Q&A: Nancy Barr, Curator of Photography at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Plus, information about the DIA’s upcoming exhibit, Lost & Found
1928
Untitled (Young Couple) Photo by Arthur Stross

HOUR: What qualifies an image as vernacular photography?

Nancy Barr: It involves everything from photo booth portraits to commercial photo studio portraits. It’s anything by amateur or commercial photographers who aren’t trained to do fine artwork. I’ve always been taught that people who are practitioners of fine art photography usually have some type of formal education, but, really, they’re people who have consciously developed bodies of work on specific themes. People photographing for pleasure and to commemorate family occasions, that’s different. Although people who make those photographs may think they’re great photographers, they may not necessarily be artists in the traditional sense.

Nancy Barr // Photograph by Jean Lannen

What inspired you to bring vernacular photography to the DIA? 

I came across a lot of work by amateur photographers and unknown photographers in our collection and started talking to a lot of [vernacular] collectors. Photographs by some of the people in the show have fallen into obscurity in some ways and been found again and put up. The photographs were lost, the histories were lost, and now they’re back for reconsideration. [The exhibit] fell together as a collection of portraits, in some cases of Detroit or things related to Detroit and automobiles. Those narratives run through the exhibition.

What do you hope visitors take away from Lost & Found

The minute you put something on the wall of a big art museum, it changes the context of it. I’m hoping people will come in and look at these old analog-era photographs and see that photography has been a long-time cultural practice that shows us that we’re connected somehow. We have shared cultural experiences, shared cultural practices that help us celebrate everyday human experiences. It’s going to be interesting to talk to people about how they see the photographs and how they see them as art.


Lost & Found will run from Aug. 26 to March 3. For more information, visit dia.org

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