Image above: Portrait by Tanya Braganti.
ANDREA BLANCH: How do you think your experience at Magnum has influenced or helped you in your new role?
MARK LuBELL: There is no way I would be successful here without my experience at Magnum. Mag- num is an incredible organization, but very complicated because you’re dealing with many different photographers with different interests. Trying to get consensus with Magnum is a very hard job. It really helps you in any organization you go to in life. Here, there are very similar situations where you have a board, and the board has different interests, so you try to bring in some cohesion and a direction. You also have a staff that is working in almost entirely different businesses: a curatorial department, an exhibitions and collections, and the school educators and faculty. So you’re trying to get everyone together and rally around at least a few central ideas, and give everyone some ownership. I think that’s very key, that every- one feels that they have some ownership. I can attribute my tenure at Magnum to helping me with that.
AB: What is your actual responsibility?
ML: My overall responsibility is for the organization in its entirety. That is, covering the school and the exhibition and curatorial teams. I am responsible for the bottom line, and I report to the board. I came to ICP knowing that this was going to be a critical moment in the history because of the change in the location. I knew when I came on board a year ago that a month later there was not going to be the exhibition space that we currently have. But with chaos comes opportunity. It’s very hard to change an organization’s culture when everyone’s rooted in the existing structure and buildings. A physical move forces a change to happen. I saw this as a great opportunity to come to ICP and do things that are hard to do in cultural institutions, to change a culture and change a direction.
I think ICP has had this in its DNA from the beginning. I look at ICP in different chapters. The first chapter is Cornell’s building on 94th street. This was his dream, his vision. They bought this building for not a lot of money in 1974, and it was Cornell’s photographer friends and this community. I relate to what ICP was from 1974 to 1999. Then it moved to midtown with a very clear mandate. It was outgrow- ing the space on 94th street and it saw midtown as the opportunity to grow. In the first several years, they moved away from traditional photojournalism exhibitions. Even though there were some great innovative shows in the 94th street location, primarily it was known for photojournalism. With Buzz Hartshorn as the director, and bringing in Brian Wallace, they really began to change the program. They opened it up to fashion photography and art photography. 150 exhibitions later, you really see the dynamic programing that they put together in midtown. And the school grew to about 5,000 students a year. So, chapter two was a great period of growth for ICP.
Now, I’m coming in for the next chapter. We have this new location on the Bowery. I feel the Bowery is just an incredible space for our exhibition program because we’re close to the New Museum, Tenement Museum, Art and Architecture Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum is going around the corner. It’s all happening there. I think it’s great for ICP to be positioned on what was a grand street, went through a different period of time, but is now coming back to this exciting space. It’s well-positioned for ICP to have a rebirth in this location. I think that the relationship that ICP will have with this street will be significant. I’m looking from a programmatic standpoint, having a program that engages with the street. I don’t think we were able to do in the midtown location.
AB: It’s interesting that you picked Mana to store some of the collections.
ML:We’re a little bit like pioneers going to Jersey City. When I took the PATH train for the first time to go to Mana, I went to the space and saw that there is 2 million square feet dedicated to an art com- munity. I got very excited. I just thought that instead of taking our archive, which was on the 14th and 12th floor of a nondescript office building on 43rd street, and moving that to Brooklyn to a storage facility that would have limited access, what if we took this archive to this up-and-coming art center. I met with Jean, the owner of Mana. We’re going from 4,000 sq ft at the 43rd street location to 15,000 sq ft with huge ceilings. I can showcase the archive and the collection in a way that wouldn’t be possible in Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx or Manhattan. The archive is not behind closed doors but actually open to everyone in the space. The other thing that we’re doing because we have more space is we’re creating a lab there. I really want to begin to do different things with our archive, for example, a hack- athon. I’d love to try to look at our archive and experience it in many different ways so we can open up and broaden our audience. Currently, you come to ICP with an idea of what you want to do, so you tell us what you’re looking for and we guide you. But if it was possible to stumble upon some of our mate- rial in a completely different way, we might be able to expose this work to the next generation in new and dynamic ways. Also, our own curatorial team and our collections departments are in a space that has different disciplines in the arts. There’s a dance studio, there’s Richard Meier and architecture, and there’s several photographers there. There are all these like-minded, creative people, and I just hope the water cooler conversation bubbles off in all different directions. We also have 2,000 square feet to do exhibitions there, so it’s a satellite space where we can experiment and try out different things on a smaller audience, because right now there’s not that many people going around on a regular basis. Eventually, I do believe that a lot of people will end up going to this Mana space in the years to come.
AB: What’s your mission?
ML: I’m a big believer of Cornell’s original concept of the “Concerned Photographer.” The Concerned Photographer was someone who went out into the world, experienced the world, documented the world, and then came back and exhibited what they saw. It was a chance for the public to have discourse about the big issues of the day. Remember, Cornell’s friends were mostly journalists, their stories were the stories on the front pages of the newspapers and magazines in 1970’s. That concept of going out in the world, discovering, coming back and having public discourse is as relevant today as it was in 1974. The difference is that now we are all walking around with--I don’t want to say a camera--it is a camera, but I don’t want to say that we’re all photographers because we’re not. We are image-makers, and we communicate by image. This year alone it’s estimated that 2.2 trillion pictures, images I should say, will be uploaded on the Internet. So I feel that ICP’s mission is that we should be at the forefront of this conversation. What does this mean that we’re all communicating with images? Who’s pulling out the important narratives of today? Who is deciphering all this noise? The rules are not clear yet; it’s the Wild West. For example, this is a silly example, but a month ago, Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos dropped out of the cloud, and suddenly we’re all over the Internet, and you had celebrities tweeting, “Don’t look at these pictures, they are private property.” It used to be that the Concerned Photographer went out in the world and made choices, made edits, decided to use this picture, decided not to use this picture, and then showed us. When we went into a space, all those decisions had been made and then we experienced it. Now we’re one click away. We’re making this decision. Do I look at these nude photos or not? Jennifer Lawrence may seem like a silly thing, but the same week that story broke the beheadings by ISIS happened. The cry from the general public was, “Don’t watch those videos or look at the images. If you do, the terrorists have won.”
We are being inundated with images. We have to make these complicated decisions, and ICP is perfectly positioned to hold this debate. I go back to the original concept of ICP, and I bring it forward to today and tweak it a little bit so that it’s in 21st century language, but it’s still very much about the world that we’re living in today. And ICP has always been this forum to have this public discourse about these issues. Going back to this Bowery location, anybody walking by is participating in this moment in time in image-making and communicating. Unlike other institutions, we’re a medium that everyone is using. I’d love to try to drive that audience into our space and have this public debate.
AB: There are people who feel that ICP is stuck in the past and hasn’t progressed. For instance, I heard that you have all of Weegee’s archives. He married his doll when he was older, and he has pictures of this relationship. But when you had the last Weegee exhibition, none of these pictures were being shown, pictures that have been in other exhibitions. Are we going to see things like that?
ML: Yes. I think your first point is there’s an outside perception that ICP has been very conservative, and that maybe that it used to be a great idea but it hasn’t evolved. Although when you look at the list of exhibitions that ICP has done, there has been a lot of forward thinking. But ICP serves different communities. Sometimes you get some pushback, but I think that we must be forward thinking in our conversation. At the same time, we have an incredible archive, and an incredible curatorial and col- lections team, and I don’t want to throw out the amazing amount of talent and work that we’ve done over the years just to chase something new. I think that to show Weegee to this next generation that is just instagramming all the time, they would be amazed to see the depth of what a photographer like Weegee did. It is our job to introduce. That is part of the mandate of ICP, Cornell Capa wanted to protect his brother’s legacy and show what happens to a photographer once they’re gone. So, ICP has been showing the work of Capa as well as Weegee and others and is trying to bring attention to some incredible masters and important work. That is going to continue at ICP. But I’d love to get the millen- nials coming for a selfie or something like them, then maybe serve them up a Weegee.
International Center of Photography by Cat Guzman.
AB: I look at all different types of photography all the time. Sometimes one gets very tired of seeing new photography, digital and conceptual and whatever. When you see a more traditional image, all of a sudden it becomes very fresh, and it’s new again.
ML: One of the hottest classes in ICP is the darkroom. If you go to Bushwick, where a lot of the hipsters are hanging out, you’ll see a lot of Leicas around their necks. There’s a big movement to the physical- ity of a print, when most millennials are used to seeing things on screens. I think that’s pretty exciting. When I was at Magnum, I wanted to do the first ever see-through darkroom, so that you could see our printer making prints, because the process that he would go through was an artform onto itself. I think people would be amazed how a great printer can pull out what the photographer wanted. Josef Joudelka stopped printing for a number of years because his printer retired, and this guy really under- stood what Joudelka was trying to get out of a photograph. I think the physicality of print, and show- ing the actual physical print is important, but just as important is editing via hashtag off Instagram and doing a whole exhibition off of other people’s work around a specific subject. I think you can have both. I think this time calls for both because you may have one audience coming in for Instagram and they’ll learn about the prints, and another audience coming in for the prints and they’ll learn about the hashtags.
AB: How do you deal with the board when they’re not moving in the direction that you’d like them to? People have told me that the board here is not particularly easy. People who were on the board at various times, have said they felt a lot of money came in, and because of that, decisions were made that weren’t that interesting.
ML: I’ve been here a year and 2 months. Timing is so important, and I think I came at the right time. I also came to Magnum at the right time. I proposed things that 5 or 10 years earlier the membership never would have accepted because they didn’t have to. Because 5 or 10 years before I arrived at Mag- num, there still was a business in photography, but when I got there that was drying up. The same thing is true at ICP. I’ve come at a moment where the board is incredibly supportive. This board has raised significant money to purchase a space on the Bowery, not just kick the can down the road and lease, but purchase, which completely changes the dynamics of this organization. The board has really stepped up. I don’t think it’s any magic that I’ve done. I am talking about something that makes sense, and most of the board believes in the vision and wants to see it through. That’s why they put down this kind of money for us to prove this concept on the Bowery.
My experience with the board has been nothing but positive. If we do the right programming, we will get people talking about ICP in a different way than you characterized ICP, and that will build more confi- dence with our board. I believe we will add new board members in the next few years and then hopefully we will be in a position to fulfill the big dream, which for me is to try to put everything back into a single building that could have the exhibition space and the school. That’s what I would love to do. Whether that’s feasible, we’ll see. But I think there’s some great synergy if you have the school and you have an ex- hibition program and public programming all in one space. If you can put it all in one spot, ICP becomes this center point for a big conversation about the way we’re engaged, and then it has real societal value. That’s very important because when you go out there and try to find support for your organization, you have to demonstrate that this organization gives back to society and I believe that ICP can do that.
AB: What was your background? What was your degree in?
ML: My degree was in history, but I’ve always been business-oriented. In the art world, I think they see me as the business person. From the business community, they see me as the entrepreneurial art per- son. I think that’s my niche. What got me into photography was actually 9/11. I was born and raised in New York. I ended up going to see this exhibition called “Here Is New York,” there were pictures taken from professionals and amateurs. Anyone that had an image could go to this place. The pictures were either scanned and printed out, and each image was given a number and hung on wire with clips. When I saw this exhibition, I was blown away by it. I had two friends who had volunteered to help, and they approached me and said they needed help with management. We had 2 billion hits on this web site in the five months time that I was there. We had a best-selling book, we had an exhibition, we made multiple copies of the exhibition and went to 33 places around the world and of course we raised money. Through $25 sales we gave a million dollars to the Children’s Aid Society and the entire archive was given to the New York Historical Society. The experience was so powerful.
Because we had both professional and amateur photographers, one of the founders was Gilles Perez, who is a Magnum photographer. As we were wrapping this up, he asked me if I would come to Magnum. I went to Magnum just to consult for them, to maybe help their business, because I was told business was in trouble. Shortly after arriving, the director stepped down, and they offered me the director position. I said, “Maybe you need someone more into photography.” They said, “No, we know photography. We need someone who knows business.” Then I had a very successful eight years. I did some things on my own and then shortly after, ICP called and asked if I would be interested in this. I wasn’t sure initially, because I had the meeting with the board to see if they really were in line with what I was saying. It was only after I met with them and felt they agreed with what I thought the direction should be did I take this.
AB: Why did you pick Fred Ritchin to be dean of the school? What did he have that others didn’t?
ML: I had been having a series of conversations with Fred when I was at Magnum. I went to sit in on a few of Fred’s classes when he was at New York University. Fred seemed to be incredibly tapped in with the mil- lennial generation in a way that is not coming from top down. It’s coming from all these different feeds, that’s how they’re getting their information. Because he was on the ground, I talked to Fred a great deal about the future of teaching in our program, and Fred had a lot of great ideas about a new course curriculum. Phil Block has done an amazing job for 32 years, making the school what it is. We’ve been doing a fantastic job of teaching how to take a great picture, we’ve been supporting the artists in their creative pursuits all of that is going to continue. Fred is adding on top that. Now we’re going to teach the tools for after you take an incred- ible photo: what do you do with that? How do you get people to see that image? How do you communicate with that image? What’s the next step? We were missing the 21st century tools that students need to have after they leave because the landscape has changed tremendously. Before, you’re a great photographer, you did your portfolio, you knocked on doors, mostly in New York, you got a job here, a job there. It was pretty straightforward. Now, they’re giving a million dollars to a kid that has eight million views on Vine, but it makes sense, he’s got eight million views. That is really what we’re looking to add to our program.
AB: What do you think is the difference between ICP and SVA, in the way you approach things or in your program?
ML: When you think of ICP, it is, to use a photographer term, a tripod. You have an exhibition, you have a collection and an archive, and then you have the school. A lot of people choose ICP because we have exhibitions, we have curators, we have a collections department. ICP is known internationally. Of our students, 50%, are coming from abroad. We have a great track record. It’s still seen as this center for photography. In terms of branding, it’s slightly different from SVA. I think like you were mention- ing on the exhibition side, that people possibly saw things as a little stale. I think that as a school we need to advance. That’s what really attracted to me to Fred, plus his smile. We are going to be teaching this next set of tools, and it’s not even the tools of right now. It’s even slightly ahead of that, like data visualization. Things that are going to be very common shortly.
AB: Are you going to have anything regarding curatorial studies?
ML: That’s a great question. The thing is, there’s not a huge market for that. Everyone’s a curator because you can start your own blog, and you can start your own curation, and you can just do it. The problem is teaching a class on curation. If you go out in the real world, how many jobs are there? There’s 17 jobs for, like, a chief curator.
You do bring up an interesting point. When I was at Magnum, I went to one of the big magazines and they were putting one of my photographers on the masthead. I went to lunch with the photo editor and I told him that he should really invest some resources in an online editor, because there are some incredible images out there and someone at your publication should be pulling that. There’s a bit of a prestige and snob factor. They want to know who the photographer is, and they want photographers who are award- winning. But what is out there is tremendous, and with the right editing you could pull some of these sto- ries. I’ll tell you one story that I found inspiring. When I first got to Magnum, there was a photographer who was an associate member, who was on the line of becoming a member. My first few months here, I asked him what he was up to, and he showed me these Instagram books that he put together. What he did was, he started editing via hashtag. He took a subject like the Boston Marathon, and searched “#Bos- tonMarathon2013” and he put together this whole book of images. If you looked at these pictures, they look like a photographer’s assignment. They set the scene: they showed you the explosion, they showed some blood on the street, they showed the police clearing, they show people looking with great anticipa- tion on a TV. It looked like a Lifetime Magazine 12 page spread. This gave you the idea of what happened in Boston during those 4 or 5 days. That was one book that he put together. The other book that he put together was “#We Love Jahar.” You look on the cover of this book: there’s a good-looking girl and good- looking guy, and they look like they just kissed. The girl has a little caption: “Look at my new boyfriend. I always pick the ones with funny noses. Hahaha.” Open up: selfie, selfie, selfie. Half the book is selfies. All women, ages 15 to 20. In the second part of the book you see these ladies have written on their nails, “love you Jahar”, “miss you Jahar.” You’re like, “Who is Jahar?” Then you realize that Jahar is the Boston bomber who lived. There is a whole conversation going on on Instagram right now where these young girls are professing their love to the Boston bomber because he’s a good-looking guy. So, when you talk about curation, who is bringing our attention to this? Who is saying, “Did you know that there is a whole bunch of people professing their love to the Boston bomber?”
AB: What’s he doing with those pictures?
ML: Well, he put together these books. It’s interesting because he has no rights to the pictures, because they’re everyone else’s pictures and he just got them off Instagram. He put it together as a book, but he can’t publish this book because he doesn’t have the rights.
AB: You heard what Richard Prince did? He’s selling them for $40,000. He’s allowed to do it. He pulled it off.
ML: I think he did go to the lawyer. To me, he should get the rights to publish these. He’s a photojournalist and this is social documentary. He is using other people’s pictures to tell us a story. He’s taking the “Insta” out of “Instagram.” Because Instagram is not photography; it’s communication. All these young women are communicating with each other, and what this photographer did is he grabbed it out of these billions of images, and he put it in a book, and said, “Look at this conversation that’s going on. Do you know this is happening?” To me, that’s powerful. These are the types of shows that I believe that ICP should be showcasing. It is contemporary. It’s about big issues, social issues, it’s like the Concerned Photographer. It’s helping us navigate through this Wild West moment. We’re all doing this, but what does this mean?