Who is a curator? what is a curator ? Why do we need them anyways. The hidden paradox of photography is while it vastly assumed it’s the work of a lonely individual, it is not. In fact, it’s team work.
We had written previously about the hidden work of assignment editors, fixers, and photo editors in photojournalism. But we never took the step of stopping and reflecting at the function of curator. Who is a curator? what makes a good curator ? Why would anyone become a curator?
Just for the sake of this post, we will include in curator anyone that edits the work photographers, whether for print publication in a magazine or for display on a gallery wall. There is really no distinction.
A curator is first and foremost NOT a photographer. In fact, history shows that the most talented are really poor photographers and will be the first one to admit it. They are incapable of taking anything as remotely good as the content they edit day in and day out. And that is probably one of their strongest attributes. Their incapacity to create great photography makes them even more aware of the talent of those they are charged to edit. They have turned their accepted frustration into a tool to better understand, if not master the understanding of what makes a great photograph. While they will be most of the time short on words to explain why , they can quickly – instinctively – recognize the images that will make the mark.
That instinct comes from a very defined ability. What makes a curator good is his ability to understand the marketplace, the audience at large. A great photo editor, for example, can curate the work of photographers to select those images that will speak to their readership. A sharp comprehension of the type of images that impact viewers. It takes dedicated time at looking at every possible image published to grasp the trends as well as a keen ability to a keep fresh eye. A curator can position himself as its viewers as well as understanding the photographer’s point of view. In a way, its an exercise in translation: How to perfectly match the photographers language to the viewers visual vocabulary.
A museum or gallery curator, by the way, is no different. While the type of photography he handles might be dissimilar than a magazine photo editor, his approach is still to understand his audience and pick the right content to communicate (and sell). It’s not an exact science. In fact, it is not always successful, especially when the curator becomes too personal in his choices. It is rather a constant trial and error process.
Curators are storytellers. They have something to say, even if its by using other’s images. Even forced to select one image out of thousand. Curators are teachers. Not only teaching their audience about the what they have themselves learned via the photographs selected but also always teaching photographers about their audience.
The most talented curators are those who succeed in making themselves disappear from the process. They are able to create a direct connection between the photographer and their audience as if they had done nothing. While in some Fine Art circles, curators are now becoming bigger stars than the photographers they select – a very disturbing trend- their biggest achievements is when no one knows, besides those involved in the project, who they are.
Current technological trends are to replace human based curation with algorithm. With the increasing volume of images, it has become almost impossible for a human to process. Machine based curation take a variety of data points to figure out what could be a pleasing image. Technical accuracy, dominant hues, object positioning, topic, perspective, location are some of the elements being taken in consideration. On top of those, machines learn which images you liked by tracking how you interact with them ( mainly via clicking, sharing, commenting). Put all these in a bag, shake them and you have a curating algorithm. The issue with this approach- as we often see with social media who use similar algorithms- is the lack of discovery. In fact, the more it learns and the more it shows the same type of images which could be detrimental at the end. Obviously, it is possible to add a pinch of unpredictability within the decision process in order to bubble up some unexpected candidates, a bit like Pandora does for music. But does it replace a human curator ?
So if you are a photographer, next time you disagree with an edit, keep in mind that this might be the last time you get a chance to complain. Next time, you could be facing an algorithm who will not care about your comments.