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or a museum curator, there are few things more gratifying than inadvertently discovering a famous artist’s unseen work.
But for Karen Haas ’78, what began with a casual phone inquiry about a single photo by the late photographer Gordon Parks ultimately led to a stunning new book of Parks’ unpublished photos from 65 years earlier, a sad but enlightening road trip through the Midwestern United States, and one of the most powerful exhibitions the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has ever produced. None of it could have been predicted.
Haas serves as the MFA’s Lane Curator of Photographs; she oversees a massive permanent collection of nearly 7,000 prints from virtually every era of photography, with particular emphasis on the work of American modernist photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. She is also the recipient of the 2016 New England Beacon Focus Award from the Griffin Museum of Photography.
The Parks exhibition, which Haas curated in 2015, sprouted from a museumwide book project that Haas and her fellow curators from other departments were working on to showcase the works the museum held from various African American artists.
“We had this one Gordon Parks photo of a young couple outside of a segregated movie theater in a small town, but the information we had was extremely limited, and I couldn’t figure out where it was from,” Haas says.
A natural stickler for detail and a bit of an amateur detective, Haas set out to learn as much as she could about the mysterious photo. She made a trip to the Gordon Parks Foundation in upstate New York, where she was shocked to learn that her mystery image was part of an assignment for Life that Parks had taken on in 1950 but that had never been published, for reasons that remain unclear.
“I became obsessed with this whole story,” Haas says. “I went to Kansas, where the Parks archives are, and I read through all of his handwritten notebooks. I looked at the telegrams and correspondence related to that particular assignment [with Life], and I began to piece together the puzzle.”
In 1950, Parks was living in New York City and working as the first and only black staff photographer for Life. When his editors asked him to craft a photo essay on school segregation—a major national issue in the years leading up to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education—Parks suggested that he return to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, in an effort to track down his 11 fellow classmates from elementary school, none of whom he’d heard from for more than 20 years. To explore segregation through such a personal lens was a novel concept at the time, but Parks was a rising star, and his editors agreed it would make the piece more powerful.
Sadly, Fort Scott, ravaged by decades of racism, violence and economic devastation, was still home to only one of Parks’ classmates when he arrived. Like millions of other black Americans since 1916, the rest had joined the Great Migration in search of better lives in urban areas such as Chicago, Detroit and New York. Nonetheless, Parks managed to track down nearly all of his classmates in other cities, and they agreed to be shot in raw, occasionally heartbreaking settings. Those photos—more than 30 altogether—made up “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,” the extraordinary exhibition Haas curated.
“What I loved about those images was that they were photographs of families and of people who were in different life situations when Parks found them, but they were taken with so much respect and strength, and there’s so much power in the trusting gazes you can see in many of them,” Haas says.
She was so inspired by the photos and the stories of each of Parks’ classmates that she hired a genealogist and recruited her husband—a photographer who also works at the MFA—to join her on a road trip in search of any living descendants of the men and women in Parks’ 1950 photos.
They didn’t meet with much success in finding any of the relatives, and all of the original homes of Parks’ classmates had been torn down, but Haas says the entire experience had a profound impact on her, both personally and professionally.
“It was a huge turning point in my career, and it really inspired me to focus as often as I can on making our collection more diverse,” she says. “That moment of realizing what the Gordon Parks exhibit meant to our community and seeing people and hearing from people who said it was the first time they ever saw photographs in a museum that truly look like their families—that was deeply moving.”
That philosophy has been on display in the years since, with exhibitions like “(un)expected families” (2017), which showcased a variety of photos challenging the conventions of traditional family portraits and celebrating the diversity of families today.
And earlier this year, Haas curated a critically acclaimed Ansel Adams exhibition that explored the legendary landscape photographer’s work through a new lens, by including some interpretations of his photographs by contemporary artists, who offered commentary on climate change and other modern environmental issues.
“Fifteen years ago, I did another Ansel Adams show here that was a great success, but for this one I couldn’t just hang the work without comment,” Haas says. “I feel as though the world has changed so much that our role as curators really is to respond not in a knee-jerk way, not in a simplistic way, but to our community, our neighborhood and to the politics of the moment.”
Growing up in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, Haas often visited museums with her parents and always felt at home in their serene environs. But pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t part of her plan until she randomly took an art history course at Conn to fill a hole in her class schedule.
That course triggered an epiphany, and she switched from studying early childhood education to art history, spending her summers interning at museums such as Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she landed a job immediately after graduation and moved to Boston with a roommate from Conn, with whom she’s still close friends today.
The privilege of having such a powerful platform from which to expose people to artists and issues they may not be familiar with is not lost on Haas, and she’s especially excited about the opportunities she has to broaden the audience by sending certain exhibits on tour. The Ansel Adams show, for example, which includes works by several Boston-based photographers, will be traveling to Arkansas and Oregon.
“I’m really excited that his exhibit is going to places where it could be eye-opening to a lot of people and introduce them to some artists who are less well-known in the South and out West,” says Haas.
As the Lane Curator of Photographs, Haas makes sure to mention that the Lane Collection is unique in that it’s an incredibly personal collection—one that started with Adams’ photos—that was built by the donors over many years, but not as a financial investment or because these photographers were trendy.
William and Saundra Lane, longtime supporters of the MFA, began building their photography collection in the 1960s, developing close friendships with Ansel Adams and his wife, who introduced them to a number of other California-based photographers. When William passed away, Saundra donated their entire collection to the museum in what remains one of the largest gifts in the MFA’s history.
What’s particularly notable about that era of photography, Haas says, is that there was barely any commercial market for it, and a prevailing sense existed within the art world’s cognoscenti that photography—the relative new kid on the block—inhabited a position far beneath other visual art forms. That perception has mostly changed, especially at the institutions where Haas has worked, which have always given photography equal billing.
For her next big project, Haas is working on an exhibition commemorating the centennial anniversary of women getting the right to vote. Set to open before the 2020 presidential election, it will entirely feature women photographers.
While she’s now a veteran curator, Haas’ enthusiasm for her work shows no signs of fading, and she credits those earliest experiences at Conn with setting her on this path.
“I still have vivid memories of sitting in those art history classes at the very beginning, in the most basic surveys where professors often just go through the motions, but my Conn professors were so animated and excited about the material that it was infectious,” she recalls. “It really comes down to great teachers, and I’m so grateful that I had these inspiring teachers who helped me carve out this niche as a curator. I wake up every day excited to come to work and to be a part of this field.”