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The loss of a talented curator of photography would be deeply felt at any art institution. But at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which leans heavily on photography exhibitions for its marquee shows, the departure of Paul Roth, its curator of photography and media arts, is akin to a ship suddenly asea without a first mate. Photography has long been a mainstay of the Corcoran’s programming, both for homegrown and traveling exhibitions. Most of the critically and commercially successful marquee exhibitions the museum has shown in recent years featured photographers—-from the Roth-curated Richard Avedon and Sally Mann exhibitions, to the traveling exhibitions of William Eggleston and Annie Liebovitz. Before coming to the Corcoran in 1996, Roth worked for the National Gallery of Art, where he was the archivist of the Robert Frank Collection.
Roth announced over the weekend that he left the Corcoran on Dec. 31, and will lead the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York as its executive director, DCist reported yesterday. He leaves photography programming in the able hands of Assistant Curator Amanda Maddox, who was the organizing curator of the Eggleston show. Maddox has also guest-curated exhibitions with the Washington Project for the Arts, Civilian Art Projects, and Houston’s FotoFest 2008 biennial.
In 2008, this is what I had to say about Roth’s work in “Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power”:
Avedon’s (and the exhibit’s) definition of power is very broad. But though that encourages complaints that Portraits of Power is all over the place, the breadth is an asset: Photographs of people subjected to or changed by power, rather than wielding it, keep the show from becoming an exhibit of election-year political nostalgia. The projected confidence, or lack thereof, of former presidents is interesting enough, but it’s the nervous-looking Patti Smith, the droopy-eyed Dorothy Parker, and the embracing Dr. and Mrs. Spock that keep the show moving. The photos of public figures tell us much about their personalities, but the photos of the nobodies in this show tell us a lot about America.
And here’s what fellow City Paper critic Louis Jacobson wrote about Roth’s most recent exhibition, “Edward Burtynsky: Oil”:
Burtynsky’s finest work in this exhibit consists of his depiction of the surreal landscapes of oil extraction. His double-wide panoramas of oil derricks such as Oil Fields #19 a and b, recede to the California desert horizon and spill headlong out of the frame. They are eye-opening in every sense of the word. His prints offer a bracing combination of massive scale, fine detail, and mesmerizing color—and that’s before you even start to unpack the subject matter, which is equal parts resonant and otherworldly. In the catalog, Corcoran curator Paul Roth aptly calls the rigs “great mechanical mosquitoes…desiccating their surroundings in service of an unlimited thirst.”