Interview with Bridget Gilman


We’re privileged to have a limited number of photo historians in San Diego. What got you interested in photography initially?

My mom taught me how to use her 35 mm camera when I was maybe 11 or 12. I have always been interested in art the very broad sense of visual culture and how we see the world—I love that photography is omnivorous and inescapable.  



You moved to San Diego recently. What brought you here and when did you arrive?

I moved to San Diego last summer to begin a new job as an Assistant Professor of Art History at San Diego State University.



Do you have a favorite period(s) or genre in the history of photography?

My research is in modern and contemporary art, but I am interested in all periods of photographic history. I particularly love urban photography—I’m fascinated by how we choose to represent the shifting nature of our environments.


As a historian you look at all kinds of photographs. What makes you stop to look at a photograph that might lead you down a path of discovery?

I think photography has the great capability of focusing our attention on things, people, or places that we typically overlook. Or making us look again at things that we see every day. As such I’m often looking for something—some telling detail or expression—that gives us a feeling of how history was actually lived. I am also a nut for color images, particularly before color became the norm.  


Photography has had big effects on painting and other art forms since its inception in 1839. What are some of your favorite examples of photography influencing (or being used by) artists in other media?

This is a big can of worms for me: my dissertation research was devoted to several photorealist painters, i.e. artists who use photographs as direct sources for their paintings. One of the fascinating parts of photography’s history is that it is always being compared and interacting with other media—it has roots in the graphic arts, forms intense competition with painting, and is the foundation of film. It also allows artists to document artworks that are located in remote areas or are ephemeral—without photography influential movements like land art and performance might never have happened.


How do see southern California as a unique subject for photography?

Southern California, and the American West more generally, are very much embedded in the history of photography. The United States colonized the western part of the country just as photography was invented, thus our image of this region has always been shaped by photography. It is also, of course, an extremely photogenic place—Southern California has fantastic light.


Given the proliferation of digital technology and the expanding uses of photography, how do you see creative artists (i.e. the medium itself) changing in response?

I think there are a few important reactions to digital technology. A basic one is the revival of interest in older technologies. A number of photographers—Binh Danh, John Chiara, Vera Lutter, and so on—are using very old forms of image-making, or inventing their own ways of making images and developing prints. The other end of the spectrum relates to the embrace of the digital world: mining the vast archives of Google and Flickr to investigate the quantities and patterns of contemporary vernacular photography. It’s also fascinating to see how some well-established photographers are embracing social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, and Cindy Sherman are all fantastic follows.


How do you see writers influencing the history of photography?

One of the strengths of writing on photography is that it has been quite self-reflective for several decades now. Writers like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Alan Sekula, and Martha Rosler were all highly invested in tugging at how photographic meaning is made and why we need to develop a critical eye. I think the best writing today takes that foundation and expands it, looking at issues of power, representation, and diverse geographic and cultural identities.


What advice do you give to upcoming generations about the future of photography?

It’s a difficult path, given how many images we now see every day, but also one ripe with opportunities.  Photography is an ever-evolving technology, so there will always be chances to experiment with new processes and kinds of image making. My advice would be to absorb widely and deeply: get to know the history of photography, learn the stories of your subjects, and experiment by working in all kinds of genres and photographing conditions. Also don’t be afraid to collaborate—we often think of photography as a solitary activity, but it is perhaps at its most profound when paired with other media.