Q&A with Karen Marshall, Curator At International Center of Photography Education Gallery

New York photographer Karen Marshall has worked on a series of long-term projects that focus on the psychological lives of her subjects within the social landscape.

She is the recipient of artist fellowships and sponsorships through the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as grants and support from private foundations. Her photographs have been widely exhibited and are part of several collections, including the Feminist Artbase at The Brooklyn Museum.

An expert at visual storytelling, Marshall has a thriving consulting business, assisting photographers, foundations, and small businesses in the creation of visual narratives.

Marshall lectures frequently and is a committed mentor.  She is on the faculty of the Documentary/Photojournalism Program at The International Center of Photography, and is Associate Professor (Adjunct) at New York University, and teaches a variety of workshops both in United States and abroad.


How did you decide on the theme for the ICP exhibition?

I have been an ICP faculty member for 20 years. When ICP asked me to organize the juried faculty show, I invited my fellow photographers to share how they define “social landscape” within their own work. My interest in “social landscape” began several years ago when I started using the phrase to explain my own work. I offer classes under the same title and find the term inclusive of a myriad of approaches to making pictures about culture and society.

Which artist was your most difficult to secure for the exhibition?

This was a juried invite so the photographers who submitted work chose to. While uncertain about how some 350 ICP faculty photographers would conceive of this call, I was excited by the visual conversation that followed. The jury committee of Alison Morley (Chair of the Documentary Photography and Photo Journalism Program), Donna Ruskin (Education Associate), Claartje van Dijk (Research Associate in Collections), and Pauline Vermare (Curatorial Assistant), viewed hundreds of images and multimedia submissions and honed them down into a coherent body of work which I contextualize and sequence, resulting in this unique visual collaborative.

I made the decision not to influence what photographers submitted by not requesting particular bodies of work that I already knew of. ICP is a unique institution where most faculty members are active working photographers who share their expertise with a diverse international student body in weekend workshops, 10-week courses, and intensive year-long programs. Students are influenced by our opinions and viewpoints, but the faculty itself rarely has the opportunity to converse with each other on their divergent approaches.

How did you get started as a curator and what was the first show you put together?

I have always liked putting work together. Photographers who I have mentored over the years can attest to the fact that I really emphasize every aspect of the editing and sequencing process as a way to contextualize a series of photographs. Photography is a visual language. I see ‘curating’ as an activity that I engage in on a daily basis… in my own long-term projects, in the classroom, as a consultant, and when hanging an exhibition. So the first exhibition I put together in undergraduate school a few decades ago, a collaborative essay with another student, was in essence the first show I curated. Though I have curated and been the juror on about a dozen exhibitions over the past decade, I have influenced and helped ‘curate’ hundreds of emerging photographers’ work over the years.

For people wanting to collect art, what tips do you suggest before they make a purchase?

If a photographer’s work really moves you then that should be a primary motivation of a purchase. If you are someone who wants to build a substantial collection of photographs, then it might be challenging to find a concise idea or theme that you are interested in and develop it. It seems to me that building a collection of interconnected images made by several divergent photographers would be an interesting and creative endeavor for a collector. There are some very impressive photographers who have been shooting for years and whose work is unique and important even if you have never heard of them before. A great photograph is going to remain a great photograph regardless of trends in galleries.

What is your most memorable exhibition you have ever attended?

There are many memorable exhibitions…many…and so this is a super hard question.

In recent years the 2005 Diane Arbus show at the Met stands out as a favorite. The show was articulate and expansive and it was wonderful to see her prolific career spread out over so much space with plenty of room to take in the sheer volume of iconic images. The installation also included letters and other fragments of her creative life that both honored and brought additional context to the work of this amazing photographer. It is not often that a retrospect is so cohesive and well done.

What are some things you like to do for fun?

Photograph. It is my life’s passion and my life’s work.