The Big Picture

How did the Twin Cities become a national center for photography?

THREE YEARS AGO, when Alec Soth earned a place in the Whitney Biennial art exhibition in New York, it was big news here: Local newspapers trumpeted the honor as if the Minneapolis photographer had snapped the first unblurred shot of Sasquatch. Today, Soth is just one of several local photographers, including Angela Strassheim and Paul Shambroom, receiving worldwide attention.

St. Paul photographer JoAnn Verberg, for example, recently received a lengthy review in the New Yorker for a show in a Manhattan gallery.

“When I travel, people ask me, ‘What’s in the water in Minneapolis?’” says George Slade, head of the Minnesota Center for Photography (MCP). High-profile shows by local photographers, he says, have boosted perceptions of the Twin Cities as not just an arts mecca but also a haven for photographers in particular. The enthusiasm appears to be justified: The MCP, since moving to northeast Minneapolis a few years ago, has mounted several shows featuring the work of groundbreaking photographers; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) last year added a wing for large-scale photography; and the area’s first gallery and studio dedicated solely to photography, the Minneapolis Photo Co-Op, opened this summer.

Photography, despite or perhaps because of its popularity among amateurs, has long struggled for greater acceptance in museums and academia. In fact, prior to 1967, the MIA featured only one or two photography exhibitions a year. Even today, in Twin Cities’ museums and elsewhere, photography occupies a fraction of the gallery space allotted to paintings and sculpture. “It’s still something of a stepchild,” says Christian A. Peterson, the MIA’s acting curator of photographs. Relatively speaking, it’s still a new art. “It’s a sliver in the history of art and the production of aesthetic objects,” says Peterson.

The Twin Cities have played an outsize role in photography’s rise, however. In the late 1940s, a curator named John Szarkowski staged several major photography exhibitions at the Walker Art Center before moving to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1962. At MoMA, Slade says, he essentially established the criteria by which fine-art photography is still measured today. Meanwhile, in the early 1960s, the MIA hired Ted Hartwell, who initially served as the staff photographer, shooting slides of artworks for catalogues and publicity purposes, before gaining permission to curate small photo exhibitions, often just in hallways or the basement. In 1972, he was named curator of photography—one of the first positions devoted to the medium in the country—organizing a landmark show of Richard Avedon’s work and becoming a national champion of photojournalism as art.

Soth, too, once worked at the MIA, doing archival and darkroom work—and benefiting from Hartwell’s encouragement and connections. Soth was fortunate that another local curator, from the Walker, helped organize the 2004 Whitney Biennial that made his name. Now, Soth’s success is coming full circle—it’s enabling the Minneapolis gallery that represents him, the Weinstein, to compete with galleries in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles for high-profile photography exhibitions. The success of Soth and other local photographers has inspired many to dream big. “There’s a sense now that anyone can put out a book if they get a bunch of pictures together and get it on the Web,” says Slade. “It’s hard to remember a time when it was difficult to get published.”

Photo by Beth Lehman

AT THE NORTHERN EDGE of downtown Minneapolis, amid salvage yards and artists’ studios, the dozen members of the new Minneapolis Photo Co-Op share office, studio, and gallery space. While some are focused purely on creative projects, many, like John Abernathy and Jayson Wold, are established commercial and editorial photographers exploring their artistic side. Founder Orin Rutchick hopes the co-op will serve as a home for the Cities’ photographic community, a kind of incubator for exploring all aspects of the art. And so far, the scheme appears to be working. Exhibitions in the bright, wood-beamed space have drawn hundreds of people, and co-op members are making use of the studio space for commercial shoots.

Rutchick embodies the dual nature of photography—both art and commercial craft—that has always made the form a strange beast among creative media. He spent 26 years as a photographer and art director in the advertising world before devoting himself to fine-art photography. A recent recipient of a McKnight fellowship, he has garnered attention for his ongoing documentation of sightseers taking snapshots of each other beside such landmarks as the Taj Mahal and the Hong Kong harbor, a series he calls “Push-Button Memories.” He is now generating material, in collaboration with Star Tribune travel editor Chris Welsch, for a possible book depicting the veneration given particular places, like Graceland in Memphis and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

For all his success, though, Rutchick still bumps up against one of the primary challenges of working in an arts-saturated city: so many photographers, so little exhibition space. He created the co-op space partly because he couldn’t find other places to show his work. The Cities’ major venues now vie for national and international photo exhibitions (the Weisman Art Museum is showcasing contemporary Chinese photography this fall while the MCP exhibits images of China’s Three Gorges dam project). And when they do feature local photographers, they lean toward the big names in town: The Walker will soon pick up Verburg’s MoMA exhibition; the Weinstein is showing Soth again this month. Lesser-known photographers must vie for space at the MIA’s Minnesota artists galleries, or at Icebox Gallery and Framing in northeast Minneapolis, or in the MCP’s member gallery, or now, at Rutchick’s space—an outlet for photographers’ burgeoning aspirations. If there is a downside to the medium’s broader acceptance, it may be that local photographers have to make more noise to set themselves apart. Publishing a book, or even opening an exhibition at MoMA no longer draws attention—at least not in Minnesota.

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.