October 10, 2010

The Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs - History

The Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs

Established as an independent curatorial department in 1992, the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Photographs houses a collection of more than 20,000 works acquired by the Museum over 80 years.

The Museum's collection spans the history of photography. Among the treasures from the early years of the medium are an extremely rare album of photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot, made just months after he presented his invention to the public; a large collection of portrait daguerreotypes by the Boston firm of Southworth and Hawes; landscape photographs of the American West by Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins; and fine examples of French photography from the 1850s by Edouard Baldus, Eugène Cuvelier, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Nadar, and others.

In addition, in 1997 the Museum acquired 78 nineteenth-century photographs from the renowned Rubel Collection. This group includes rare and beautifully preserved examples by the major figures of early British photography—William Henry Fox Talbot, the painter-photographer team David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton, and Julia Margaret Cameron—and constitutes one of the most extraordinary representations of Britain's rich photographic history in the United States.

Alfred Stieglitz, a passionate advocate for the acceptance of photography into the pantheon of fine arts, made several important gifts to the Metropolitan (in 1928, 1933, and in his bequest of 1946) that ultimately numbered more than 600 works. In addition to superb examples of his own photography, his gift comprises the best collection anywhere of works by the Photo Secession, the circle of Pictorialist photographers shown at his influential gallery. The Stieglitz Collection is especially rich in large master prints by Edward Steichen; of special note are three large, unique prints of the Flatiron building, each a slightly different hue, evoking a different moment of twilight in the city. Also featured in the Stieglitz Collection are F. Holland Day, Adolph de Meyer, Gertrude Käsebier, Paul Strand, and Clarence White.

Building on the Stieglitz Collection, in 1997, through a major gift of Jennifer and Joseph Duke and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, the Museum acquired 73 portraits of artist Georgia O'Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz. Documenting one of the most famous and intimate artistic collaborations of modern times, the photographs are part of Stieglitz's extraordinary composite portrait of O'Keeffe, a series of more than 300 images produced between 1917 and 1937 that he considered to be among his greatest achievements.

The Ford Motor Company Collection, 500 works collected by John C. Waddell and donated to the Museum in 1987 as a gift of the Ford Motor Company and Mr. Waddell, represents avant-garde European and American photography between the two World Wars. Berenice Abbott, Brassaï, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and some 70 other photographers chart the urban, technological, and psychological revolutions of the modern age.

In addition to these extensive holdings, the Metropolitan's representation of the first century of photography (1839-1939) was immeasurably enriched by the 2005 acquisition of the Gilman Paper Company Collection, widely regarded as the world's finest collection of photographs in private hands. Propelling the Metropolitan to the topmost ranks of museums collecting the art of photography, the Gilman Collection consists of more than 8,500 photographs, including many unique and beautiful icons of photography by the medium's greatest masters as well as works by little known—even unknown—photographers and extensive bodies of work by pioneers of the camera.

The personal archive of Walker Evans, acquired in 1994, traces the development of this American master and poet laureate of the documentary style, and provides scholars and the general public with a unique opportunity to study the complete creative output of this seminal photographer. The archive contains nearly 40,000 negatives and transparencies as well as Evans's boyhood snapshots, short stories, correspondence, library, postcard collection, and seldom-seen color Polaroids made in the year before his death.

In 2007 the Museum announced the gift and promised gift of the complete archive of Diane Arbus, including hundreds of the artist's early photographs; negatives and contact prints of 7,500 rolls of film; and her photography collection, library, and personal papers. The Diane Arbus Archive will be fully catalogued and eventually made available for research. Simultaneous with this acquisition, the Museum purchased 20 of Arbus's most iconic photographs.

The post-war years are also represented by important American photographers such as Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, William Klein, and Garry Winogrand. The Museum's collection is especially strong in representing the varied paths of photography since 1960: its role in conceptual art, earth art, and performance art, as seen in works by Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Douglas Huebler; the "Dusseldorf School," featuring works by Bernd and Hilla Becher and their students Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky; the "Pictures Generation," including Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince; and other important contemporary artists who use photography, such as Jean-Marc Bustamante, Adam Fuss, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rodney Graham, Sigmar Polke, and Charles Ray. The Museum has also recently added examples by younger artists such as Sharon Lockhart, Roe Ethridge, Rachel Harrison, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Doug Aitken, among others.
In 2001, the department acquired the Metropolitan's first work of video art—Ann Hamilton's a,b,c (1994/99)—and has since gone on to represent significant developments in film, video, and new media by artists including Lutz Bacher, David Hammons, Maria Marshall, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, and Karin Sander.

In September 2007 the Museum inaugurated the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, the Metropolitan's first gallery designed specifically for and devoted exclusively to the display of photographs created since 1960. Menschel Hall, with installations that change every six months, allows the department to show its contemporary holdings within the broader context of photographic traditions on view in the adjacent Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Gallery. Also nearby is The Howard Gilman Gallery, the Museum's first permanent gallery dedicated exclusively to the display of photographs, which opened in October 1997. Addressing a changing roster of themes and topics, installations in the Gilman Gallery rotate three times a year and are drawn from the Metropolitan's collection and, on occasion, from those of other institutions.

The Department of Photographs periodically presents special exhibitions in the Galleries for Drawings, Prints, and Photographs or special exhibition galleries elsewhere in the Museum. Among the major exhibitions organized by the Metropolitan during the past 15 years and accompanied by scholarly catalogues have been:

The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars (1989)
The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century, Selections from the Gilman Paper Company Collection (1993)
The Photographs of Édouard Baldus(1994)
Nadar (1995)
Sugimoto (1995-1996)
Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz (1997)
Paul Strand Circa 1916 (1998)
Edgar Degas, Photographer (1998-1999)
Walker Evans (2000)
Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50 (2002)
Richard Avedon: Portraits (2002)
Thomas Struth (2003)
The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855 (2003)
Diane Arbus Revelations (2005)
All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860 (2005)
The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (2005)
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (2007)
The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 (2009)
Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans (2009)