We meet Peter Antony for the publication of “Photography and the American Civil War”, the catalogue for the eponymous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which was inaugurated on 2nd April and remains open until 2nd September of this year. The exhibition has brought the many photographs conserved in the museum to the light for the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863), remembered as being the bloodiest of the American Civil War.
Peter Antony works in the museum’s Editorial Department and is willing to tell us a little about himself and his profession. While we wait to meet, he is on the telephone, defining the details of the jacket photographs for the book with Jeff Rosenheim, the author.
Could you talk to us about your work at the Metropolitan?
I work in the museum’s Editorial Department. Our department publishes about 30 books a year, including catalogues of exhibitions and of the collections and other publications about culture in general. On top of planning and producing the books, we also promote, distribute and sell them. In substance, the internal organisation might resemble that of a university press, but within a major art museum.
Our publishing programme thus responds to a project to promote and highlight culture and art and at the same, in the production of publications, creates new works of art. There are about 40 people involved in this project.
I am the Chief Production Manager; in other words, within the book production process, I am responsible for all the physical aspects of its realisation: design, photography, printing, and the making: choice of paper and binding.
Six people work alongside me full-time and another four work in particular on acquisition and promotion.
Which of these adjectives best describes your work and your role? Exciting, boring, difficult, stimulating, modest, successful, rich in relations…
The first adjective I’d pick is exciting. What excites me most of all is being able to recreate marvellous works of art in the books we publish. I really enjoy seeking out, with my team, the way to present these to best effect on paper, and it is exciting to have the same aims and be able to work together to achieve them.
The second adjective I’d pick is successful. The books we publish have won numerous prizes for their design or the refinements in the quality of publication. Every text is like a work of art, which with my staff we try to bring to realisation with passion.
The last adjective describing my role is rich in relations. I might say that interpersonal relationships are fundamental in my work, which is not the case for a writer, in which the primary relationship is with himself.
But for my work, it’s essential to set up relations based on trust and respect between collaborators, whether these be my own colleagues in the department or with individuals outside the Met. With many, I have had working relationships that have lasted years, while with others, like Massimo Tonolli, with whom I am working for the second time, the relationship is still being built up. The type of relationship is fundamental above all when there are some problems with the project: you want a work that is done better or faster. For example, with Jeff Rosenheim, with whom I was speaking earlier to define some operative aspects, there has been a relationship of reciprocal trust for years, which enables us to share the choices made by the other with perfect confidence.
Do you call the Metropolitan Museum ‘The Met’? A familiar way to speak of your workplace, considering that it is the largest and most important museum of art in the world.
Yes, it’s like a nickname.
Let’s talk now about the photographic exhibition, “Photography and the American Civil War”. Is there any special reason why The Met wanted this theme?
The Met is the largest and most important museum of art in the world, collecting works of art of every period. We have 17 Curatorial Departments, which work constantly on the museum’s collections and organise exhibitions: Greek and Roman Art, European Painting, Photography, Drawings, Modern and Contemporary Art, amongst others. Each of these departments has a curator with different areas of interest and various skills and the shared aim of studying and highlighting the museum’s collections. For the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Civil War, Jeff Rosenheim wanted this exhibition to make available the thousands of photographs on the subject available to the public; these belong to the museum but have hitherto never been on display. In order to make the exhibition all the richer, photographs from private collections were also used.
In the presentation of the exhibition on the website, one can read that even though 150 years have passed, this war still represents an open wound for Americans…
It’s inevitable that this should be so, because of its high cost in human lives and despite the fact that over a century has passed, everyone who lives and grew up in the United States has been directly or indirectly affected by this war. In my case, it’s different because there was no-one from my family in the United States during the Civil War; they arrived later, emigrating from Italy and England, and I grew up in Pennsylvania, in the north. Probably, someone who lives in the south, in Georgia or Alabama, where the war was fought, would have a different story to tell. But all of us know about this conflict. And in Europe you probably have the same sort of feeling with regard to the Second World War.
He asks me about Europe and I tell him how Verona was bombed by the allies because it was a strategic Fascist crossroads. How the bridges over the Adige were been blown up by the Germans and later rebuilt.
Do you know Verona?
I know it well, because I’ve been there several times for work. It’s a city that I love: I like to stroll through its streets and observe its Roman and baroque past. I love seeing it from above, from Castel San Pietro and admiring the way it has moulded itself along the river Adige.
I know its churches; San Zeno and Sant’Anastasia are the ones I prefer, but I remember another one too, a little hidden away…
Stop and draw me a map…
It’s a medieval church, between Castelvecchio and Porta Borsari, on Corso Cavour, and it’s reached by crossing a marble arch and passing through a small sacristy. It’s a little hidden jewel, but I don’t recall its name.
I knew exactly what he was talking about and it is truly a little hidden jewel. But I couldn’t remember its name either – it’s San Lorenzo – and found it later, sending him the information by email.