Dr. Michele M. Penhall, Curator of Prints and Photographs at the University of New Mexico visited Chester College of New England on September 15 as part of the Visiting Artist Symposium Lecture Series. She has held the position of curator at UNM since 2004 and is in charge of the more than 13,000 prints, 1000 drawings and numerous photographs dating back to the dawn of photography in the mid-1800s. Her scholastic passion lies in the late 19th century photography of such South American photographers as Martín Chambi and the Vargas Brothers. She has dedicated much of her academic and professional career in studying and researching the photographs as well as the cultural context of these photographers and how it shaped their work. Recently, she took the time to elaborate on her career and cultural journey with So Good interviewer, Lisa Pike.
How did you first become interested in photography, especially that of indigenous peoples in the Southwestern United States and South America?
I have been interested in photography since my days as an undergraduate, but my interest in Latin and South American photography began at the University of New Mexico when as a new graduate student I had to give a public talk. Having just discovered the work of Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi, I gave my lecture on Chambi. My dissertation developed from that initial experience.
Was there a specific photographer or image which inspired you to enter the world of photography?
No. There are many images—too many to count—that stand out for me in terms of their iconic status or because they are very compelling, or were made in extraordinary circumstances.
I saw you attended the University of Hawaii for your undergraduate work, was that a decision made because of the culture of the islands and how it could contribute to your work? And if so, would you say that various cultures and locations have always had a large influence upon your work and interests?
The Air Force took our family to Hawaii, where I lived for 15 years before moving to the east coast. I completed high school, and my BFA there and the cultural diversity had a tremendous positive impact on me. The term “cultural diversity” had not really entered the lexicon yet, but it seemed completely natural to live and work among people of various different backgrounds and cultural distinctions. Hawaii is a very special place in that way.
How did you feel viewing photographs of Andean images that hadn't been seen for over a century while working on the Earthwatch Institute's project in Peru and Bolivia? Also, can you tell us a little about the Earthwatch Institute's mission and how one can get involved?
Earthwatch Institute is located in Maynard, MA. They have an excellent website (http://www.earthwatch.org) and one can peruse their catalogue of projects and select subjects which interest them and receive more information. It was thrilling to see work, all these incredible portraits that had not been viewed for a very long time. There were many surprises. One volunteer, a young lawyer from New York, who was of Peruvian descent, although she had never been to Peru, joined our crew. While we were sorting negatives in one of the archives, she found an image of her grandmother, whom she had never met. It was a very dramatic moment, like finding a needle in a haystack when you weren’t even looking for a needle. Everyone was in tears.
What is the process of becoming a specialized curator in the arts of photography and printmaking?
One generally needs to have an advanced degree or extensive research experience. Curating at the museum level means that you have to be able to mount original exhibitions based on original thoughts and ideas. And you have to be able to write about these exhibitions in a way that is accessible and comprehensible to a broad audience that includes many people who do have the specialized background of museum professionals or other teachers and academics. It has also helped me a great deal to know about photography from being a photographer. Some basic knowledge about the technical aspects of the medium provide insight into many pictures that otherwise would be lost.
How many exhibitions have you been involved with over your career and which would you say were your favorites?
I have curated just over 25 exhibitions, some small ones, and some large comprehensive ones and a few in collaboration with other colleagues. A few of my favorites were intimate ones that dealt with portraits from our collection. They were opportunities to present images from the 19th century up to the present, to illustrate an idea that one could trace throughout photography’s entire history. Another meaningful exhibition was one I co-curated with our curator of academic initiatives, Sara Otto-Diniz, in 2008 to celebrate democracy and the forthcoming presidential election. We began with two very early images of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas and ended with a striking life-size portrait of a female soldier from the Gulf War dressed in fatigues. It was a very high key image in which everything was covered in a thin layer of white paint. The only color came from hers eyes—it was haunting and quite moving.
Do you have any pending exhibitions on the horizon, personal or otherwise, and if so could you tell us a little about the installation?
I am working on a large retrospective exhibition on photographer Patrick Nagatani that will open next September at the UNM Art Museum. It will be both exciting and a challenge to design a dynamic installation that best speaks about each series of work in a unique and provocative way.
Do you have any advice for those who are looking into museum careers?
The first step is to volunteer at a gallery or museum just to get your foot into the door. In the process you will see bits and pieces and learn about all the different types of jobs involved in museum work, which will help give you a better overall view of the field and what direction you may want to take in your career.