Sheyi Bankale (SB): Do you agree that there is a huge wealth of photo artists based in Zurich?
Urs Stahel (US): That is correct, because it has become the centre within the last fifteen years, so everybody from the other parts of Switzerland tends to come to Zurich. Zurich is a major centre, and maybe Geneva as the French counterpart.
SB: The Fotomuseum Winterthur is the iconic home for photography, not only in Switzerland, but arguably, within Europe. It is of interest how Swiss photography has been realized?
US: I have been one of very few writers on Swiss photography over the last twenty years, summarizing what happened from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, and the achieve of the Nineties. Then I curated a show here called Young, of young photography in Switzerland, around 1999. In 2006, Thomas Seelig and I curated Reale Fantasien or Real Fantasies – that was a project on Swiss photography. And of course there’s a new generation coming in which I shall write a new text on Swiss photography now, in part because the Swiss Foundation for Photography will celebrate its fortieth birthday in 2011. Steered by director Peter Pfrunder and the conservateur Martin Gasser, the Foundation do a tremendous job by contacts photographers over seventy years old who have incredible archives and they try to inventorize these archives and make them publicly available. I guess they have a collection of maybe 100,000 photographs, all Swiss photography.
SB: So what are the ideals of the Fotomuseum?
US: That is an interesting question […] I have developed here certain ideas, right from the beginning, when I was asked to do a museum of photography at a time when the art scenes started to recognize photography, started to show photography – early Nineties. I developed a major mission, a guiding idea of this museum, saying we follow three major lines. We behave like an art space when we show contemporary photography artists. When we show Paul Strand or Atget etc. we behave more like a classical photo museum, but with a difference. I’m not interested in the purely historical side; I like to know what does this photography tell us today? Why do we look at Eugène Atget today? And when we show industrial images, or The Ecstasy of Things, or medical photography, fashion photography, architectural photography, we act more like a sociological, cultural, historical museum. In this case the aesthetic value of an image is not the most important criteria, but the social value of this image, what has it done to us […]
SB: How do you orientate the display of the Fotomuseum collection?
US: We look at our collection and make every year a new perspective. We call it the ‘slow-motion show’ because it runs for seven or eight months. At the beginning of the series of shows, Thomas and I were co-curating, now for a while he is curating them alone. Right now he is preparing for a show called Labour opening on 10th September. We select from maybe 4,000 or 5,000 photographs from our collection. This allows us different debates for example to use a certain image in two or three shows, in different contexts to explain how a photographic work changes its meaning through the context in which you are showing it. Every year we have a selection of 70 to 150 photographs on display. Online you have access to much more. You can be in Tokyo, London or in Singapore, and able to have access to eighty-five to ninety percent of our collection.
SB: Is there a specific profile to the curatorial practice? I mean can I walk in and say “This is a show curated by Urs Stahel“, or “This is a show curated by Thomas Seelig”?
US: Being for one second not ashamed to say what we did in the last seventeen years here, most of the shows looked much better than elsewhere. One of the reasons is that we have the chance to install in a really interesting building that has an extremely good size. It is not very high, it is not very big. The rooms are intimate but not closed, the openings are big, we worked hard on the shape when building the museum. The second thing is that I had a mission in saying I’m sure it is possible to make a good photo show. I have seen in the Eighties so many boring photo shows in big museums. At that time I was talking and writing on this, saying that I prefer to buy the catalogue and go home, sitting in a chair, having a glass of wine or a coffee, and looking at the photographs. It’s a much better pleasure to form an idea of the photography in this way than to see a boringly installed show and therefore I started the museum with an emphasis on this point. I wanted to make attractive photo shows. I wanted to seduce with attractive shows, that you love to be here, that you love to stay in this space […]
SB: Do you mostly buy or acquire donations for the collection?
US: It’s a complete mixture of buying, donating – by an artist, by a collector, by a company – and then there is all this mixture that we call ‘partly bought, partly given’. When you deal with an artist, you may want ten images, you pay for five or six, and the photographer is willing to donate the rest. We have to live on donations, we need donations but we try to control the donations. We don’t accept photographs that Thomas or I don’t have a reaction to.
SB: Obviously you are publicly funded by the city of Winterthur and the canton of Zurich, so is there an underlying structure to support local artists within the collection?
US: No, there is no underlying idea to support specifically local artists. First of all, when we started the museum, we said we don’t collect right away. We want to start here a lively centre of photography, where there is a permanent debate on photography. So for the first five years, we didn’t collect actively, but received some donations. Maybe ten years ago we started actively. Thomas Seelig came to work as the first major curator of the collection. The idea from the very beginning was to collect from the Sixties onwards, we don’t go back actively. If someone wants to make a donation of Atget photographs we would accept it immediately but we don’t want to collect five years of money to buy one Paul Strand, this would be ridiculous, as there are American museums that have fifty Paul Strands. We collect from the Sixties onwards not only for pragmatic reasons; this is also the time of important changes of the way we look at photography. Live TV took over the first part in visually reporting the world and art started to use photography in the Sixties. So you could say there is a parameter change in the Sixties. We do collect nationally, but our focus is internationally. Unfortunately, in the last ten years, prices of photography have inflated. It was a hard time because my conviction was always: the museum buys an artist, the museum buys attitudes, and to recognize attitudes you have to wait a while to understand and know who will be an important artist. Now this attitude was possible until maybe the early Nineties. In the meantime the prices have risen like mad! And new collectors don’t donate easily. They buy the works; show it around, and then they bring it back to the auction house to make money out of it. So there we have a double problem and museums cannot compete. That means we have to buy now much earlier, or we also try to buy art that the art market forgets right now but we think is very important work. Within that frame there are Swiss artists, but we don’t concentrate on Swiss art, we don’t have a specific budget for that. We have now a small specific budget to buy very young art, and we have a general budget to buy out of the exhibitions, the way we select shows should be reflected in the collection.