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Depth Of Field
Milwaukee becomes the focal point for 11 world-renowned photographers.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin.
Paolo Pellegrin, born in Rome in 1964, is best-known as a photojournalist. “I’m more interested in a photography that is ‘unfinished,’” he says, “a photography that is suggestive and can trigger a conversation or dialogue.”

Bring some of the world’s best photographers to Milwaukee, set them loose, corral their differing visions into a single exhibit – and you have the potential for a groundbreaking show at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The project has a deceptively simple name, Postcards from America: Milwaukee. The goal is more complicated: to use multiple perspectives to define what “place” means across America, in this case, Milwaukee. The exhibit opens July 10 and runs into September.

Eleven photographers traveled here in three stages: in August, January and April. “These photographers bring 11 sets of fresh eyes,” says Lisa Sutcliffe, the museum’s curator of photography. “The show is not going to define Milwaukee, but it is going to define what 11 artists saw when they came here.”

The local exhibit is part of a larger undertaking, Postcards from America, organized by photographers from Magnum, a pre-eminent photographic cooperative. The MAM exhibit builds on four earlier locations: the Southwest to the West Coast; Utah; Rochester, N.Y.; and Florida during the 2012 presidential election. 

As with the earlier projects, the exhibit has been shaped by a spirit of collaboration and willingness to try something new. While in Milwaukee, the photographers reviewed each other’s work and offered suggestions. Students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design assisted the photographers. 

The exhibit will include photos from several other Wisconsin locations, but “the spirit of the project” is based in Milwaukee, Sutcliffe says.

The Milwaukee postcards project is the first that will be exhibited in a museum, reflecting both the growing stature of the project and Sutcliffe’s connections. (The initial presentation in Oakland, Calif., in 2011 consisted of postcard-sized prints put on tables at a supper club/ballroom.)

Sutcliffe had been following the project and thought it an interesting new model for photography, journalism and art. When Martin Parr, one of the photographers, was here for an assignment, she invited the postcards project to Milwaukee. The photographers had wanted to explore a post-industrial city in America’s heartland, and they took Sutcliffe up on her offer.

The exhibit is not without risk. For Sutcliffe, who came to the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013, it is the first exhibit she has curated from beginning to end. For the museum, the timeline is “almost insane,” she says. Most museum exhibits are planned years in advance and are based on already-existing work.

“This will not be a traditional museum show,” Sutcliffe says.

The photographers are also nervous. Will their work, created in a few days, meet the standards of museum-quality art?

At the same time, all involved emphasize that breaking the rules has added energy and immediacy to the project, and provided the freedom necessary to create something new. 

“We are making up the rules as we go along,” says Jim Goldberg, a photographer who helped start Postcards from America. “And it’s fun. And it’s art.”

See our photo gallery preview of the Postcards from America: Milwaukee exhibit here

This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the June issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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