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What Teju Cole Found in the Museum of Contemporary Photography

For his curatorial debut, the award-winning writer dug through 40 years’ worth of photos in the museum’s archives. The result is an incisive portrait of contemporary America.

Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Photography invited the writer, historian, and photographer Teju Cole to undertake a singular but daunting project: Dive into its collection of 15,000 images and reinterpret it through a carefully curated exhibition. The result — Cole’s first major curatorial project — is an incisive portrait of contemporary America, a moving sequence of just under 200 photographs that explores themes of freedom, hope, and chaos.

Cole, a former photography critic for the New York Times Magazine, has always tried to understand how photographic canons are formed. He entered MoCP’s nearly 40-year-old archive aware of both the wealth and limitations of the images before him. He settled on a display that spotlights both renowned artists (such as Gordon Parks) and up-and-comers (including Chicago-based photographer Myra Greene).

“Ultimately, what emerged from my sequence is an exhibition with a strong political charge,” he says. “I’ve also tried to fill this show with pictures that have a sense of mystery about them.”

He named it Go Down Moses, after the African American spiritual that urged for black freedom from bondage. “That title feels permanently contemporary because questions of liberation are never quite finished,” Cole says. “It’s attractive to me because history is always calling to history.”

Ahead of its opening on July 18, the curator explains the thinking behind five of his selections.

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