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After a dynamic career at the Brooklyn Museum, where he earned acclaim for last year’s Jimmy De Sana retrospective, Drew Sawyer is now in the enviable (and slightly daunting) position of having been named the Whitney’s Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography. 

It now rests with him to build on the museum’s legacy as a showcase for photography — a legacy that has spanned the decades, from Edward Steichen’s moody pictures of The Flatiron building in 1904 to Nan Goldin’s appearance at the 1985 Whitney Biennial with images that would become her groundbreaking work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. We caught up with Sawyer during his second week on the job to chat about art and his unique personal style.

TS: What are some of your first memories of going to a museum?

Growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, there weren't a lot of museums…but my grandmother lived in Atlanta, and I really credit her with introducing me to the High Museum of Art. When I was twelve, she also took me on my first trip abroad, and I saw the Louvre in Paris for the first time.

Drew Sawyer in the Whitney Museum’s Study Center. The photographs behind him include (from left to right): Laura Aguilar's Will Work For #4, 1993; Lola Flash's 4 Ray (Cross-Colour Series) 1991; and Darrel Ellis', Untitled (Street Scene). 1987. Laying on the table in front of him is Jimmy DeSana's, Enema, 1997-1978 (Gelatin silver print, courtesy of the Jimmy DeSana Trust and P•P•O•W, New York).

When did you realize that photography could be an artistic endeavor?

I was growing up at a time when film was still being used to document family trips and get-togethers, so it was never tied to Fine Art with a capital “A.” Photography was accessible. I was given my first SLR camera when I was 12, and I learned some basic darkroom techniques in school.

Here, the curator takes a closer look at Darrel Ellis' Untitled (Street Scene), 1987.

Who was the first photographer you knew by name?

Without a lot of access to "art" as a kid, I was mostly exposed to the work of photographers through magazines. For better or worse, Bruce Weber was probably the first photographer I knew by name because of the controversy surrounding his photographs in The A & F Quarterly.

Did you always want to be a curator?

When I arrived at Columbia University I was set on majoring in Economics, and then I took an art history class as an elective and loved it. So I decided to be a double major. Columbia has this great tradition of students being able to pitch and plan exhibitions for The Wallach Gallery. Since the school’s archives had a lot of photographs from the early days of charity and social work in a collection called the Community Service Society, I pitched a book about Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and their contemporaries.

Do you have a few favorite photographers whose work you look at time and time again?

I tend to go very deep on whatever subjects I'm working on. I spent five years working on the Jimmy DeSana show for the Brooklyn Museum. Outside of work, I collect small, intimate black-and-white photographs. That might be a reaction to the trend toward monumental photographs when I was starting out. Near my new office on the 7th floor of the Whitney, there are photographs by PaJaMa, the artist collective of Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French, taken on  Fire Island in the 30s. I enjoy looking at that every day.

Would you say your personal style is on the small, intimate scale too?

My mom was a big influence on me growing up, and she is extremely stylish in an effortless way. I was the youngest of four, so she was dragging me wherever she was going shopping. I take after her in certain ways. I’m a minimalist who wears a limited palette — neutrals, earth tones, blacks and blues.

How do you keep up with trends or get a sense of how photography is evolving?

I’m constantly going to galleries and visiting up-and-coming artists in studios. Some of my best ideas come from two places — other artists and students. If an artist I like is passionate or excited about another artist, that’s a great reference. I’ve taught at Columbia and the Yale School of Art, and when you’re exposed to a lot of student work, you start seeing through lines, trends.

What’s your next show?

My last show for the Brooklyn Museum opens this fall. It’s called Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines, and it’s about the way artists created fanzines to explore the various sub-cultures they were interested in — punk and street culture, conceptual, queer, and feminist art.

Photographed by Phillip Gutman

Interviewed by John Brodie

Copy Machine Manifestos: Artists Who Make Zines will be at the Brooklyn Museum from November 17, 2023, through March 31, 2024.