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Photography Programs in the 20th Century Museums, Galleries, and Collections

art photographs photographic gallery

LYNNE BENTLEY-KEMP, PH.D.
Florida Keys Community College

Photography has benefited greatly from the vitality and intellectual curiosity of its practitioners and its audience since its inception in 1839. The history of photography has been recorded and preserved by collectors, artists, scholars, bon vivants, and adventurers worldwide. Collections of photography span the vastness of the medium itself. Photography has been embraced as an art form, document, scientific record, and means of remembrance. It has expanded our universe and given us a language that, like all languages, adapts and evolves with culture.

The act of collecting is as old as civilization. Human beings have collected walking sticks, shells, mineral specimens, toys, and objects of aesthetic interest throughout history. Curators, the people who manage and exhibit collections, have preserved many of the most valued objects in museums so that they could be appreciated by generations to come. Collecting as a personal passion has become more widespread in the 20th century, primarily due to the “broadened conceptualization of things that are collectible.”

Photography has been attractive to collectors due to a multitude of factors, some personal, some universal. At first it engaged the curiosity of the viewer, with its seemingly magical capture of an image on a surface. Later photographs became collectible due to perceived meaning, subject matter, or maker. Beginning in the 1970s photography has grown as an art form and its acceptance by significant cultural institutions has contributed to photography’s cultural and artistic status. Museums, galleries, and academic institutions have been major factors in the explosion of photography and have played an important role in creating the enormous demand for the medium.

“Museums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world. Historically, they have owned and used all manner of human artifacts to advance knowledge and nourish the human spirit.” This statement is part of the American Association of Museums Code of Ethics and presents the role of the museum as one that connects the public to material culture at large. Galleries tend to be more specific as to the type of art that is exhibited and sold to collectors. The function of a gallery tends to be more economic than historic. Therefore, a gallery’s primary responsibility lies in marketing the work of artists. Both museums and galleries present the medium to the public and act as gatekeepers by signifying what objects possess cultural value and are worthy of exhibiting and collecting.

Looking at the many ways in which photography has affected the world it is no wonder that throughout the 20th century museums that house photographs and galleries that exhibit the state of the art, and collections of photographic materials have grown complex and become varied in scope and size. Artistic boundaries have blurred to an amazing degree and following major technological and aesthetic changes the photographic arts have evolved as a key element in multimedia, installation and performance art.

Art photography came of age in the 20th century and museum professionals and gallery directors have fostered its development into a mature art form. It is not surprising that the growth of photography has occurred predominantly within wealthier nations that have enjoyed relatively stable political climates. England, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States house many of the most important collections and support a substantial percentage of exhibition spaces. The industrialization of these countries in the early 1900s played a prominent role in the rise of photography and was largely responsible for the birth of the Modernist movement in art. Modernism became a catalyst for the acceptance of photography as an art form, but it was not until the late 1960s that photography was truly established as an art worthy of exhibition to the serious art collector and connoisseur.

During the Modern era photography was strongly influenced by avant-garde painting, sculpture, and architecture. The images of serious photographers were brought into the canon through the work of forward-thinking curators, collectors, and gallerists. By 1914 New York City had become the center of Modernist art and the toehold that Europe had on the art world shifted to major cities in the United States.

Alfred Steiglitz was a quintessential New Yorker and his contributions as a photographer, curator, collector, and critic did much to establish photography as a modern art form. Stieglitz’ active promotion of the art created a platform from which serious photographers could display their virtuosity. Stieglitz’ publication Camera Work , his galleries, and his association with the avant-garde community gave Stieglitz the fuel for his iconoclastic support of a modern aesthetic movement in photography. Steiglitz believed that photography was most certainly a fine art and that the artists he supported (i.e., Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Morton Schamberg) represented “the expressive potential of photography.”

Stieglitz’ influence spans a pivotal era of photographic history beginning with his 291 Gallery in early 1900, the Photo-Secession Gallery with Edward Steichen, and An American Place, which endured until his death in 1946. He influenced a progression of New York galleries beginning with Julien Levy’s gallery in 1930.

The galleries that exhibited photography reflected the passion of people who were singularly suited for the task. Alfred Stieglitz, Julien Levy, Helen Gee, Lee Witkin, and Harry Lunn were all seminal figures in the commercial marketing of photography as art. These people believed in the medium and had the prescience to exhibit and recognize many that would go on to become established as masters of photography.

The Julien Levy Collection, now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), is made up of nearly 2000 images that Levy collected during the 1930s and 1940s. Levy was the most influential proponent of photography in New York from 1931 to 1948 exhibiting the work of Eugene Atget, Ann Brigman, Imogen Cunningham, Charles Sheeler, Man Ray, and Lee Miller to name just a few of the 130 artists represented in the PMA collection.

Although the market for photography did not come to fruition until the 1970s, Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery in New York in 1954 and Carl Siembab’s gallery in Boston in 1961 managed to present a varied and vital presentation of the medium showing the work of Minor White, David Vestal, Wynn Bullock, Arnold Newman, Elliot Porter, Ruth Bernhard, Roy DeCarava, Nathan Lyons, Carl Chiarenza, Aaron Siskind, and many others who would go on to make an impact in the world of art photography.

Lee Witkin entered on the gallery scene in New York in the 1970s. The Witkin Gallery was a presence in the world of photography for many years exhibiting the work of most of the important photographers of the time. The Witkin Gallery became one of the most successful commercial galleries of photography and ushered in the era of marketing photographs as legitimate fine art investments. When Witkin died in 1984, Harry Lunn, a fine art dealer in Washington, DC, took over as a pre-eminent collector and supporter of photography as a fine art. In 1970, when Lunn discovered Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M.,” he began a campaign to move photography into the realm of fine art collecting. His first show of Adams in early 1971 drew the attention of the press and the public. His ability to market and publicize was legendary and he was one of the first to produce a catalog of photographs for sale.

With this interest in the photograph as a cultural artifact, museums and galleries were legitimizing its potency. John Szarkowski, Director Emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography has stated, “the role of the photography collection is to present and make visible the prime examples on which we will form our understanding of the influence of photography on modern sensibilities.” Szarkowski is one of the most influential curators and critics of the twentieth century. As director of MoMA’s Department of Photography for 29 years, Szarkowski held firm to the belief that the curator was a critical liaison between the artists and the public. Photography’s influence upon society was as seductive as it was ubiquitous. Photography became one of the most pervasive methods in recording the grand and subtle changes in society over the course of time. Forward-thinking people like Szar-kowski, Beaumont Newhall, Sam Wagstaff, and so many others recognized this fact and kept photography in a prominent place on the public agenda.

The artist’s camera recorded the reverberations of many of these changes throughout 19th and 20th century society. A select group of Modernists brought the art of photography into the forefront of the fine arts, but all photographers throughout the history of the medium are responsible for creating a visual time line for society. Collectors and curators have preserved and signified an artistic, commercial, and documentary tradition that allows us all to participate as witnesses to history-making events.

The acute cultural observations of Alexander Rodchenko, Man Ray, Eugéne Atget, August Sander, Dorothea Lange, and the architect of the decisive moment, Henri Cartier Bresson, helped establish photography as an integral part of western culture.

College and university programs in photography helped to establish the perception that photography was a vital part of the art scene and created an educated audience in the postwar world, an audience that expanded exponentially in the 1970s and 1980s. The audience, in turn, helped to encourage the growth of museums and galleries devoted to photography.

An active art scene in America has embraced documentary and commercial imagery as serious artistic work. This popular attention to method and craft further developed the perception of photography as a legitimate art form. Richard Avedon and Irving Penn created iconic images that have moved from the pages of fashion magazines to the walls of museums and galleries. WeeGee (Arthur Fellig), Diane Arbus, and Larry Clark redefined the meaning of documentary photography with their piercing gaze at ordinary lives. Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol blurred the boundaries between photography and painting when they began exhibiting photographs on a very large scale with their silk screens on canvas. Works on this scale are commonplace today and occupy an important place in galleries and museums. In the Post-Modern era Andreas Gursky, Tina Barney, Robert and Shana Parke Harrison, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Struth, and Adam Fuss all challenge modern artistic convention with the size of their works as they observe and construct the absurdity and drama of everyday life.

A glance at the art market today would demonstrate an active interest on the part of serious collectors for this work. As a result of this serious interest images have become investments as well as functioning as works of art and documents. The market for photographs has developed into a mainstream investment practice in the world of celebrities and the megarich. Now significant collections are routinely bought and sold through art auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips de Pury & Company, and Swann Galleries. The first auction by Swann Galleries took place in 1952 and the first photographs that went on sale sold at “ridiculously low prices.” The market for photographs did not find a niche until 1970 when Parke-Bernet sold photographs from the Sidney
Strober collection for a grand total of $70,000. The market went through quite a few ups and downs through the 1970s and 1980s, but continued to gain strength in the 1990s. Rick Wester, a fine art photography graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology, was an important catalyst in bringing the market for photography into prominence. He began his career at Light Gallery in New York and went on to become senior vice president and international department head of photographs for Christie’s. He is presently the photography director at Phillips, de Pury & Company. During his tenure at Christie’s he oversaw the heyday of photography auctions. In the fall of 1993 Wester auctioned a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Steiglitz for the then unheard of price of $398,500.

Private collectors have been the lifeblood of the photography market and photographic collections are bought and sold for a variety of reasons. Wester likes to use the example of the three “Ds” as the motivation for the sale a collection. Death, divorce, and de-accessioning (when a museum decides to sell off works so that they may invest in other projects or collections) precipitate many changes in ownership. The reasons for buying photographs can be more esoteric. Sam Wagstaff, a curator of contemporary art for many years, amassed an impressive private collection of photographs in the late 1970s. “He saw collecting as a visual and intellectual pleasure, the happy indulgence of one’s prejudices.” Some collectors gravitate toward rarity, others for intellectual, sentimental, or aesthetic reasons.

Along with prominent private collectors like Wagstaff, the corporate world turned to collecting photography in the 1960s and 1970s. Hallmark, Polaroid, Chase Manhattan Bank, Seagram’s, and the Gilman Paper Company have all made a huge impact on the formal collection of fine art photography. In time many of these collections have been absorbed into the archives of museums. Chairman of the Gilman Paper Company, Howard Gilman, with the aid of master curator, Pierre Apraxine, assembled one of the finest private collections in the world and as an example of corporate philanthropy gave the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. In 2006 many important images from the collection were sold, which allowed it to expand in other areas. The movement of collections through the hands of private collectors and public museums is ever changing and not without sentimental attachments.

Close ties to their hometown could be the primary reason that the Hallmark Collection has been handed over to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The gift of this multi-million dollar collection is a gesture that adds tremendously to the cultural life of Kansas City and to the perception that Hallmark’s corporate leadership has strong attachments to the city.

Indisputably, one of the most important public collections is housed in the International Museum of Photography (IMP) at the George Eastman House (GEH). Beaumont Newhall can claim the credit for setting the standard for the Eastman House archives. Newhall assumed directorship of the museum in September of 1958 and maintained that position until 1971. He had been the first curator of photography and assistant director at GEH in 1948. He left his post as the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (1940) to set up a museum and archive of photography at the George Eastman House. He was extremely influential in the growth and development of the museum and a pivotal figure in a scholarly investigation of photography. One milestone in Newhall’s career was his text, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present , first published as a catalog accompanying an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937.

The collection at IMP/GEH is made up of more than 400,000 photographs and negatives. While other collections may have more objects, the IMP has the most comprehensive selection of masterworks in still photography and film.

The depth of the IMP/GEH collection makes it one of the most popular sources for loans and collection sharing. The International Center of Photography (ICP) is an example of this kind of collaboration. IMP/GEH and ICP are collection sharing by using the same database system, creating a virtual collection of over 500,000 photographs. The ICP was the brainchild of Cornell Capa, a photographer for LIFE magazine and member of the photographic agency Magnum. The collection he has assembled contains over 50,000 images. Capa opened ICP in 1974 as a center for the promotion of documentary photography, or to use Capa’s term, “concerned photography.” The combination of the two collections is a synchronistic event that enhances the status of both institutions in disseminating and broadening the knowledge of visual culture.

The second largest collection in the United States is housed at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona. Significant images from the 19th and 20th century make up more than 60,000 photographs housed at CCP. The photographs and personal archives represent more than 2000 photographers at an impressive facility on the Tucson campus. Centers like ICP and CCP focus on specific collections of photography in great depth and take on a scholarly role hosting exhibitions, workshops, and seminars devoted to the advancement and analysis of photography and photographers.

In New York City the Museum of Modern Art houses its own substantial collection of 19th and 20th century works. It began collecting photographs in 1930 and the photography department, under the direction of Edward Steichen, was established in 1940 with Beaumont Newhall as the curator of photographs. Presently MoMA’s holdings of more than 25,000 works constitute an important collection of photographs that reflects the substance and scholarship of its leadership. The Museum of Modern Art owes a huge debt to John Szarkowski for the breadth and depth of its involvement in the world of photography. For almost 30 years Szarkowski was the force behind an illustrious list of exhibitions, publications, and scholarly reviews of the medium. Szarkowski not only wanted to expose the public to important images, but made a great effort in getting the museum-going public to think differently about photography. His method for looking at photographs expounded on five qualities that all photographs had in common: the thing itself, the framing of the image, the details within the image, the moment in time that was forever captured, and the vantage point from which the photograph was made. This approach to photography raised photography to new levels of sophistication and emphasized Szarkowski’s coda that “a good photograph is an experience; it enlivens truths, but does not prove them.”

Alfred Stieglitz would have agreed that the great photograph is an experience, an experience that had to be shared on a grand scale. To this end Stieglitz was instrumental in establishing the photographic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection was formed in 1928 with a gift of his own photographs. Steiglitz augmented the collection in 1933 with a gift of Photo-Secessionist works. Throughout the 20th century photographers like Steiglitz, Steichen, Ansel Adams, Minor White, and more recently Nathan Lyons and Carl Chiarenza, have made significant contributions in critical areas of photographic history, theory, criticism, and archives establishment. The practitioners have always had a great deal to do with the advancement of their chosen art form and contemporary society owes them a great deal for their efforts. Everything these visionaries created, wrote about, and researched has prepared us for the next stage, the digital revolution.

The 21st century has brought huge advances in the sharing and archiving of visual information. Digital technology has become commonplace in the photographic realm, both in the creation of images and in the cataloging of historic and contemporary photographic production. Alliances between museums, galleries, and private and public collections have contributed to the accessibility of vast amounts of photographic information. Databases have helped to expand the sharing of images regionally and worldwide. In the 21st century it is rare to find a gallery, museum, or collector that does not utilize digital technology in the cataloging and archiving of collections regardless of size. Connoisseurs and scholars are able to access the Internet to peruse holdings from a wide variety of sources. The Library of Congress, the George Eastman House, the Center for Creative Photography, and the Museum of Modern Art are representative of only a very few of the many major institutions that present their collections in an easily accessible format on the Internet. Many of these sites are well worth looking at in terms of the skillful use of technology to engage an audience and the large numbers of photographs that are available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The use of the Internet to display collections of all kinds is commonplace and ever expanding. In keeping with a historian’s sense of stewardship, enlightened archivists are preserving diverse storehouses of cultural artifacts that can be accessed by anyone with an interest in learning more about a particular aspect of photography. The late Peter Palmquist, historian and founder of the Women in Photography International Archive, created and maintained an archive of significant images made by women as a passion and his life work. Pam Mendelsohn continues to foster his legacy, dedicating the archive to maintaining the visibility of women photographers from the past and the present. The WIPI Internet site constitutes a vital source of support for contemporary women artists and acts as a virtual gallery space. Specialists like Palmquist and Mendelsohn now have the ability to popularize their passions and add to an impressive storehouse of knowledge in the field by accessing and utilizing cyberspace. Entering the keywords “photography galleries” or “photography collections” on an Internet search engine will bring up thousands of sites representing brick and mortar exhibition spaces as well as the purely virtual.

Digital technology has profoundly affected the efficacy of photographic art practice and the publishing of photographic books. The digital camera has further democratized the art of photography by giving amateurs and professionals a tool that allows anyone to send a photograph anywhere, anytime. Many of these practitioners have created their own personal galleries online. The photograph as an art object has come out of the darkroom, with rich, long-lasting prints that are generated from a computer printer. It is evident from the changes that have already occurred throughout the medium that the evolution of photography has gained momentum from the digital age and has made a major contribution to the information revolution that is currently underway. Museums and galleries have risen to the challenge of new technology and added to this revolution by embracing the relevant digital applications. This reaction on the part of the institutions serving photography will continue to uphold the value of the photographic image as an artifact and as a universal means of communication far into the future.

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