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5 Questions with Skinner Photographs Specialist James Leighton

James Leighton joined the American & European Works of Art Department at Skinner as a Photographs Specialist in 2021. Prior to arriving at Skinner, he held a curatorial role in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

During his time at the museum, he organized the exhibition Georgie Friedman: Fragments of Antarctica (2019) and co-organized Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera (2020) and Ansel Adams in Our Time (2019). Previous exhibitions include Karsh: Icons of the Twentieth Century (2016), Herb Ritts (2015), and Karsh Goes Hollywood (2014). Throughout his tenure at the MFA, he held many responsibilities across the curatorial practice. At the center of every project was a deep commitment to the connoisseurship of the history of photography.

James holds a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts and for many years worked on editorial, advertising, and exhibition projects. Moving to the other side of the camera, he earned a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School, with a primary focus on Art History.

Which artwork or object would you love to have in your home?

Part of what is great about having works of art surround you is that you get to play this game often. Which object from this gallery would I take home, what would I grab if the building was on fire, and so on. From the last sale I kept a close eye on a work by Lois Conner, a photographer that I have admired for some time. She works in a panoramic format and produces highly-detailed prints that envelop your visual field. It is easy to lose yourself in her photographs. Thankfully this piece is finding a new home in a public collection.

What books are you reading?

In normal times a passion of mine is travel and part of my process is to read fiction that is set in a location that I am visiting. This has guided much of my reading over the years. With travel on hold, I find myself revisiting authors that can transport me away. Milan Kundera to whisk me to Prague, Carlos Ruiz Zafón to bring me back to the streets of Barcelona, or a surreal trip to Japan with Haruki Murakami. Quarantine was a good time for me to finally knock Infinite Jest off my list, fitting since so much of it is set in the Boston area. Currently Octavia Butler’s Kindred is on the shelf.

James Turrell, C.A.V.U., 2021, Mass MoCA

Now that Museums are reopening what is on your list to visit?

This past weekend I ventured to western Mass to visit Mass MoCA and the Clark. A highlight was the newly opened Skyspace by James Turrell. His light installations are experiential wonders, and I am so glad that there will now be one available so close to home. This summer I look forward to visiting the reopened ICA Watershed and also spending time with Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors. This piece resonates deeply with the isolation experienced in the aftermath of this past year. In the fall I anticipate that the ICA’s survey of Deana Lawson’s career will be an exhibition that cannot be missed.

Do you have a favorite museum experience to recommend?

Did I mention that I love to travel because perhaps the greatest museum and art experience that I can recommend is a visit to Naoshima Island. Located within the Seto Sea in southern Japan, it certainly is a pilgrimage to say the least. The Chichu Art Museum is an impeccable meeting of architecture, light, and art. Designed by Tadao Ando, the Museum itself is a work of art. Built primarily underground and illuminated only with natural light, the space is the permanent home for works by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria, all artists that make use of light within their practice. The experience of viewing the works on exhibit changes with the seasons and even the time of day.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Time Exposed. 1980-97, Benesse House Museum

Naoshima itself is home to a variety of fabulous museums and installations. In my opinion one of the greatest examples of in-situ displays of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes is on exhibit at the Benesse House Museum. Here Sugimoto’s photographs are displayed outdoors and in perfect alignment with the horizon line. Viewable only from a nearby beach, an additional work from the series continues the concept and is miraculously installed on the side of a cliff. The surrounding islands also offer a wealth of art experiences with permanent displays and every three years, the Setouchi Triennale. The Teshima Art Museum designed by artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa is a building that melds architecture with nature to create a space of harmony between the two. The far end of Teshima Island is the home of Christian Boltanski’s Les Archives du Cœur, an installation that houses and plays the heartbeats of thousands of people that have visited the work.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Time Exposed, Norwegian Sea, Vesteralen Island, 1990, Benesse House Museum

You’re new to auctions. How did you get your start?

I have been working with photographs in one way or another for 25 years. First as a maker and later as a curator. Prior to joining Skinner, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, working within the Department of Photography. In this role I touched upon everything from exhibitions and acquisitions to collections care. With the move to Skinner, my relationship with objects has shifted. At the museum, when a photograph entered the permanent collection it was moving to its final destination. Conversely, at Skinner we are only temporary stewards of these objects and our role is to act as a conduit for finding a work of art its new home.

Get in touch with James to discuss buying or consigning fine photographs at Skinner: photographs@skinnerinc.com or 508.970.3206

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