Thursday, September 13, 2018

Photo Finish: A Conversation with William Ewing

Curator and author William Ewing, shown here at his exhibit called Edward Steichen: In High Fashion. (Photo: Youtube)

Without ever having clicked a shutter, Canada’s William Ewing has earned an international reputation as one of the great luminaries of modern photography. In the more than four decades since opening his first gallery in his native Montreal, the now-74-year old photography expert has created exhibitions, written books – including an international bestseller – and directed a prestigious Swiss museum, all devoted to the ephemeral art of photography. That's right, ephemeral.

"I think it would shock most people to know that 80 per cent of photographs disappear," said Ewing, speaking by phone on a fast-moving European train in between assignments. "People feel that because they are so ubiquitous that they will go on and on. But most are destroyed or are lost or are torn up by one's kids. And few photographs are documented. And usually little is written about them."

Ewing has done more than his part to change that, his training in cultural anthropology at McGill University having given him a healthy appreciation for the importance of preserving a people’s artefacts.

"I tend not to look at photographs as conventional art objects,” he continued, as the landscape outside his window whizzed by in a blur of images. “I don't accept that the only person entitled to invest a photograph with meaning is the person who took it. I think that a photograph has all kinds of meanings simply by being the product of a particular culture. And that for me enriches the reading of photographs."

Ewing's own photographic readings have filled more than a dozen books, along with many gallery walls. His exhibitions have been shown in many museums around the world, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Barbican Art Gallery in London, the Jeu de Paume and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Kunsthaus in Zurich and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, to name only a few. From 1996 to 2010, he directed the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, appointed Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of the Republic of France upon his retirement.

(Photo: Getty)
From there, Ewing assumed the role of curator of special projects for the international publishing house Thames & Hudson, and for the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Minneapolis. In 2009 he co-curated the New York Photo Festival, and in 2010 three shows for the French festival, Les Rencontres d'Arles. His books include the bestselling The Body: Photographs of the Human Form (1994), Dance and Photography (1987) and reGeneration: Tomorrow's Photographers Today (2005 and 2010). Ewing has also produced monographs on Erwin Blumenfeld, George Hoyningen-Huene and Edward Steichen, among others.

Ewing turned to writing books after finding curatorial work limiting. “Basically I was frustrated," he said. "The exhibitions were marvelous, but after they went down there was nothing left." But then after doing the books, and seeing how successful they were – The Body: Photographs of the Human Form has sold over 400,000 copies world-wide and been translated into at least a dozen languages – Ewing looked to translating all his literary endeavors into museum projects.

"I surprised myself,” he said. “I started missing the exhibition format and the architecture of museums. Though challenging, I found that the pages were just not enough. So I decided to wear two hats, [as] author and curator."

He developed his passion for photography after opening Montreal's Optica Centre d’art contemporain in 1972. He ran it like a museum – "without knowing a thing about photography, really" – and mounted shows early on that featured the work of André Kertesz and Lee Friedlander, among others. "I learned by doing," said Ewing, who later moved to New York to become director of exhibitions for the International Center for Photography. ICP encouraged him to curate shows with accessible themes, and requested an exhibit on dance that evolved into Fugitive Gesture (1988), one of his several books on dance photography.

When the Musée de L'Elysée in Lausanne – one of the world's few museums devoted exclusively to photography – beckoned in 1996, Ewing wasted no time in accepting the position as director. He used his position to advance an appreciation of photography and the role it plays in our lives, a theme especially topical in today’s selfie culture. But is it art? “An idiotic argument,” Ewing sputtered. "Young people would never ask the question. It is evident to them that film and photography are arts and that they are closely related."

While the times are image-saturated, Ewing has chosen not to surround himself with photography at home. "This might sound like I'm contradicting myself,” he said, “but I'm not. I don't think that to accept photography means that you have to frame them and put them on walls and pretend that they are paintings. I think that photography is different. I think photographs are digested, devoured and dispensed with much more quickly than hand-crafted objects. And that is both their great strength over other media, and their great weakness.”

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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