5 x 7
By Lena Fritsch
By Lena Fritsch
This year, Photo Oxford focusses on women. Wondering what photography means to others, I’m interviewing 5 women working with photography in different parts of the world. I ask them 7 questions each, curious to hear their individual photography stories. The third interview features Munich-based photography curator Franziska Kunze.
Dr Franziska Kunze (b.1984, Rostock) is an art and photography historian, who was appointed as head of photography and media art at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, earlier this year.
After studying art and visual history at the University of Greifswald, Humboldt-University, Berlin and Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Kunze was awarded a fellowship in the ‘Museum Curators for Photography’ programme by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Stiftung in 2017. This lead her to work with the photography collections of the Münchner Stadtmuseum, Museum Folkwang in Essen, Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Fotomuseum Winterthur. Prior to joining the Pinakothek, Kunze worked as a curator of contemporary art at LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster.
Lena Fritsch: Do you remember when and how you first became interested in photography?
Franziska Kunze: Photographs have always accompanied my life. At the beginning, however, this was just through slides documenting our family life in the ‘80s. It was always a special moment for me when my parents set up the projector, screening images and their particular colourfulness onto the wallpaper. In a more academic sense, photography struck me when reading a contribution by Bettina Uppenkamp in the 1998 Annual Review of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Her text was concerned with the political and socio-cultural dimensions of photography. I increasingly noticed that this medium is used and perceived in an unbelievably ambivalent way. It almost always oscillates between documentary, staged, and abstract. This contradiction still fascinates me today!
In your PhD thesis and book you have examined photographs that challenge their alleged transparency and which are characterised by a distinctive opacity. Could you briefly tell me about this research?
We should all know better by now but at first sight we still mostly view a photograph as some kind of a document. As if it was a window to the world. This might indeed apply to most photographs: they usually show something that was – in one way or another – in front of the camera or on a light sensitive film carrier. So there exists a mimetic-indexical connection. However, in analogue photography, there are photographs that don’t show anything at all: no motif, not even any vague contours. They only show themselves: their chemical substance or their carrier material. To me, these are very special works that tell me a lot about the nature of this varied medium photography. At the same time, they are difficult to read and understand. But actually, they are extremely open-hearted as they reveal their deepest inside to us. However, we have never learnt to look at photographs this way. I call them ‘opaque’ because we don’t look ‘through’ them but rather just ‘at’ them. I received most answers to my questions when browsing through historic photo journals. Overall, this was a very exciting and extremely informative journey.
Supported by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Stiftung Fellowship you worked in four different photography collections, including the Folkwang Museum, Fotomuseum Winterthur and V&A. These institutions vary in size, they have distinctive photography collections and you worked in three different countries. Could you tell me about your experiences – what were the most important lessons you learnt about curating photography?
This fellowship is unique and it’s a wonderful opportunity. The fact that every six months you are taken out from your work and private life to begin completely anew at a different place is actually a strength of this programme. It allows you to encounter a wide spectrum of institutions, collections, people and ways of working in just two years. The variety of institutional structures that you are confronted with seems very important. To me, it was key to learn early on that things work differently at different places with the individual institution often playing a key role. And whilst ‘hopping’ through different countries, the fellows have an opportunity to naturally build a dense network in the photography scene. This can result in many collaborations and that’s really nice. Last but not least, all these wonderful photography collections. They all have very specific approaches and therefore different holdings. It would not be possible to just stay within one’s own comfort zone. I experienced many surprises that inspired thoughts into directions which I had not really considered before.
The most important lessons?! That’s a good question! I guess, I took with me to remain open and curious, willing to move into areas beyond my own preferences. An important lesson was realising that the individual presentation of works has a crucial impact on the viewers’ perception. In that sense, one should be aware of the responsibility of curating photography in particular but also of works of art in general.
What do you like best about working as a photography curator in a museum?
I like this wonderful mix of looking after a collection on the one hand and discovering new positions outside of this collection on the other. And of course a museum collection provides a lot of room for new discoveries, once you manage to delve deeper into storage. At the same time, it’s absolutely amazing to expand your horizon and discuss with the other curators, looking at their collections and thinking about synergies between different works that can be shown to visitors in an accessible way.
This summer you started your new job as Head of Photography and Media Art at Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich. Congratulations again! The museum has collected works of photography and new media for quite a while. What do you like about this collection and what are its challenges?
First of all, I love the combination of photography and new media art. To combine these two areas is smart and pioneering. It’s definitely a challenge to work with an existing and such complex collection, considering the fact that usually you just see the tip of the iceberg at the beginning. In addition, every collection should have a certain focus. My collection has a clear focus on documentary photography but it also features some staged and conceptual positions. It is challenging to complement the holdings in a meaningful way while also expanding them and filling gaps.
If you had to pick just one photograph in the collection of the Pinakothek der Moderne, which one would be your favourite and why?
Phew, that’s always a tricky question … I have only just begun discovering the collection properly. Whenever I open new racks or boxes, I tend to fall in love again. Therefore, I can answer this question only with reservations but I think that Garry Winogrand’s 1970 photograph of the Peace Demonstration in Central Park, New York City is particularly strong. It appears to be autumn and the ground is covered with maple and oak tree leaves, and countless people lie on newspapers on the ground, while hundreds of white and black balloons are rising in the sky. The photograph obviously exactly catches the moment when demonstrators can’t stay still anymore and begin to turn around – the image they are presented with in the sky is just too impressive. As the horizon line is slightly tilted you could think that even the photographer was moved, perhaps not looking through the finder of his camera but pressing the shutter, whilst viewing the spectacle with his own eyes. But actually, this would mean falling for Winogrand’s tricks because when looking at other photographs, it becomes obvious that he tilted the horizon line quite often. But it’s precisely this tension between objectivity and subjectivity, and this particular moment in time that I find fascinating when viewing photographs.
Museum posts for curators specialising in photography are still rare. Do you have any advice for young students who want to work in this field?
When I was still at university and began to engage with photography more, the wish to examine this genre carefully started to grow inside of me: I wanted to either teach it at uni or stage exhibitions of photography. I often asked myself if it is a good idea to focus on it so much as this could make me less attractive on the wider art job market. However, my love for photography was strong and so I just followed my gut feeling. At the same time, I have never forgotten to look beyond my media-specific horizon, which is extremely important! So my advice would be: trust your instincts, be curious, and when you see chances, grasp and use them!
Thank you, Franziska!