Makeda Best: What Does Landscape Photography Say About Our Politics?
A discussion about how photography as an art form intersects with cultural history and social reform
WHAT DOES LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY SAY ABOUT OUR POLITICS? Makeda Best, curator of photography at the Harvard Art Museums and a visiting professor of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, shares her insights on landscape photographers, as well as photographers of war and protest, capture their historical moments, and what their work says about cultural history and politics. Topics discussed include Best’s research on Alexander Gardner, a Civil War photographer who was also active in the worker’s rights movement, her current book project on American landscape photography, and Devour the Land, the current exhibit she curated at the Harvard Art Museums.
A transcript from the interview (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview):
Lydialyle Gibson: What do photographs, whether photojournalism, fine art photography, images of war, or protest, or everyday life, tell us about the world we live in? And about the social and cultural histories we're a part of? How do ways of seeing the same image change over time? And what can we learn from what they have to say?
Makeda Best is Menschel curator of photography at the Harvard Art Museums, and a visiting faculty member in Harvard's Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies. She studied studio photography at the California Institute of the Arts, where she earned an MFA, and she has a PhD from Harvard in the history of art and architecture. Her scholarly interest focuses on 19th and 20th century photography, with a special interest in photojournalism, documentary, and war photography. She has written essays and articles on photography and incarceration, and on class and labor in 19th century American photography. Her book, Elevate the Masses: Alexander Gardner, Photography, and Democracy in 19th century America, was released in 2020, and ties together the visual storytelling and social reform activities of a civil war photographer who was also deeply involved in the international workers' rights movement. Her current book project centers on landscape photography.
As curator at the Harvard Art Museums, Best's exhibitions include crossing lines, constructing home, displacement and belonging in contemporary art, co-curated with Mary Schneider Enriquez, Time is Now: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin's America, and currently on display through January 16 in the museum's newly reopened galleries, Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970. This fall, the museums launched ReFrame a museum-wide initiative led by Best to reimagine the function and future of the university art museum. ReFrame will examine difficult histories and untold stories in the museum's artworks, and experiment with new approaches to the collections, reflecting the concerns of our world today. Professor Best, welcome to Ask a Harvard Professor.
Makeda Best: Thank you very much. Wonderful to be here.
Lydialyle Gibson: I wanted to ask you first about the ReFrame initiative. Could you explain in concrete terms, what the initiative is about and how it came to be? What inspired this effort?
Makeda Best: I think that what it's about will evolve over time as each curator and division interprets it. But my interests were in inspiring my colleagues, and my colleagues throughout the museum, not just in curatorial, to reexamine and engage in a process of self-reflection on the histories that we tell on our walls, our processes of creating exhibitions, the fields in which we work, and the literal museum, as an institution. And so, there were kind of four different areas of thinking that I imagined would take place. And each of them touched on those different aspects: curatorial practice, the fields that were in the museum as institution, and the Harvard Art Museums own history as an institution. So I think over the next couple years, you will begin to see my colleagues kind of interpreting the ideas that we explored in relation to that. So I came up with this framework and some ideas around what each one might address. And now my colleagues and I are, you know, responding to those? How did it come about? I was a graduate student here. I finished about a decade ago now. And one of the things I learned teaching in the galleries, well, it just gave me a lot of exposure to you know, how students think. And I really enjoyed interacting with students in a wide variety of ways through teaching. So I thought about this current moment, and what students today were teaching me about museums and about museum practice and their thoughts on those institutions and on curatorial practice. And I really felt like the Harvard Art Museums had not really confronted these issues yet. I mean, we've done so in a kind of, sort of piecemeal fashion—you know, we've made various acquisitions, we had had a few installations—but there wasn't a kind of organized discussion.
But at the same time, I knew that students really wanted us to have that discussion. And it's been taking place at other institutions. And so I thought about what might it look like here. I was also very much inspired by the work of the photography collection here in which the early curator, Davis Pratt, really thought about how the collection functioned. That is, the collection that's in storage, the collection that a curator builds, but also, but what that collection means on the wall. So that idea was something that I, or those kinds of practices that he engaged in have always been something that I've thought about, and I tried to apply that to the thinking around ReFrame.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay. And Harvard, I mean, museums like Harvard's that are at universities, the sort of position that they occupy as a teaching museum, is sort of a central part of this reimagining, is that right?
Makeda Best: Yes. And it's something that I think about a lot as a photo historian, as someone who works in a medium that, you know, perhaps more than any other young people are continuing with. But of which they don't really know the context, they really know the history—they're using the photographs all the time, but they don't really know about its histories. And so I think about issues of history and context and technique a lot in my own work and scholarship. But in applying that to the academic art museum, you know, this is a place where we're trying to lead another generation in visual literacy. And I think that that's a, that's a challenging thing to do. And, at the same time as we go about our work, young people have their own, you know, they're also more educated about this, in some sense than ever before. So I thought that this could be a way for us to really immerse ourselves in contemporary issues around museum practice and in thinking about, well what does it mean to be an academic museum today, when a lot of other museums are taking up the kind of academic mandate in their own way? But how does it you know, how is it, how is it different from when I was a young person when you don't have, you know, students who come and they know, you know, the history of the Renaissance to the art of the present? So how does our work change? How do the stories that we need to tell change? And what do young people need to know now? So I saw this as a way for us to think about those questions. And it really is a, a project that I think is interesting in that it, I thought it should be something that museum-wide, we should engage in. That shouldn't just be curators, but that it should recognize the labor and the work and the insight of colleagues throughout the museums. You know, even the first iteration of ReFrame, and the thinking about the different sightlines, you know, that idea came from my own kind of thinking of looking around the museum and saying, "Wow, there isn't one sightline was dedicated to someone who, you know, is living or an African American person or a person of color. Why is that?" But it also came from my colleagues who said that they wish that they saw other spaces in the museum that could be more fluid. So, the exhibition, the project really is about sharing ideas and thinking together and acknowledging how we're all a part of a kind of curatorial project.
Okay, for listeners who are not, you know, as versed in museum practices, can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by sightlines and how they work?
Makeda Best: Oh, yeah, I'm sorry. Yeah. So the sightline is, when those are the, the lines of sight when you walk into a museum, they are the works in the hallway, they are the works that are framed by the pillars, they are works that really function as anchors within the architectural space. And on the first floor, for example, we have, you know, three major kind of entry points where you look, and you see this artwork from a distance. And I thought that it would be great to shift what we present there.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay. Okay. Do you have—I mean, I know this is a project that just got started, but do you have an example of a difference in the sightlines from the changes you've made this fall?
Makeda Best: So there was a, for forever, you know, one of our cherished works is a work by Jackson Pollock. And that is now, there's a work by Kerry James Marshall in that spot. You know, there's the Kehinde Wiley painting, which before had been a Max Beckmann triptych. And then there is an Emile Nolde painting of a mixed race woman instead of another Max Beckmann portrait that had been there. So those are examples, in each instance of a curator really rethinking not only the narrative of the piece that they've used in that location, but also the meaning of that location and how it shifts, the history being told in that gallery.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay. Okay. And ReFrame feels like it's really of a piece with a lot of your other work, as a curator and a scholar, the idea about how photographs can be used to meditate on reality and how visual culture reflects social or political or cultural moments. I just kind of wanted to ask you, it's a question you've answered in other interviews before, but it's really interesting, the way you talk about it, about the question of how that sort of meditation on reality works and how those interpretations change over time as a photograph or a piece of art ages and the world sort of changes around it—or doesn't change around it. I guess I'm thinking specifically about an image that you have talked about in one of your other talks, the Marion Post Walcott photo of the cashiers paying off cotton pickers in Mississippi 1939. But maybe you have another image that that works better as thinking about this.
Makeda Best: Yeah, I think that, I guess it comes from my own personal experience of interacting with photographs that, that they mean different things at different times in my life and in my kind of scholarly journey. But I think that I spoke about that particular photograph and in that way because, you know, it's not necessarily the most famous photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. But it's in our collection. And it stands out for that reason, because we don't have a lot of other works like it. And so the academic museum collections are unusual. And so you begin to see the works in it in a different way. Because you don't have, you know, the greatest hits of every artist, of every work that an artist has made; you don't have necessarily 50 works by that artist. You might have five or six, and they might come from all different periods of the artist’s work. But in that way, you're encouraged to pay attention to that that piece and to think about, well, what does that piece mean? And how can it be used in the gallery spaces in exhibitions? I think that's, that's always a question that we're asking ourselves, How does it work? How do we use it? And that could mean many different things. That means in kind of live teaching sessions in the art study center, it also means in installations and exhibitions, but we're always thinking, well, how does an artwork get used? And also, how can it be used, and what is the range? How can it serve a history class, an English class? How could it serve an economics class? And so we're examining these works for the various narratives that they can engage, and hoping that we can find works that have a broad range of ways to engage various topics, and, you know, modalities of thinking.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay. Okay. You mentioned your own sort of personal history with photography, and you've described it in another interview that I read, as for you, quote, "a way of organizing and understanding the world." And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. And what you mean by that, and, and how it's worked in your own life in that way?
Makeda Best: That's a great question. When I was a child, I've always been drawn to photographs, I collected postcards, and my parents are very interested in African American History and in educating me about that. And so I had a lot of little cards and, you know, games about African American history and calendars. So I was very much kind of immersed in a lot of visual culture. When I was young, there was a series that was on television, and it was called, it was on PBS, I think, was on PBS, it was called Eyes on the Prize. And that's this kind of visual history of the civil rights struggle. And it's largely told through, you know, historical photographs and videos, and the treatment is really interesting. There's a lot of zooming out, and just really activating these images. So I've always had this interest in photography, digital imagery, photo-based imagery, and African American history. But at the same time, I knew, even as a young person, that photography was also a medium that was very, you know, it was also the thing that defined difference in America. It helped to enforce difference. And a lot of what I saw was also personally upsetting. It was work that degraded African Americans. And so there were these two ways of seeing this medium. And, for me, getting into photo history was a way—or it attracted me because I thought it, it was a way of kind of confronting the challenges of the medium, of, you know, I thought to myself, I'm going to kind of understand my own kind of identity as an African American that I needed to understand this medium. I need to somehow immerse myself in both of these aspects of it, that it had these aspects that were very challenging, and also had these aspects that were not necessarily uplifting, but that showed various kinds of histories. So, and when I say that photography was a way of thinking and organizing, I mean, it literally was, for me, as a kid, I have photographs of the kind of arrangements that I would make. And so I would literally kind of curate and bring pictures together and think about, you know, history through these pictures. And in many ways, of course, I didn't know, you know, all the histories that each of these pictures contained, but I was just very drawn to what happens when you put something on a wall and the capacity to change a story, or to make up a story, to create stories. And so, you know, that led me to wanting to be a photographer, and I studied photography at CalArts, which, again, related to that phrase, and it was an education that really emphasized a process and, and a lot of thinking through a process. And that was just perfect for me. I didn't make the best photographs, but that process, or that work, the literal being taught that the work of process, that is work, that is something that has always stayed with me and just enjoying that work, and not necessarily, you know, I don't necessarily always know the outcome. But I think that I've always enjoyed, you know, receiving what the work is telling me and kind of immersing myself in images, and using images as a tool to kind of think through—and when I say think through, I think I really mean, as a tool to acknowledge what isn't written, and what isn't able to be explained and spoken. That's what I really mean, when I say think through. It is, it is for me a way to acknowledge those things. And even to, at the same time as photography allows for that acknowledgement, it also, I think, puts us in a position of just having to sit with that, that what we see is what we have. There isn't an ending, there isn't another version, you know, there isn't necessarily a story that's known out of it, we can't necessarily put it into words. But it's there in that picture. And so I was always drawn to that kind of ambiguity, as an exercise and the value of that.
Lydialyle Gibson: Ok. Ok. And sort of spectatorship, the sort of ethics involved in and the responsibility involved in spectatorship of images as well as the making of them.
Makeda Best: I mean, I do think that there's an ethics of spectatorship, but I think that that's a, that's something separate. I think, in when I'm talking, when I'm saying that, using photography as a way to think through and to interact with the world in that way, I'm not thinking necessarily about ethics—I'm thinking about my own real kind of personal salvation, actually. It became a way to, to understand and to live with a history that I didn't have access to, and didn't necessarily see and didn't, you know, couldn't recover. And so, photography became a way for me to interact with that history that was largely unknown. I think, you know, now we know a lot more, you know, we have many more books, and people know a lot more about the African American experience. But at the time, for me, I was much younger thae of course. We did know of course, a lot, but I didn't know. But it was a way for me to interact with it, with a history that I wanted to be a part of—even the hard parts, I wanted to be kind of aware of that, and I wanted to take that in, and photography allowed for that.
Lydialyle Gibson: Do you remember what some of the images were that were important to you at that time?
Makeda Best: They were a lot of the images from the Eyes on the Prize, you know, the, the images of the young kids being sprayed by—they were filmic, they were both film and photo, the fire hoses, a lot of anonymous photographs as well, lynching photographs. But then the other photographs I was also really drawn to was I saw an exhibition. My first photo book that I owned was a book called I Dream a World by Brian Lanker, and it was a portrait series of African American women. And I remember that I also had the calendar, and I took apart the calendar, and I kind of rearranged it on my wall. But that was a key book for me. You had an interview, or a story, and then you had the portrait. And you know, it was women like Toni Morrison, these kinds of figures, but I just remember looking at the text, and seeing everything that they talked about in these texts and their lives and what they'd struggled and what they've been through and what they achieved, and then looking at this portrait. And I remember, I was just very taken with the difference between, how does the portrait speak, and how does photography tell us something about a life of a person? And what do texts tell us? And so that's what I mean about photography allowed to access other aspects of, of humanity, that are captured through this medium, but that are, you know, that we struggle in words to really describe. And that's what that Marion Post Wolcott picture is about for me, you know, what does it mean for this person to have to reach through this window? How dehumanizing was that to have to reach your hand through that tiny window or to look into that room and to see all this paper and texts, and probably not to be able to read yourself? And that's what the photograph for me is recovering, that experience. But it's not something that's written down.
Cashiers Paying Off Cotton Pickers, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.
Lydialyle Gibson: Yeah. We'd like to put that image on the website. But for people who are just listening, can you give us sort of a quick description of what that image shows?
Makeda Best: Yes. So it's unusual. So Marion Post Wolcott was traveling in Mileston, Mississippi, and she made a series of photographs of field workers that, they're receiving their pay for cotton they've picked. And so she made a couple of photographs outside of the workers. And then our photograph is one where she comes inside, and so she's on the other side of the glass, and the photograph depicts two cashiers. And what really drew me to the photograph was the way in which the two cashiers are dressed, they have impeccable clothing, I mean, you can literally see the starch in their shirts, and they're, the sheen on the vest that one of them wears, and one of them wears a hat. I don't know what the style is, but it's a fancy, it's a, you know, a fedora or something and it. And you see him in profile, and the hat is just very crisp. And he, you know, he has on suspenders, and he has on a shirt, and so does the cashier next to him. And she's on the inside of their office. And there's all of this paper on the walls. And they have, you know, their calculators with their reams of, of, you know, paper coming off of them, they have all these tickets and stamps. And they're looking out at a window. And the window has these partitions in it. And at the bottom of the window is just another rectangular window where they just raise it up, and they would give the workers their ticket, which is probably a ticket to go and shop at the store that they own. So isn't really money. So in the photograph, the window is all these kind of squares, and in this tiny opening at the bottom, and you see the hand of an African American person, he's putting his hand in to take this ticket. And then you sort of see through the glass, his hat, and his hat is rumpled, and it's white, and it's dirty. And there is this contrast between, you know, his hat and the hat of these workers and this bright space that they occupy. And in the darkness in which he you see this figure on the other side, you can't see his face, but you just see his hand.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay. It's a very evocative and powerful image. And you're right, it says so much that it's not in any kind of text, you know, it's just in the image. So I wanted to ask you, I guess as a last question, about your current projects, and I guess start with Devour the Land, maybe, which is up until January 16th, right?
Makeda Best: So this exhibition, as you mentioned, in the introduction, I wrote a book on civil war photography. And one of the things that really interested me about Alexander Gardner, as a figure, was these photographs that he made of the landscape during the Civil War, and the impact of warfare on the landscape. And he was a pacifist. And so he was very much, you know, responding to what modern warfare was doing. And that idea stayed with me. And when I came here, and took this position, there was already a body of works in the collection, because one of the curators, who—this is kind of complicated, but she, her name is Barbara Norfleet, and she was a curator at the Carpenter Center. And the Carpenter Center used to collect photographs. But eventually, they stopped doing that. And those photographs came to the Harvard Art Museums. And so we have a number of works that she collected, that were interested in militarism, and kind of documenting the legacies of militarism and the landscape. These are photographs that she herself even made, and that she collected other artists working in this way. So there, we had a few works, we had her body of work, and we had some others and then I had this interest in the Civil War. And then I also, growing up, my mother was very much a pioneer in the environmental justice movement. And so, I've grown up with an experience of, you know, listening to people speak about environmental justice issues and about toxins in the in the soil, and all these kinds of issues. And so I kind of just began to put together these interests. And this became the exhibition and it, it doesn't have Gardner's photographs in it. It has photographs by George Barnard, and Barnard is important because he is, in his photographs, he's following the destruction caused by a man named William Tecumseh Sherman, who was a Union general. And during this particular episode, which was called the March of the Sea, that Barnard documented, afterwards he writes a letter to his wife and he says, "We've devoured the land." And when he says that, he's referring to the ways in which the Union army had basically destroyed any kind of land-based resources of the Confederacy as a tool for war. And so I began to kind of pull that and think, Okay, well, what's the legacy of that? And how have photographers addressed and explored militarism? And why in the 1970s, this becomes really important in this kind of Cold War, ending of the Cold War era, post nuclear era, you know, the environmental decade—all of this kind of really becomes very important to photography in the 1970s. And so the exhibition picks up there, and it documents the nationwide footprint of this activity. But it also includes a section that particularly addresses the fact that much of this takes place in regions and areas of the country where people of color live in poor communities, rural communities. It also addresses when I call other battlefields, other kinds of wars: the war on crime, the war at the border, that are having environmental impacts. And then it also finally addresses, there's a section called Resistance in which it speaks about, you know, everyday people who became politicized around this issue, and are leading efforts to change that and within their communities.
Lydialyle Gibson: Ok. Ok. And the book you're working on is completely separate from that?
Makeda Best: So the other project that I'm working on is a book about, it thinks about growing up in San Francisco, and an environmental awareness, from an urban perspective, it is kind of part memoir, part kind of meditation on photography, about a region where African American history is not as visibly present. So it's kind of growing out of my own background, and growing up with a mother who was a gardener and a farmer, and who was very interested in, you know, really examining the world, the living, the natural world. And it thinks about how photography is a similar kind of act of examining the world. So it kind of moves back and forth between these two ideas. And it is kind of grounded in San Francisco as a unique place of African American history.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay, what else are you working on at the moment? What's next for you?
Makeda Best: So what I'm working on next is a collaboration at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. I had done one of these previously, in 2018, I presented the exhibition, Time is Now: Photography and Social Change, in James Baldwin's America. And in spring 2023, I will present an exhibition of the work of Darrell Ellis, an artist who passed away from AIDS in 1992. And he was an experimental photographer, who did a lot of work with his father's archive, and re-photographing images, distorting them, exploring everyday life memory, and these really interesting works that also incorporate his drawing practice, as well. So that exhibition will be at the Carpenter Center in spring 2023.
Lydialyle Gibson: OK. Can I ask one quick follow up question? How did that exhibition originate? What's the origin?
Makeda Best: So that's an interesting question. A Harvard alum, actually named Allen Frame, who is a photographer, and he is involved with the museum on the photography curatorial committee. And he introduced me to the work of Darrell and he had one at one point was executor of Darrell's estate, and knows archives clearly very well, and asked if I'd be interested in presenting something at Harvard. And so at the same time, as we will be doing this exhibition, this small exhibition at the Carpenter Center, the first retrospective of Darrell's work will be also happening—well, it’s already at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it will be at the Bronx Museum by the time we have our installation here.
Lydialyle Gibson: Okay, okay. All right. Well, I guess we'll leave it there. Thank you Professor Best. It was wonderful to talk to you.
Makeda Best: Great. Thank you so much.
This episode of Ask a Harvard Professor was hosted by Lydialyle Gibson and produced by Jacob Sweet and Niko Yaitanes. Our theme music was created by Louis Weeks. This fourth season is sponsored by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union and supported by voluntary donations from listeners like you. To support the podcast, visit harvardmagazine.com/supportpodcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. Contact us with questions at [email protected].
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