Q & A with Visiting Scholar Caroline Riley

Caroline Riley is a research associate with a Ph.D. in the History of Art and Architecture from Boston University (2011-2016). She is currently a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow working on her second book Thérèse Bonney and the Power of Global Syndicated Photography.

Tell us a bit about your background and research interests.

With professional roles at ten universities and museums, my background straddles the academic and curatorial worlds. I specialize in the visual culture of the eighteenth–century to the present from Europe and the Americas with a focus on American visual culture in a global context. I have published on Pictorialist photography, nineteenth–century portrait painters, American craft, American vernacular art in Paris, the formation of the American art canon, and the politicization of American art in Europe. As a curator and an academic, I look to museums as the site for my thinking about American art during the pivotal 1930s period. My deep appreciation of museums led to my desire to write about the importance of curators in art criticism and the power of exhibitions in shifting how the public understands their place in American culture. Viewing art can be transformative and exhibitions can transport each of us to a different place, a different experience, or a different time.

While serving as Research Associate, I have been very fortunate to receive five academic fellowships to support my research. I currently serve as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 2023–24. I was the Terra Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2019-20, the Judith B. and Burton P. Resnick Postdoctoral Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2020-21, a John W. Kluge Center Fellow at the Library of Congress in 2021-22, and a NEH Long-Term Fellow at the New York Public Library in 2022-23. I am the Co-Chair Emerita of Photography Network and served on the CAA’s Services to Historians of Visual Arts Committee, as a Board Member for the journal Panorama, and on the Association of Historians of American Art Board.

Please provide a summary of your first book, MoMA Goes to Paris in 1938: Building the American Art Canon (University of California Press, 2023), and your motivation for writing it.

I devoted an entire book to Three Centuries of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art’s first international exhibition, on view in Paris in 1938. With over 750 artworks ranging from seventeenth-century colonial portraits to Mickey Mouse and spanning architecture, film, folk art, painting, prints, and sculpture, it was the most comprehensive display of American art to date in Europe and an important contributor to the internationalization of American art. The book explores how, at a time when the concept of artworks as “masterpieces” was very much up for debate, the exhibition expressed a vision of American art and culture that was not only an art historical endeavor but also a formulation of national identity. It demonstrates in what ways, at the brink of international war in the politically turbulent 1930s, MoMA collaborated with the US Department of State for the first time to deploy works of art as diplomatic agents.

I hope the readers can sense the joy I had in writing the book and the marvel I felt in my discoveries. Art history is struggling as a profession right now, but art historians are vital to our understanding of culture. We are a relatively small group of people versed in the visual complexity of the world around us and able to share that knowledge with others. As the world becomes more digital and more visual, we are a vital linchpin, demonstrating the complicated legacy of seemingly new images.  I hope readers can also sense the stakes in the Three Centuries of American Art’s display, the risks that MoMA and other museums took, and the desperation of diplomats to try anything to strengthen the relationship between France and the United States.

Exhibitions are wonderful objects to research because they capture the complexity of the culture created during the period in which they were made. However, it is difficult to easily summarize exhibitions because they are vast, dense, and long-lasting—what I call their “exhibitionary life cycle.” Scholars often mention exhibitions in relation to an artist, art movement, or geographical location but fail to provide a clear understanding of how the curator interpreted the artwork in the exhibition. To interested French audiences, Three Centuries of American Art presented a modern, socio­economically and geographically complex United States that emphasized mass cul­ture, industrialization, capitalism, and the changing American landscape. With artworks dating back to 1609, MoMA folded Indigenous and colonial histories into the definition of the United States while largely ignoring native and enslaved cultures. Further, more than three hundred artworks in the exhibition represented the American land­scape in its diversity: the spread of farms, the congestion of cities, the scale of facto­ries, antiquated American defenses, and the porous oceans. I hope this book demonstrates the richness of exhibitions not only for museum studies but more broadly for art history.

What’s the main message you hope readers will take away from the book?

MoMA Goes to Paris in 1938 is larger than a single exhibition. It is a strategy of integrating exhibitions as a vital measure and voice, a system of inventorying and advocating, in art history. It is also a method of inquiry that could open art history up to new questions and audiences at a time when the discipline must adapt.

You are currently working on your next book, Thérèse Bonney and the Power of Global Syndicated Photography.  What is the book about?

Thérèse Bonney (1894–1978) was a groundbreaking American freelance photographer, who was also a collector, curator, writer, filmmaker, and US spy. This book, my second and the first devoted to Bonney’s entire career, investigates her work over four decades photographing soldiers, farm life, war-ravaged towns, refugees and concentration camps, architecture, fashion, women at work, Nazi-looted art, and artist studios to explore the impact of transportation innovations on the spread of modernism, the position of professional women in war, and the news between 1920 and 1955. Americans, and the larger international community, learned about art, war, and women’s roles through the syndication of Bonney’s work and the worldview it expressed. President Roosevelt realized her photos’ power, writing, “It is a graphic and heart-rending story which could be written only with the lens.” In 1922, she founded the Bonney Service (the “Service”), the first American illustrated press service in Europe. It disrupted the news market then dominated by male publishers such as William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Fundamentally, I argue that Bonney’s deployment of photo syndication represented a foundational shift in photography overlooked by scholars that also permitted a dissemination, through her copyright, of Bonney as a modern woman. The invention of photo syndication, furthered by Bonney, allowed a photo to spread seemingly instantaneously around the globe thanks to Clipper planes and other technological advances. Through the Service, she revolutionized the syndication practice by dispatching photos from nineteen countries to thirty-three nations. The rise of Henry Luce’s periodicals would mark the decline of the Service. My research complicates our understanding of the information economy in the period between the syndication of articles—with the Associated Press and others made powerful by the telegraph—and the primacy of documentary photos without text that led to the founding of Magnum Photos in 1947.

Could you speak more about photo syndication?

Bonney sent a flood of images on French culture to the United States during the 1920s and 1930s that influenced how the emerging middle class thought of international modernism and how white American women, in particular, saw their shifting place in the world. I add to the current scholarship on Bonney’s influence on French decorative arts by introducing to scholars for the first time her company, the Bonney Service. The Bonney Service disseminated to a global audience conceptions of European modernism as high culture. For example, she produced spreads on American expatriates in Paris, including her friend Gertrude Stein (for the Syracuse News readers), and fashion, intended for wealthy, white women readers of The New York Times.

In the 1930s, the Bonney Service, according to Bonney, competed with five leading national press syndicates— the Associated Press, Wide World, International News, Pacific and Atlantic, and Underwood and Underwood—which together, she calculated, supplied nearly 2,000 papers of the United States, approximately 150 Sunday rotogravures (often the Sunday photography supplement to a newspaper), and reached several million readers. Bonney supplied photographs to 150 publications, including 10 of the leading US dailies that claimed an aggregate circulation of over 13,000,000, implying about 65,000,000 readers. The lessons she learned creating the Bonney Service affected her work process during World War II, when she moved photographs from Europe to the United States, informing Americans about World War II and the Holocaust.

How is this research relevant to policymakers today?

Democracies rely on informed citizens, and questions about the accuracy of the news predate the twenty-first century and viral online videos. The power of images to shape voters’ views, hold leaders accountable, and rock democracies was evident a century ago. Bonney’s career also sheds light on the importance of government support for independent artistic production in attempts to win the hearts and minds in other countries. My research expands our understanding of the information economy in the period between the syndication of articles—with the Associated Press and other companies made powerful by the telegraph—and the primacy of documentary photography without text that eventually led to the founding of the famed Magnum Photos in 1947. With more than 1,300 published photos, fourteen exhibitions, five books, approximately 7,000 articles, and her role as a US spy, Bonney’s complicated life will appeal to policymakers concerned about the accuracy of the news because she demonstrated how bias impeded the interpretation of events and the implications of that bias on national psyche. Bonney’s photographic philosophy and techniques—groundbreaking at the time—are now commonly borrowed to depict refugees fleeing war, most recently from the DRC, Syria, and Ukraine. More specifically, her photographs of the Winter War will interest scholars and decision makers worried about Russia’s stronghold on Ukraine because she foresaw the dangers of Soviet brinkmanship, an opinion decried by the OSS during World War II but affirmed by diplomats during the Cold War.

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