Makeda Best joins the Harvard Art Museums this month as the new Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography. The appointment marks a return to Harvard for Best, who received her Ph.D. in 2010 in the history of art and architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Most recently, she was assistant professor in visual studies at California College of the Arts and chief adviser and writer for “Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum,” an education platform designed for middle and high school students.
A scholar of war and documentary photography, Best spoke to The Gazette about her new role.
GAZETTE: Welcome, or, rather welcome back. What drew you back to Harvard?
BEST: When I was working on my Ph.D., I never imagined working here. But it was exciting during the interview process to come back and see all of the changes and the new Art Museums’ building. What drew me to the job was that this is a teaching museum, and there is a collaborative nature to its curatorial and educational programming. Photographic education is my passion. Most viewers lack the critical skills and the vocabulary to analyze a photograph and to articulate how photographs communicate. As an educator, I am interested in photography’s broad visual culture — prints, cameras, digital and social media. I’ve enjoyed working with the audiences to develop that critical awareness. The photography collection here is informed by own scholarly writing. It was that opportunity to go into these repositories that taught me what these objects can offer.
GAZETTE: Can you talk about the work you’ve done at “Essential Lens,” and how that might influence the way you work with faculty and students here?
BEST: “Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum” is a multimedia pedagogical platform that provides users with a methodology for analyzing photographs and curricula to use photography as a learning tool in the classroom. There are 11 curricula on topics ranging from climate change to the Civil Rights Movement. My role was to help develop a process for how middle and high school teachers could approach using photographs, and to determine what kind of vocabulary to use and what kinds of questions to ask.
GAZETTE: You bring the perspective of seeing photography through the three lenses, pun intended, of scholar, educator, and artist. Can you talk about this?
BEST: I see those roles as intertwined, even though I no longer have an artistic practice of my own. In my training as a photographer and in my experiences at CalArts, I was encouraged to think seriously and to look closely at the decisions and choices I made as a photographer in terms of the process, the content, and the object itself, and how each of those decisions would inform the interpretation viewers would have of my work. From paper and film selection to the presentation, we would talk for hours about our work. In my work as an educator, I’ve tried to emphasize that we need to be curious about these objects. We need to ask what it is about what we are seeing that leads us toward a certain interpretation or message.
GAZETTE: How did you first get interested in photography?
BEST: My father was an amateur photographer. My mother bought me a camera when I was 16, and I started making portraits. At Barnard, where I went for undergrad, I was a history major, but I also really enjoyed art history and making art. I was also making photographs, but I had never taken a course in the history of photography. All I knew was Ansel Adams, and I knew I wasn’t interested in making those kinds of images. But I also had no sense of what other kind of photography there was. I did an independent study, and as part of that I enrolled in a course with Benjamin Buchloh, who now teaches at Harvard. I began showing him my photographs. At the time, I was interested in documenting the changing urban landscape in San Francisco. He was really interested and encouraging, and began to suggest that I should pursue photography. That really changed my life. He introduced me to the work of Allan Sekula and to CalArts, where I ended up studying with Allan, and I earned a B.F.A. and M.F.A.
GAZETTE: You have a deep interest in Civil War photography, and are working on a book about Alexander Gardner, the lensman who photographed the battlefield as well as President Abraham Lincoln. When did you develop this area of research?
BEST: I’m not so much interested in the Civil War as I am in moments in history when photographers are faced with great historical change at the same time as they are working with new tools and within a changing visual culture. While getting my Ph.D., I took a class with [Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities] Jennifer Roberts in which we were supposed to focus on one image. I chose an image from Alexander Gardner’s “[Photographic] Sketch Book of the Civil War.” This photograph became the topic of my master’s thesis. Then he became my dissertation. I was really influenced by what I discovered doing research in the University’s collections. I recognized the difficult transition Americans made to paper-based photography. I wanted to understand why that was — what were the economic and cultural biases, the impediments to adopting this process.
GAZETTE: As curator, what are some of your plans to exhibit and build the photography collections?
BEST: It’s a very different collection than other collections because it’s a teaching museum, and so you need to consider what you are doing from that perspective as well as with an interest toward producing scholarship. I am also interested in working to put older objects in the collection in new context. And there are photos that have never been exhibited that are really relevant today. For example, I’m from San Francisco, and the changes in the urban landscape there have made me more interested in James Casebere’s photographs of fabricated architecture.
I’m fascinated by the strength of the acquisitions. There’s a lot of expanding to do, especially in documentary and in global contemporary photography. There needs to be more thinking about South Asian and African photography. There are also new forms that are challenging. Do we collect selfies? I’m fascinated thinking about these things.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.