ICP’s public space on the Bowery. Photo © Saul Metnick.

After four decades of hiding out in Midtown, New York’s International Center of Photography has found a new downtown home this week on the Bowery, opening a stone’s throw away from the New Museum – with whom they’re partnering on admission and opening hours – not mention the Lower East Side’s 125 galleries. “There's a much more creative community that's walking around that lends to the energy,” said ICP's executive director Mark Lubell.

Their new home will reflect the seismic shift in image-making since photojournalist Cornell Capa founded the ICP in 1974 – something the new museum’s first exhibition, “Public, Private, Secret,” aims to address head-on. The show is an examination of privacy, surveillance, and images’ effects on self-identity, stretching back to Sojourner Truth’s intimate 19th-century prints. For every archival image on the exhibition’s walls, though, there also seems to be a screen, many of which use algorithms to stream real-time images and video. Some track trends on Twitter or follow niche celebrities like Vine star Cameron Dallas; others are more straightforward, like a video flip-through of Kim Kardashian's Selfish.

“I knew I wanted to have her represented in the exhibition," said Charlotte Cotton, the institution's first curator-in-residence. "How can you talk about self-representation without a nod or an homage to Kim Kardashian?”

But while Cotton admitted that her new job is to “reposition ICP in the cultural landscape,” she was originally worried about the criticism they might draw in bringing social media into the museum.


Lubell, on the other hand, didn’t see an issue: Though he does draw a distinction between photography and image-making (“what my father does on his iPhone is not photography”), Lubell is refreshingly un-precious when it comes to social media. “There are now hundreds and hundreds of millions of people that are communicating visually to one another, and I think that shouldn't be discarded as if they're just taking cat pictures and bullshit stuff,” he said.

“We're getting to now live our lives through image-making and perceiving images, with everything from politics to climate issues to our own self identity,” he went on.

Still, there will always be a place for the photography masters, thanks to the institution's vast archives – and Lubell is not afraid of a little intermingling. (The likes of Warhol and Larry Clark and Nan Goldin make up about a third of the current, decidedly contemporary exhibition.) “You can start to look at a master like [Robert] Mapplethorpe, who controlled his self portraits, whether he took pictures of himself or artists took pictures of him,” he said. “I don't think that's very different than a selfie today."

If anyone disagrees, that’s fine by Lubell: He refers to both the show and the new space as “a public forum for discussion,” where the real aim is to generate conversation. That’s true, too, for non-paying patrons: With a glass façade on the Bowery, a third of the museum’s interior lies open to the public, with a cafe, bookstore, and public events. “I want it to sort of have this town hall kind of feel,” Lubell said.

So far, it seems to be working: This week's opening previews had visitors nearing the 1,000 mark each night, Lubell reported, adding with a laugh, “And we only had Fire Marshall approval for 400."

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