Interview: Aperture Executive Director Chris Boot

Posted in Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on October 23, 2012

Since its inception sixty years ago today, the Aperture Foundation has become a cornerstone of the fine art photography world, practically synonymous with the great postwar art and documentary photography movements ever since. Perhaps more than any other institution, it has popularized the photobook as a highest embodiment of the photographic record, in the process adding many names to the photographic canon. Tonight, Aperture will celebrate its incredible legacy with a birthday Gala Dinner & Photography Auction. We caught up with the organization’s Executive Director, Chris Boot about what Aperture has meant to photography, and how it plans to serve the photographic community in the coming sixty years.

Adorama Rental Co: What has been Aperture’s most profound impact on photography as it celebrates its 60th year? How has aperture’s mission changed over the years?
Chris Boot: Aperture has shaped the conversation about photography, both in terms of the language with which photography is talked about – the magazine at the beginning was principally a vehicle for writing about photography, for articulating photographers’ ideas in words, and promoting discussion about the medium – and in terms of serving as a platform for the debut of many of the great photographers who are household names today. It’s contributed to photography’s broad acceptance as an art form, and it’s had a huge impact on the appreciation of the photobook, as a work of art in its own right, especially in the USA.

In terms of the mission, Aperture’s founders set out to create “common ground for the advancement of photography” and that idea is really central to our mission today. Aperture has placed different emphases on different values at different times. For instance, an emphasis on risk taking social documentary photography in the 1980s and 90s, or on photography as contemporary art in the 00s. But the underlying purpose hasn’t really changed.

At a time when photography is changing the world around us, and becoming so central to how we communicate, I think the idea of serving the photography community is as important than ever. Everyone with a stake in the medium is confronted by new challenges and opportunities, and our role continues to be to make sense of it, to publish and present the strongest ideas and work, to educate new audiences about the language of photography. And I think its part of our job to bring the consciousness of photography, the legacy and culture which we’ve been part of creating, to bear on a new world in which everyone tells stories with photographs.

ARC: What trends have you noticed in fine art and documentary photography, and what issues do you see photographers wrestling with in the coming years? With the boundaries dissolving between still and moving image makers, do you think this will effect Aperture’s emphasis to include a wider definition of photography?
CB: In the 90s and 00s, there was an explosion of interest in art photography, and artists were the engine for the development of the medium, of the language of photography. Today some of the most exciting work being made by artists is in response to how photography has advanced as a social phenomena. I hope Aperture will continue to identify, publish and promote the sharpest new work, and ideas, and at the same time work as a channel for the photography community – the photographers, collectors, educators, and enthusiasts – to navigate the changes going on. Using all our platforms – in print, in person and online.

ARC: How is curation and discovery process changing, broadly and within the organization, especially with digital distribution creating such a cacophony of new voices who are self publishing?
CB: That’s a challenge for everyone in the field of discovery and curation! We want to strike the right balance between embracing the democracy of photography – recognizing that we’re all producers of photographs rather than some producers and others consumers, recognizing that the dynamism of the medium is under no-one’s control, developing new lines of publishing that are driven not by us as curators but by people with cameras with a passionate desire to communicate, share, and participate – and our historic role making judgments about what matters most, working to single out and present the voices that rise above the cacophony.

Ten years ago Aperture was one of a handful of gatekeepers to photobook publishing. Now tens of thousands of photographers are publishing themselves. We’ve created the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation Book Awards, and the Photobook Review, as initiatives to embrace and support the incredible new world of independent photobook publishing, which is perhaps the most dynamic thing about photobook making now. But in doing so, we’re also helping focus on the best of it. And of course we are continuing to publish our own books, and the magazine, reflecting what our own curatorial team consider the singularly important contributions to the medium, both in terms of photographic work and ideas.

ARC: How do you see the organization evolving in the next 10 to 20 years? In another 60 years?
CB: I can’t see five years ahead, let alone sixty! Things are changing so fast. My hope is simply that Aperture can make a vital, ongoing contribution to the language of photography, and whatever photography becomes in future.

ARC: What place does the collectible photobook have in the future of photography? It used to be a primary dissemination object, but is arguably an unnecessary novelty in an age of instant sharing. What about the magazine? Is there a special value in print over digital distribution?
CB: Personally, I think you’re wrong about the photobook being an unnecessary novelty. In a world of fluid digital media – admittedly now the principle channel for the initial dissemination of much photography – the physical photobook, the thing in which the photographer casts a piece of work into its final form, something that stays still, and lasts, and can be referred to forever, is more important than ever. I think just about every photographer feels the same way about that.

As for the magazine, we are working on something new for next year. What we do in print has to really make the most of what its possible to do in print, be enjoyable and worthwhile in print in a more desirable way than any other form. Alongside a new print iteration of the print magazine, we’ll be continuing the debates, the ideas, and presenting work, in online and digital form, and in person too. As a multi-platform publisher, its a question of getting the right balance between platforms.

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