Gail Buckland at the stadium built in Athens in 1896 for the modern Olpymics<
Getting in the mood for her next book Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History 1843 to the Present
Author. Educator. Curator. Gail Buckland’s life in photography is as vast as the medium itself, revealing a love that was born of a dream. Buckland remembers how it all began: “I wanted to be a journalist. My first choice school was Northwestern, the Medill School of Journalism. After she was accepted, my family drove out to visit the school. We drove a thousand miles, and the first thing my parents wanted to find was the Hillel on campus. We kept walking around campus, passing blonde, blue-eyed people the entire way. On the drive from Evanston, Illinois, back to New York, my parents questioned my choice. ‘Why not go to a Liberal Arts school here?” So I went to the University of Rochester. I never thought about photography. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Then, my freshman year I had a dream. I woke up and I wanted to be a photographer. And that was it.”
From that first moment of unconscious clarity, Buckland’s life has lead her along a path, one that has allowed her to pursue her passion for the medium. Like so many who dedicate themselves to the photograph. Buckland was lead to the form by a need to see more than her immediate senses would allow. She recalls, “I remember one time at AIPAD, I was leading a panel discussion with Ralph Gibson, Eva Rubenstein, Duane Michals, and a few other people. I asked them, ‘What was the one photograph you saw that changed the course of your life?’ At the end, someone asked me to answer my own question. I remember where I was. I went to MoMA and saw Edward Weston’s photograph of a cabbage leaf. I never saw a cabbage lead look like that, and I had been eating cabbage my entire life. It was a revelation. I need a way of seeing more deeply because my own eyes aren’t doing it for me.”
It was here, in this recognition that not only her eyes but also her emotions and her own personal photography would be aided by a study of the masters of the medium. Buckland began to consider the photograph as more than a work of art and a record of the world, but a tool to help herself and others see life more clearly.. She notes, “In school I studied the the metaphysical and psychological realms of photography influenced by the teachings of Minor White and Roy Hattersley, and I was also taking photos to be like Dorothea Lange. I was idealistic. I wanted to change the world in the 1960s, like many others. I was very influenced by Cornell Capa’s Concerned Photographer shows at Riverside Museum.” Capa used that phrase to describe the position some adopted with their work, using photography as a tool for humanitarian service to educate and change the world.
“Once I latched on, I absorbed as much as I could. But I did not want to live in this country under Nixon. I was very radicalized at this time and I wanted to get out before I planted a bomb or did something I would later regret. I went to Manchester, England. I had been printing photographs I had taken the summer before on a trip to Crete with a group artists and I had no one to show them to so I looked up Bill Brandt, who was the only photographer I knew in England. He agreed to see me, saying, ‘I know what it means to be a photographer in a foreign country.’ We spent hours going over my prints. I was an undergraduate and Brandt was enormously generous.”
Brandt gave Buckland invaluable advice. He let her know she could crop her prints. By giving her full authority over her work, Brandt let her know she did not, as a creative mind, need to follow the rules of the establishment. Buckland was free to set her own path, and so she began to explore her options.
Buckland recalls, “I made the transition into curatorial work because I needed to earn a living. At that time, no one was doing anything with old photographs in the UK, and that combined my interests in photography and history. The Royal Photographic Society was hiring part time, and the Arts Council was also hiring part time. So I worked at both.”
In Spring 1972, the Victoria & Albert Museum hosted “From Today Painting is Dead.” The title of the show is from a quote attributed to French painter Paul Delaroche, probably made in 1839 when the artist saw examples of the Daguerreotype.. Buckland notes, “The exhibition at the V&A was the biggest and most important photography show in the UK in 50 years. I went to Windsor and chose photographs from the Queen’s collection and to many other major collections. I also compiled the 1000 entries , written mostly by the curator of the exhibition Dr. David Thomas, for the catalogue
“At the same time I was working at the Royal Photographic Society, cataloguing the collection. I catalogued 350 Roger Fentons and 600 Julia Margaret Camerons. I eventually became the Curator of the Royal Photographic Society, and then I later left to concentrate on the work of William Henry Fox Talbot.”
Fox Talbot was a British savant and photography pioneer who invented the photogenic drawing and calotype process the foundation of photographic processes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Buckland spent seven years on the research, which resulted in the landmark exhibition, “Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography” at the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1979 and book of the same name. She recalls, “I wanted to understand the point at which a camera could capture an image, when we had made the change from the human hand to the mechanical eye.”
“Photograph has allowed me to explore all areas of life. In my day, photography was a specialty unto itself. I like to say I’ve done everything from Fox Talbot to Rock and Roll,” she adds in reference to “Who Shot Rock and Roll,” a ten museum exhibition tour and book that featured works by photographers from Richard Avedon, Albert Watson, and David LaChapelle to Dennis Hopper, Andreas Gursky, and Ryan McGinley.
The author of fourteen books on photography and history, Buckland has collaborated with luminaries including Cecil Beaton, Sir Harold Evans, and Al Gore in her illustrious career. She remembers when Beaton put her name as large on the cover as his own and told her, “We are partners in this project.” From those early heady days in England, Buckland has come full circle, now working in Brooklyn on a new exhibition and book of photography for 2016.
She observes, “I like looking at the pictures. I don’t like making the final selection. You know you have to do it, but I prefer the actual research and the pleasure of entering someone else’s world. It is like the end of Ulysses: ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ The act of creation is such an affirmation. I just feel more alive from it. I respond to art in the deepest, most profound way. I can’t imagine my life without it.
“Now at my age, I’m not interested in playing it safe. I am not curating for my colleagues. You can have popular and critical success: you don’t have to sacrifice one for the others. It’s not just about celebrating established people; it’s about taking risks too. My mission now is to break down the hierarchies and enlarge the field.” A curator has to be true to who they are and that degree of honesty comes across.
“Photography is the great democratic art. A judicious use of words can help enrich an experience. It’s difficult to write a book. After fourteen books, it doesn’t get any easier. It’s torture—but it helps me understand what I think, and how to be clear about my thoughts, about what is now forty years of working in – and teaching – photography.”