and lived after Picasso: discreetly, perhaps, but still as an artist and as a painter. Let’s not forget that post-Picasso, Maar had a career of almost 50 years! We couldn't sweep that away. And she held on to her identity as an artist and a painter, even if she neglected her career as a photographer. Although at the end of her life, she seemed to find a kind of balance between these two mediums with her light paintings made in the darkroom.
Taous R. Dahmani: If we consider the history of exhibitions, we are currently living at an interesting moment that tries to shed light on women artists and photographers long ignored by cultural institutions. How do you analyse this phenomenon and how do you see it evolving?
I think this is a very positive and exciting trend. It's not just ‘cosmetics’. Even if sometimes, the way in which certain institutions can communicate on gender — as well as on racial, political, ethical, ecological issues — can be questionable and give rise to a certain amount of scepticism. What are institutions doing in an effective and real way to improve women's working conditions? Or to ensure better visibility of minorities? And what are they doing for sustainability? Are they questioning their managerial methods? Are they reconsidering their internal conception of democracy? The sharing of decisions and the spirit of consultation? But that is maybe another subject ...
As far as looking at women photographers and artists is concerned, it is of course great in terms of recognition. However, in my opinion, exhibitions are not or should not be mere ‘rehabilitation’ ventures. To complete the history of ‘Great’ male artists with the history of ‘Great’ female artists is not the goal; this very type of construction of history is problematic. Thanks to these new perspectives, considering women artists/photographers, we discover and rediscover whole sections of visual creation which allow us to improve our knowledge of a period or of alternative artistic strategies. It is above all a wealth, an opportunity for all audiences, from researchers to amateurs.
Alongside this trend in favor of women, it is also, at least I hope, the idea that the careers of artists who do not necessarily fit into usual artistic recognition — which in short disrupt the classic definition of what constitutes a ‘work of art’— can also have their place in institutions. The trend in favour of women in institutions is a sign that institutions have realised that they cannot simply convey double standards and that declarations on a so called universalism are no longer enough. Statistics are cruel. But it is now necessary to be concrete in exhibition programming and acquisitions. This is possible today because there are professionals, women directors and women curators who are also more mobilised and more feminist in their approach to their work. They are not necessarily activists in the traditional sense, but they are aware that they have a role to play within their own institutions by taking a leading role in programming decisions, in the choice of acquisitions in favour of women photographers and artists.