BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
As Natasha Egan, Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, made her way to the podium recently to welcome her colleague, the unrivaled Chicago photographer Dawoud Bay, one is struck not only by her elegance but also her adroitness in running one of Chicago’s most significant museums. Like incandescent activist Ali Gass, Director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, Egan sums up all that’s great about Chicago’s new generation of museum leadership.
Bey, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, had for three days an overlapping pair of exhibits in Chicago, one at the Art Institute and now Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Dawoud Bey/Black Star at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, just down Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute. The Museum began collecting Bey’s works in the 1990s and now holds more than 60 of his photographs in their permanent collection. Bey has been one of Columbia College’s most inspiring professors in its Department of Photography for 20 years.
Centered, cordial, and professional in style, Egan becomes vibrant as she discusses Bey’s work and the museum’s collection. She began her fascination with the medium through the nature shots of photographers like Ansel Adams, received her MFA in photography at Columbia College, where she also teaches, and now is one of the country’s significant scholars and prolific curators in the field.
She shares, “As the campus museum for Columbia College Chicago, open to the public at no cost, we work with faculty from across the college from a range of departments, including film and dance. As a museum at an academic college, we have the opportunity to create dialogue around challenging topics.”
Museum board member Suzette Bulley noted, “I have known her since I was teaching photography at Columbia College and have always considered her to be a smart and thoughtful leader. She really knows how a museum works and does the work necessary—and far beyond.”
As Egan walked through a recent show on immigration, pointing out images that focus on issues within Chicago and as part of the global context, she explained her job as “working with artists who are creating work showing the culture of our time, how they are dealing with it, and getting important work in front of the public.”
Among the most haunting photographs of that past exhibition captured refugees in camps with in-depth descriptions accompanying the surreal images of their trauma.
“Photography is one of the most accessible mediums, particularly today,” she explains. “Everyone has a phone and is taking photos. Our interests are more conceptual. People can teach themselves to read art on a deeper level.”
She told us a little about the current Dawoud Bey show:
“The exhibition responds to the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an event that resulted in six deaths of black children by white supremacists. Organized by Dr. Gaëlle Morel, exhibitions curator at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, our show pairs Dawoud Bey’s The Birmingham Project (2012) with a selection of prints from the Black Star archive of photojournalism, providing a historical context for the bombing and revealing the political and social turmoil that placed the American Civil Rights Movement in the media spotlight during the months leading up to the explosion.
“Commissioned by the Birmingham Museum of Art, Bey’s Birmingham Project was created in memory of the children who were killed in Birmingham that day, nearing the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Each diptych features a portrait of a child at the exact age of one killed in 1963 paired with a portrait of an adult at the age the child would have been in the year 2013.”
Egan, who rose at the museum from assistant to the director, to associate director and curator, presenting a wide variety of thought-provoking exhibits, and then to its executive director, talked about the ever-present photographer in society today.
“There’s no stopping it. There have always been tons of pictures taken, so easy but, of course, can be dangerous in their power of persuasion. With AI and the role of face recognition, the role of image is even more important,” she explains. “The Vietnam War taught us about accessibility of image, with the Kent State shooting and other images that never leave our minds. But they connect people around the world. As a curator, you know how a single image is part of a larger body of a deeper event, and you look at a project on a deeper level.”
Egan talked about the difference between photojournalism and fine art photography:
“A photo journalist can’t doctor a photograph, but in fine art photography, the artist is allowed to put everything into the frame. You can show your opinion and create an outcome, while all along you are talking about that journey. You are raising awareness—something that I hope our shows always do for its viewers.
“We are very proud of our Midwest Photographer’s Project. Now in its 36th year, the project is a revolving collection of portfolios by 65 established and emerging photographers from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Each portfolio, loaned to the museum for a three-year period, represents a body of work from a current or ongoing project. It is an unparalleled and extensive resource on contemporary photography, with new portfolios introduced on a rolling basis.”
One of Egan’s biggest fans, her mother the stage director Freddie Conroy, credits her daughter’s wise global view to her childhood opportunity to live in England and travel extensively in Greece and Egypt at the age of nine. Studying Asian history in college, Egan, a twin, spent a year in Asia and was in the first student group from the United States to tour Vietnam after the war.
Now Egan’s own daughter haspen pals around the world, just as her mother had paper ones, thanks to digital photographs.
For further information about the Museum of Contemporary Photography and its current Dawoud Bay show, visit mocp.org.