“Progress Requires Pictures”: An Interview with Brendan Wattenberg, Managing Editor at Aperture Magazine

I was sitting at a long wooden table in the trendy neighborhood of Maboneng in Johannesburg, South Africa this past November. A group of us crowded a small room. A gentle hum of laughter and excited chatter filled the little restaurant. The lights were dimmed; it felt as though everyone’s face was lit by candlelight. It was an enchanting evening made even more special because that night I met Brendan Wattenberg, the managing editor of Aperture Magazine. He is kind, generous, and captivating. We sat sharing stories about our first times in South Africa, our love of contemporary African art, and passion for history. Brendan and I caught up state-side to continue our conversation. He shares his first encounters with art, his work at Aperture, and his advice on the writing and editing.

Efe Igor (EI): When did you first become interested in art?

Brendan Wattenberg (BW): In 2004, I was working in South Africa as an intern for the Treatment Action Campaign, an HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy organization. That year was the tenth anniversary of democracy in South Africa, and Cape Town’s museums marked the occasion by presenting a series of exhibitions under the banner Democracy X. One of the central exhibitions took place at the South African National Gallery, where works by Tracey Rose and Guy Tillim were presented alongside installations and videos. This was my introduction not only to contemporary African art, but also to contemporary art embedded with pointed social messages — not political art, per se, but art that refracted or reflected debates in the social landscape.

EI: Tracey Rose and Guy Tillim’s work are so powerful and really grapple with South African history in nuanced ways. Who are the most inspirational artists to you right now?

BW: I was lucky to see Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective Mastry in both Chicago last fall, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in New York earlier this year, at the Met Breuer. I happened to see the New York version the day after the Women’s March in January, a day marked by so many tumultuous emotions — anger, solidarity, rage, optimism, and awe at the sheer numbers of people crowded onto New York’s streets. Nevertheless, even with that profoundly political experience in mind, and even having seen some of Marshall’s painting multiple times, I was still unprepared for the startling impact of Mastry. Is there any artist in our time whose work packs so much humanity, so many gorgeously distilled layers of race and history, so much love and respect, so much devotion to the style of individuals and communities, than Marshall? That probably sounds over the top, but it would be easy to spend an entire day looking only at the magisterial “paradise gardens” paintings, his series on public housing, and never quite feel satisfied that you’ve “seen it all.” The works are endless.  

EI: I saw that show the day of the march. I went before I met some friends and marched. I don’t think that you are being over the top at all. I was struck by how he could capture such mundane scenes, such as the beauty shop, and remind us of how ordinary beauty is. I was in such awe of his use of color to comment on race and the body. What is your favorite medium?

BW: I would have to say photography — and not just because I work at Aperture! When I was a teenager, I built a darkroom in the basement of the house where I grew up. I never had any skills in painting, but I was captivated, as so many people are when they start out in photography, by the developing process — the moment under the red safelight when you first begin to see an image emerging on photographic paper. My parents gave me books on Paul Strand, Bruce Davidson, and Brassaï in high school, so I had these classic references in mind, and I’m sure that helped form my love for photography in print.

EI: That is amazing! I can’t believe you built your own dark room. There was a darkroom in my high school and I too dabbled in photography. It was always amazing to see an image slowly become visible under the red safelight. It’s funny how that moment of slow transformation was so moving, but digital has changed that because things have become so instant. What is the importance of visual literacy in our moment?

BW: Last year, Aperture magazine published a landmark issue called “Vision & Justice,” guest edited by the Harvard professor Sarah Lewis, which considered the relationship between photography and citizenship in this country. “Understanding the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of visual literacy, particularly during periods of turmoil,” Lewis writes in her editor’s note. “Today, we’ve been able to witness injustices in a firsthand way on a massive scale that would have been unimaginable decades ago.” I’ve lately been thinking about Lewis’s idea, inspired by Frederick Douglass, that progress requires pictures — that we need images in mind to imagine other ways of living, other identities, other senses of belonging. So much has been written about the bombardment of images we see daily on our phones, on the computer, on television. But, just because you know how to read books doesn’t mean you can write a dissertation on nineteenth century literature. The same is true of images: just because we see them everyday, in so many forms — snapshots, fashion, politics, sports, activism, propaganda — doesn’t mean we have the resources to sort them all out and make sense of these images in our lives in any comprehensive way. I’ve lately grown to dislike the phrase “now more than ever,” which has become something of a slogan without obvious action backing it up, but in this case it’s true: now more than ever, we do need to learn how to read images and understand the history — even if cursorily — of certain types of photography, so that we know how to make decisions about what’s true, what’s marketing, what’s honest, what’s a misrepresentation.

EI: I completely agree with you. This moment does demand us to have a deeper understanding of images to participate in politics as well as recreational activities. That being said, what is the editorial strategy at Aperture? How do you select topics?

BW: I joined Aperture two years ago, and the second issue I worked on was “Vision & Justice,” which received an unprecedented amount of media attention. Only several weeks into the summer last year, the issue sold out and went into a second printing. It’s been assigned as course reading for several universities and tweeted about by Alicia Keys. So, the success of “Vision & Justice” both to address an urgent national topic, and to reach new audiences, has influenced some of our thinking about topical issues at the magazine. Aperture’s director, Chris Boot, and the magazine’s editor, Michael Famighetti, have since been pursuing more socially-inflected projects, such as “On Feminism,” which looks at the myriad strategies of women or female-identified photographers to interrogate images of gender and society, and “American Destiny,” which considers the representation of labor, work, and community in the U.S. today.

Having studied African and African American studies at New York University, I had a somewhat nontraditional background in photography. I worked with Deborah Willis at the Tisch School of the Arts, and I wrote my master’s thesis on three contemporary West African photographers. So of course I was thrilled when Aperture decided to begin a special research project on photography in Africa, titled “Platform Africa,” which was published this summer. “Platform Africa” looks at the key sites of exchange for photography on the continent — the biennials, experimental art spaces, and educational workshops — and through this lens, focuses largely on young artists who have built their careers and visions through these sites and experiences.

EI: I loved the “Vision & Justice” and “On Feminism” issues of Aperture. It is great to see that you guys are engaging with political issues through art. What advice do you have for aspiring editors and writers trying to break into your field?

BW: A few years ago, when I was at the extremely crowded opening of the New York Art Book Fair at PS1, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of publications and the truly amazing entrepreneurialism and creativity of upstart art book publishers. For young editors, I would suggest flexing those entrepreneurial skills and starting a small publication. Test out your vision and develop a style! For writers, I would say, pitch frequently. Find an essay, or op-ed, or think piece that you can’t stop thinking about, figure out what makes it work, and try to write one of your own. The best writing comes from a source of deep curiosity and deep conviction.

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