Andy Freeberg’s photos of the women who oversee Russian art museums and the front-desk attendants in Chelsea galleries turn context and background into art. In this way, the art world’s guardians and sentries themselves become thoughtful, incisive, and sometimes comical installations. Guardians will be published as a book by Photolucida and will be available in early 2010.

Photographer Andy Freeberg was born in New York City and studied at the University of Michigan. His work has appeared in publications such as
Time, Fortune, Der Spiegel, and Rolling Stone. His photographs are in many collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the George Eastman House Museum of Photography. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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The first time I saw your photos of Chelsea galleries, I actually laughed out loud. What are all those little heads doing behind huge counters?

The first time I saw a little head behind a huge white desk, I took a photo of it and laughed to myself when the head didn’t move. Then I went into another gallery and saw another head and kept laughing. I guess they were looking at their computer screens.

Are you more interested in the desks or the people behind them?

I’m interested in the desk and the person as a unit and how we don’t interact as much face-to-face anymore because we are all so busy communicating with our personal devices—like I am right now.

Where did you get the idea to compare the sentries at Chelsea art galleries with the guardians of Russian museums?

I didn’t set out to photograph the Russian museum guards. I went to St. Petersburg looking for something else, a before-and-after series based on previous photos I had shot there during the communist era. I went into the Hermitage Museum and noticed the ladies and then became fascinated by them and started taking pictures. Then I realized these were the sentries of the Hermitage.

Why did you choose these names specifically?

I did some brainstorming with a friend and we decided on sentry for the desk series; it was meant to sound a little serious and be a bit ironic. Guardians came about after some studying of the Thesaurus. I’m starting to run out of synonyms.

What does this say about the difference in the role and significance of art in these respective institutions?

Russians are very proud of their art. These women, despite appearances, are enjoying their roles as protectors of their country’s art treasures. I didn’t speak with many of the sentries so I’m not exactly sure how they feel about the art they are sitting with, but the galleries can only stay open if they sell art so I guess there was some sort of strategy taken into consideration when these desks got larger.

What would you rather be?

Perhaps a combination of the two, a “Guartry” or a “Sendian.” For now, I’m happy to be the photographer that gets to poke around the art world.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka