Interview with Vince Aletti, 2024 AIPAD Award Winner

Posted on Mar 15, 2024

On Thursday, April 25, AIPAD will present longtime photography critic, curator, and collector Vince Aletti with the AIPAD Award at The Photography Show. Aletti has written photography criticism and profiles for the Village Voice and the New Yorker and is the longtime photo books columnist for photograph magazine. He’s curated shows and contributed to countless catalogues and books – his book The Drawer (SPBH Editions, 2022) won the Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook of the year this past year. Exposure spoke with Aletti about the AIPAD Prize, the beginnings of his career as a photo critic, and more.

Vince Aletti AIPAD Award Winner 2024Photo by Magnus Arrevad

Exposure: Congratulations on winning the AIPAD Award!

Vince Aletti: Thank you! When I think about all the people who have been in that position before me, it’s an intimidating group!

Exposure: You were a longtime music critic before you were a photography critic. Why did you make the shift to photography?

Aletti: It was a long process, and I don't think it would have happened if I wasn’t already at the Village Voice. I was feeling a little antsy about music. I had been doing it for some 20 years, and I was feeling less involved. And more and more, I was writing about visual art as well. Fred McDarrah had been doing short photo exhibition reviews for some time, and when he stopped doing that, I decided that was what I really wanted to do.

I would review three to four exhibitions a week. It was very compressed (it was for the calendar section), but it gave me a chance to talk about things I'd already been looking at. I was already going to galleries all the time – I had been since I came to New York – not just photography, I saw everything. It was one of the things I loved about New York City, this incredible access that everyone has. And then little by little, the Light Gallery opened, the Witkin Gallery, places that specialized in photography.

By the time I started writing about photography, I had this backlog of knowledge just by absorbing it all. I could talk about what I thought was interesting and what I thought other people would find interesting. My editors encouraged me to do more, so I did critical profiles of photographers, usually photographers who were just getting started and had had their first or second show.

Exposure: Who were some of the first people you wrote about?

Aletti: The first was Dawoud Bey. I wrote about people whose work I wanted to know more about. Other people at the beginning were Fazal Sheikh, Debbie Fleming Caffery, Carrie Mae Weems, Judith Joy Ross, Saul Leiter, Paul Graham, Barbara Ess – they were all people whose work was very different from one another. It was an exciting time for me, there were so many good shows, and so much that I was curious about. I wanted to write about shows people could see, not shows that were over. I didn’t write to make up their mind, but to encourage them to have a mind.

Exposure: Your collection of photo books is legendary. Do you have any idea how many you have?

Aletti: No, I won’t hazard a guess. I have easily more than 1,000, but that’s so vague. There’s collections on top of collections, and then there are the fashion magazines.

Exposure: Did you have a collecting impulse as a child?

Aletti: Yeah, as a kid I remember sending away for stamps from the ads in the back of comic magazines, and organizing them into books. It was fascinating to see what all these other countries thought belonged on a stamp. It’s always about visual stimulus, one way or another.

Exposure: You’ve contributed to so many books and catalogues. Are there any that stand out as particularly surprising or significant?

Aletti: The first thing that comes to mind was a project Yossi Milo got me involved in that was a series by the Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki, who did a book called The Park [Osiris, 2011]. I had never seen the work, or heard of the photographer, but it was fascinating work to write about and think about. It was erotic, romantic, mysterious. I was so glad to be involved in that project.

But of course, the fact that Andrew Roth got me involved in The Book of 101 Books [PPP Editions, 2001] was an incredible turning point in my knowledge of photography books. Half of the books I wrote about I had never seen before, so it was really a privilege to work hands-on with every one of them, and really get to know them. That was a fascinating project, something I’m so thankful to have been called in for.

Exposure: Your wonderful book The Drawer [SPBH Editions, 2022], photographs of successive rearrangements of the magazine pages, gallery announcements, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera from a drawer in your apartment, won PhotoBook of the Year from the Paris Photo-Aperture Photo Book Awards. And now you have a show coming up at White Columns – The Drawer, opening March 22. Can you talk about that?

Aletti: It’s based on The Drawer, but it will not reproduce The Drawer. It has a lot of similar material but I don’t want to repeat myself. The works will be arranged on tabletops, and my criteria is reproduced images, no originals – so things like magazine pages, postcards, gallery announcements, secondary ways of seeing pictures.

Exposure: This may be an impossible question to answer, but is there a particular quality that is common to photographs that you’re drawn to?

Aletti: No matter what I say, it reduces something to a much simpler thing than it is.

There’s no way to account for loving work by Adam Fuss, Roe Ethridge, Andrea Modica, August Sander, Paul Sepuya…all those things have something in common, maybe. I love abstract photographs and still lifes, too, but in the end, a lot of it comes down to pictures of people for me.

Exposure: Do you still see something like 25 shows a week, which I know you regularly did when you were writing weekly reviews for The New Yorker and before that the Village Voice?

Aletti: No. I don’t have the same kind of time, and I have to use my time in other ways now.

I used to go out at least two days a week. I didn’t want to miss something, and I didn’t just see photo shows, I saw everything, because it’s all part of what’s going on. It was a lot, but it was also my pleasure.

Exposure: How do you feel about the Photography Show returning to the Park Avenue Armory?

Aletti: I’m excited, I thought they made very good use of the Fifth Avenue space, but it was much smaller, obviously. Being back at the Armory is such a pleasure, it feels more convivial. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Exposure: Do you tend to have a plan when you attend fairs like the Photography Show as far as how to see it all?

Aletti: I love being immersed in the fair. I’m happy to just sort of drift through those things. Thinking about the top ten things that I have seen that day that I would want to take home, or remember, or tell other people about is always a good way to hook into the fair.

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