Deborah Irmas, Photography Curator and Documentary Film Producer

Deborah Irmas, Photography Curator and Documentary Film Producer

Deborah Irmas wears many artistic hats: curator, writer, and producer of documentaries. She has worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a guest curator and as the interim director of a nonprofit arts organization, and she also sits on the board of the Audrey & Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation. Masquerade, an exhibition of self-portraits from her parents' photography collection, is running through January at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. PND recently spoke with Irmas about collecting and exhibiting photography.

Philanthropy News Digest: How did you become interested in photography? And how did your interest lead to your becoming a collector and curator?

Deborah Irmas: As an undergraduate in college, I studied art and then photography briefly, but by the end of my senior year I knew I didn't excel in either discipline. So I went to Boston University for graduate school and studied the history of photography with Carl Chiarenza, who received the first Ph.D. ever awarded in that field. Around that time, I began buying photographs — nineteenth-century ethnographic photos, ambrotypes, et cetera — and also urged my parents to do so, thinking it would be something we could do together. When we were beginning to buy photographs, I asked curator-collector Sam Wagstaff for advice on building the collection, and he said, "Buy from many galleries." In other words, don't get connected to one gallery, which is something novice collectors tend to do. Wagstaff's collection, by the way, eventually ended up at the Getty.

In the 1970s, my parents began to travel often to New York and Europe, and they made it a practice to visit newly established photography galleries. When they found a piece they were interested in buying, they would call to ask my opinion. We soon discovered we had a couple of great self-portraits in our collection, and so we decided to focus our collecting activities in that area. When my parents would visit a gallery, they'd ask to see self-portraits specifically; the dealer would disappear, then return with something fantastic by a well-known photographer. Often when my parents called and mentioned the photographer's name, I'd tell them to buy it without having to see it. Compared to today, the photographs were reasonably priced, but back then spending several hundred to a few thousand dollars was considered lunacy. I remember Man Ray's Rayograms selling for $1,200 in 1974 and thinking it was outrageous.

PND: Why did your parents decide to donate their photography collection to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

DI: My parents kept their collection at their primary residence, and much of it was on the walls. One day, while they were out of town, they received a call from someone telling them that their home was on fire. As it happened, the house wasn't in danger, but my mother became worried about the collection, which had become a huge responsibility for my parents. Both of them had grown up in Los Angeles, and they decided to give the collection to a public museum there. To them, it was like giving a gift to the city. They never regretted donating the collection to LACMA. For my father, who has since passed away, seeing his collection in the museum and having a book published about it was more exciting than actually owning the photographs. People don't always understand how thrilling it is to know you'll forever be connected with incredible works of art.

PND: The current exhibition you curated for LACMA features self-portraits from the Irmas Collection. What else can you tell us about it?

DI: The exhibition, which runs through January 7, 2007, is called Masquerade, and all of the photographers featured in it have presented themselves in their self-portraits in a fictional way. In the images I chose for the show, some of the photographers are simply holding up a mask, while others use makeup and a costume to hide their true identity. An early example is the photo of French photographer Nadar dressed up in American Indian clothing with an English-style wig. More than a century later, the Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura photographed himself as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. There's also a series of self-portraits called Unknown Artistin which Warren Neidich used Photoshop to insert images of himself into group photographs of famous artists. The exhibition features thirty-one images by twenty-eight photographers. In its entirety, the Irmas Collection comprises over one hundred and sixty images.

When I think about the exhibit, the words of the author Susan Sontag come to mind. She wrote that "the journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It does not simply record my actual daily life but in many cases offers an alternative to it. In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person — I create me, myself." The show is like that.

PND: What advice would you give to an organization thinking about sponsoring a photography exhibit as a fundraiser?

DI: First, there should be some context for the exhibit. If someone who runs a relief organization asked me for advice, I'd tell that person to put together a show that connects the organization's mission with the photographs. You know, it's really hard to mount an exhibition that's visually engaging yet tells a story that isn't pretty. The WPA photographers did it successfully in the 1930s, but because of the slick corporate world in which we live, meeting that challenge is harder for photographers today. As a curator, I hate to see poverty romanticized.

Maybe filmmaking, which can use moving images and sound to get at the real issues, is better equipped to tell stories about social injustice than still photography. That said, I'm currently working on a short film for an agency that builds single-room occupancy units in downtown Los Angeles, and my cinematographer just loves the "beautiful grittiness" of the city's skid row. It's hard to avoid that. But doing this kind of work, which is creative but at the same time comments on social issues, is important to me.

PND: Do you have plans for future projects?

DI: Well, I'd like to start a fund to support and recognize photographers with a strong social conscience who use their camera to portray the world's most pressing problems. I'm still moved by the photographs of Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and other social reformers at the turn of the twentieth century who saw the inequities of urbanization and industrial capitalism and the toll they were exacting on immigrant populations and communities. Their work was powerful enough to lead to changes in the law and, ultimately, in society. Some might argue that documentary film does that today, but I think the still image, which can be zapped around the world at the click of a mouse, continues to be a powerful vehicle for change, and photographers should be encouraged to think of the medium in that way.

— Alice Garrard