After getting a doctoral degree in English from Columbia University in New York in 1972, Colin Westerbeck taught English and the history of the movies at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College campus until 1979. He became attracted to photography when he met prominent New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz. Moving to Chicago in the mid-1980s, Westerbeck taught the history of photography at the School of the Art Institute for two years before being offered a curatorship at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986.
His exhibitions there included On the Art of Fixing a Shadow (1989), What’s New: Prague (1992), The James VanDerZee Studio (2004), and Irving Penn, A Career in Photography, a 1997 exhibition celebrating the donation to the Art Institute arranged by Westerbeck of Penn’s archives along with over 150 vintage and master prints. In 1994, Westerbeck and Meyerowitz published Bystander, A History of Street Photography, which was issued in paperback by Little, Brown in the fall of 2001 with a new Afterword on recent developments in this genre. A third edition of the book is forthcoming from Phaidon.
Westerbeck has been the recipient of several awards for critical writing, including the 2000 J. Dudley Johnston Award from the Royal Photo-graphic Society of Great Britain. After re-locating to Los Angeles in the fall of 2003, he taught the history of photography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California; and in 2006 and 2007, he wrote a weekly column on photography titled “Photo Synthesis” for the Los Angeles Times. From 2008 through 2011, he was the Director of the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside, where he curated in the fall 2011, as part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time, the exhibition Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944 – 1984.
In 2012, Westerbeck has been engaged by Art in America to write a series of essays and reviews, including pieces on Thomas Demand and Rineke Dijkstra that will appear in the magazine’s May issue. He is also writing a text for a new Prestel monograph on Chuck Close’s photographs and has been approached by the Getty Research Institute to do an exhibition and symposium on photography of sculpture.