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I expected to stare at many things at the International Center of Photography‘s (ICP) new 250 Bowery location, but my own image was not one of them. Many of the walls in the space’s inaugural exhibition, Public, Private, Secret, are mirrored, and it is impossible to photograph the work without making oneself a part of the conversation.
All the mirroring is a metaphor for how the new space will work, as the ICP seeks to develop both internal and external conversations about contemporary photography. As ICP Executive Director Mark Lubell puts, 250 Bowery will be a return to the early days of the space in the 1970s, when it was still very much a “center” — a place for an exchange of ideas — and not strictly a “museum,” like its previous Midtown Manhattan location — which Lubell views as more one-sided.
The revival of the “center” in ICP is primarily fostered by its architecture and design. In an act of literal and figurative transparency, 250 Bowery’s entranceway features 90 feet of floor-to-ceiling glass. Passersby can see what’s happening inside much of the ground floor of the space, which is dedicated to public programming like lectures, panel discussions, workshops, book launches, reading groups, and more. The space also houses a café and a bookstore. It differs greatly from the Midtown location, a heavier, more closed-off structure that was situated in a forest of skyscrapers. “I think the space in Midtown was hard to build a connection to. … You just walked by it and you didn’t know you [had] walked by it,” Lubell tells Hyperallergic. “There wasn’t a feature there that signaled ‘come into this space.’” With this new entranceway, ICP seeks to be more inviting and engaging with both potential visitors and the community in general.
It’s almost as if the democratization of photography has led to a democratization of the new space, a retreat from its previously institutional demeanor. After all, when the medium suddenly belongs to everyone, to stay relevant a space must show that it does the same. “If we didn’t begin to make some of these kinds of changes, I was concerned that ICP was not going to be part of the conversation,” Lubell says. “ICP should own this conversation … this is a kind of medium that is really having such an impact on our lives.” Accordingly, ICP’s new space will also “push the dialogue of imagery and how it is affecting us as a society,” Lubell says, asking viewers to reflect on how they interact with photographs on a daily basis.
Another big change at 250 Bowery is ICP’s curator-in-residence program, where leading thinkers in the photography field will be brought in to develop exhibitions and programming alongside ICP’s own curatorial team.
“I do prefer institutions that are not ivory towers, which have a very street-level conversation and dialogue,” says Charlotte Cotton, the first curator-in-residence at 250 Bowery. “If the program stays generative, open, and a host to what’s really happening and focused on social implications of our visual world, there’s lots of space for ICP to really flourish and do something that’s really impactful and meaningful.” Cotton has previously worked as curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum and as the curator and head of the department of photography at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Her exhibition at ICP, the aforementioned Public, Private, Secret, is “an invitation in a safe cultural space to think about and to be amongst some of the issues our image world generates around issues of privacy,” she says. With works spanning from a 19th-century portrait of Sojourner Truth to a video installation from this year, the exhibition seeks to understand how the way we look at ourselves is tied to the way we are seen by others. “It’s very much about being publicly present within the exhibition,” Cotton says. “It’s not an exhibition where you get to keep your privacy. It’s a very public space. It’s a public act, really, going into a cultural space.”
Before I even enter 250 Bowery, I can see inside the space, with its sets of gray tables and chairs neatly arranged near the window. I glide through the lobby to open a door at the back of the room and enter Public, Private, Secret. The exhibition opens with a series of video installations made from footage found online; then, around a corner, a set of YouTube video stills; down the stairs into the basement galleries, I’m met by a photo of and by Cindy Sherman, whose work is nothing if not a study of how identity is formed and portrayed through photographs. A little further are three series of Andy Warhol Polaroids, all hung atop a mirrored support. I see myself looking into them and it now seems appropriate to use my iPhone to photograph this exhibition, the cameraphone being one of the reasons for the exponential proliferation of visual culture. I photograph myself reflected in the background, pointing my phone into the mirror, purposely covering my face with Warhol’s work — self-identification and public visibility actually overlapping.
Ideas of voyeurism and exhibitionism are regularly at play here, often at the same time. Monitors projecting images from Instagram link to thematic algorithms created especially for the show, while clusters of photos pass across the screens with relevant @ signs, messages, and hashtags, asking the viewer to process how the photographers want to be seen. A little further, lift up a swatch of fabric to view naughty snaps from the mid-20th century; peep a nude through an antique stereograph. Later, two iterations of Sophie Calle‘s “The Sleepers” (1979) project — in which Calle photographed people she recruited to sleep in her bed for eight hours at a time — appear. I try to take a photo of the pieces, but am again caught in the mirrored backdrop. I suppose I could have leaned out of the frame somehow, but I am sure this was not the curator’s intention. With these mirrors, I am also part of the exhibition: I am the public act of both seeing and being seen.
In the exhibition’s last gallery, Phil Collins‘s “free fotolab” (2009) flicks through slide after slide of personal snapshots given to him by participants in exchange for free prints of the photos. The projector clicks by as I sit in a dark room, delighted by these images of people I don’t know and never will. I wonder: What makes us so happy about looking at someone else’s life?
By inspiring its audience to ask difficult questions about its role in the making and consuming of images, ICP ensure its place in the photography conversation moving forward. The center will have to stay on its toes, however, perpetually developing that conversation in newly insightful and inspiring ways. Transparency and reflection, as seen in its new space and in Public, Private, Secret, are promising first steps.