Collection 1880s-1940s @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A wide ranging group show presentation drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, displayed in loose chronological order across a series of 24 connected rooms on the 5th floor.

For each room, the photographs and films on view are listed below:

500 Constantin Brancusi (no photography)

501 19th-Century Innovators (no photography)

502 Early Photography and Film

  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print, c1855
  • Unknown: 1 salted paper print, c1855
  • Unknown: 1 cyanotype, c1910
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver print, 1917
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver print, 1917-1918
  • Unknown: 3 gelatin silver print stereographs, 1918-1919
  • American Mutoscope and Biograph Company: 1 35mm film, 1905
  • Eugène Atget: 2 albumen silver prints, 1909, 1911
  • Anna Atkins: 1 cyanotype, 1853
  • Charles Aubry: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Hippolyte Bayard: 1 salted paper print, c1847
  • Edwin Middleton: 1 35mm film, 1914
  • James Wallace Black: 1 albumen silver print, 1860
  • Karl Blossfeldt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1898-1928
  • Julia Margaret Cameron: 1 albumen silver print, 1867
  • Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne: 2 albumen silver prints, c1856
  • Louis-Émile Durandelle: 1 albumen silver print, 1865-1872
  • Eugène Estanave: 1 autostereoscopic image, 1908
  • Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey: 1 daguerreotype, 1842
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston: 4 platinum prints, 1899-1900
  • Gertrude Käsebier: 1 platinum print, c1899
  • Maurice Loewy: 1 photogravure, 1903
  • John Murray: 1 paper negative, c1860
  • Eadweard Muybridge: 1 collotype, 1884-1886
  • Timothy O’Sullivan: 1 albumen silver print, 1873
  • Charles Sheeler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1917-1918
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 photogravure, 1910
  • Charles Thurston Thompson: 4 albumen silver prints, 1853
  • Underwood and Underwood: 6 albumen silver print stereographs, 1901, 1903
  • Hugo van Werden: 1 set of 6 albumen prints, 1872-1873
  • Léon Vidal: 1 collotype, 1878
  • Carleton Watkins: 1 albumen silver print, 1861

503 Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (no photography)

504 New Expression in Germany and Austria (no photography)

505 Circa 1913 (no photography)

506 Henri Matisse (no photography)

507 Artists Books and Prints in Russia (no photography)

508 Readymade in Paris and New York

  • Man Ray: 3 gelatin silver print photograms, 1923

509 Florine Stettheimer and Company (no photography)

510 Machines, Mannequins and Monsters

  • Film Stills: Nosferatu 1, 1922, King Kong 1, 1933, The Last Moment 1, 1923, Frankenstein 1, 1931, Hunchback of Notre Dame 1, 1923, Cytherea 1, 1924, Puppets 1, 1926, Metropolis 9, 1927, Der Golem 2, 1920, Devil-Doll 2, 1936, The Dream Doll 4, 1917, Bride of Frankenstein 1, 1935, Man with the Movie Camera 5, 1929, The Great Gabbo 1, 1929
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver pint, 1938
  • Berenice Abbott: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930/c1950
  • Josef Albers: 1 gelatin silver prints mounted to board, 1930/1932
  • Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Diane Arbus: 1 gelatin silver print, 1970/later
  • Eugène Atget: 4 gelatin silver printing-out-paper prints, 1912, 1925, 1926-1927
  • Herbert Bayer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Hans Bellmer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935-1937
  • Ilse Bing: 1 gelatin silver print, c1934
  • Bill Brandt: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Horacio Coppola: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936/1952
  • André Kertész: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1926, 1927, 1933
  • Dora Maar: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1935
  • Lee Miller: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1932
  • Tina Modotti: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men: 1 gelatin silver print, c1919
  • Jindřich Štyrský: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934-1935
  • Maurice Tabard: 1 gelatin silver print with cellophane sheet, 1936
  • Edward Weston: 1 palladium print, 1925, 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Iwao Yamawaki: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931

511 The Vertical City

  • Berenice Abbott: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1933, c1936, 1938
  • El Lissitzky: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1930
  • Walter Ruttmann: 1 35mm film, 1927
  • Edward Steichen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 3 photogravures, 1903, 1910
  • Paul Strand: 1 35mm film, 1921
  • Francis Thompson: 1 35mm film, 1969
  • Underwood and Underwood: 1 gelatin silver print, 1905
  • Dziga Vertov: 1 35mm film, 1929

512 Abstraction and Utopia (no photography)

513 Design for Modern Life

  • Gertrud Arndt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1930
  • Jaromir Funke: 1 gelatin silver print, 1923-1924
  • Lucia Moholy: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Richard Pare: 1 inkjet print, 1998
  • Lilly Reich: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Dziga Vertov: 1 35mm film, 1931
  • Paul Wolff: 1 video, 1928
  • Yva: 1 gelatin silver print, c1928

514 Paris 1920s

  • Florence Henri: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Germaine Krull: 1 gelatin silver print, c1927

515 Claude Monet’s Water Lillies (no photography)

516 (Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman)

517 Surrealist Objects

  • Brassaï: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1932, 1934
  • Claude Cahun: 1 gelatin silver print, c1925
  • Germaine Dulac: 1 35mm film, 1928
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Osamu Shiihara: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930s
  • Raoul Ubac: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938

518 A Surrealist Art History (no photography)

519 Architecture for Modern Art

  • Frederick Kiesler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • El Lissitzky: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1930
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: 2 cut-out photographs on illustration board, 1941-1943
  • Hans Richter: 1 35mm film, 1921
  • Soichi Sunami: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1938-1939

520 Picturing America

  • Unknown: 44 gelatin silver prints, 1940s
  • Unknown: 522 gelatin silver prints, c1938-1960
  • Berenice Abbott: 1 gelatin silver print, 1937
  • Ilse Bing: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Rudy Burckhardt: 1 album, containing 22 gelatin silver prints, 1940
  • Louise Dahl-Wolfe: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Mike Disfarmer: 6 gelatin silver prints, c1940
  • Walker Evans: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1936
  • Dorothea Lange: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Russell Lee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Robert McNeil: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1938
  • Lisette Model: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Gordon Parks: 1 gelatin silver print, 1943
  • Arthur Rothstein: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Joseph Schwartz: 1 gelatin silver print, c1940
  • Ben Shahn: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Aaron Siskind: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Edward Weston: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1937, 1939, 1940, 1941
  • Marion Post Wolcott: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938

521 Masters of Popular Painting (no photography)

522 Responding to War (no photography)

523 British Prints from the Machine Age (no photography)

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When the doors closed at MoMA this past summer for the last stage in the museum’s $400 million dollar overhaul, photography followers watched the transformation process from afar with some trepidation. While some 40000 square feet of space was being added (most of it from the demolished American Folk Art Museum next door), which was cause for genuine celebration, the word on the street was that the third floor galleries which had previously been dedicated to the display of photography were being given up, and that photography and other previously marginalized mediums like design, architecture, and film were going to be better integrated into the overall art historical flow. While this sounded promising in an abstract sort of way, what it might actually mean in practical terms was a mystery, until the doors re-opened in late October.

The response to the “new” MoMA has largely been positive, especially since the permanent collection areas are so much larger and more fluid than ever before, thereby allowing much more art to be on view. Stretching across three floors (5th, 4th, and 2nd), the permanent collection galleries have been wholly rethought, with a deliberate eye for integration, connection-making, and interplay across artistic mediums. And while the crowd-pleasing greatest hits are largely still in place, the selections for the inaugural rehang feel actively inclusive, breaking up the traditional canon and making room for many important artists who have previously been underappreciated or wholly overlooked. The result is an overall feeling of freshness and vitality, a blood transfusion for an institution that was feeling trapped in a rigid history of its own making.

What was almost entirely missing from the blanket of press coverage that surrounded the re-opening was an answer to the simple question “what happened to the photography?” The third floor galleries have indeed been lost to other exhibits, and the photography has been sprinkled throughout the permanent collection rooms as foreseen. But no comprehensive analysis of this new photography reality has yet surfaced, and so we felt obliged to dig in and do the work of trying to both systematically document where the photography can now be found and more broadly summarize and consider what the curatorial choices that those particular works represent (and their corollary, the ones now left out) might mean.

The permanent collection galleries are separated by floor, using three chronological buckets: 1880s-1940s (on the fifth floor), 1940s-1970s (on the fourth floor), and 1970s-Present (on the second floor). (As an aside, the very recent three volume set of catalogs of the MoMA photography collection had a different set of chronological break points – 1840-1920, 1920-1960, 1960-Now.) Of course, there are photographs included in many of the other special exhibits on view around the museum, but these fall outside the boundaries of this analysis; here we’re just focused on the re-installation of the permanent collection, and more narrowly, on the photographs included in that first “new order” statement. The museum plans to refresh these galleries every six months or so, so what we see now will inevitably change and iterate, and perhaps some of what feels missing right now will appear later, thereby recalibrating the arc of photography and its place within art history once again.

Our plan is to develop separate examinations of each of the three floors, beginning with the 5th floor galleries and the period between the 1880s and the 1940s. The installation shots above cover every photograph (and film) on view in the series of rooms on that floor (perhaps aside from supporting wall label or vitrine photos used as background), and the JTF section above details every photograph and film included, by maker, process, and date, as reference.

***

If there is any overarching meta-theme to the way the photography has been considered in this installation (covering the period between the 1880s and the 1940s), it is as an energetic, and surprisingly disruptive, force in the ways in which we see, and therefore understand and process the world around us. One layer underneath this broad generalization lies the incremental forward movement of technology, and the resulting power this wave of innovation gave to artists and everyday photographers alike to document what they saw. The essential thesis therefore is that armed with this newfound photographic (and cinematic) capability, as the decades click past, artists with cameras, from all around the world, have continually responded to the current cultural imperatives of the day, thereby making works that fit neatly into the larger sweep of artistic output. The unifying arc that connects all of photography together, and photography to other mediums, is seeing, in this case through the mechanism of a lens.

While this line of thinking might not sound revolutionary, or even controversial, it is a distinct departure from a framework that places photography in its own bounded universe, where it has grown and evolved in relative isolation since its invention. It forces photography into an active, and sometimes messy dialogue with the other art of any given moment in time, fronting those relationships, parallels, and contrasts instead of the inward-looking response to itself, its histories, and its master makers. In a sense, there is no “history of photography” or “key masterworks of the medium” taking place in this progression of rooms, although there are certainly many great photographs on view; instead, photography surfaces only when it is relevant to larger and more sweeping changes in artistic thinking.

This mindset is made clear from the get go, with rooms filled with elemental Brancusi sculptures and then late 19th century stylistic innovators – Van Gogh, Seurat, Cezanne, Munch, and others. Early photography enters as a foil to these vantage points and techniques – its extreme precision and detail undermined many forms of expression that tried to be life-like while simultaneously opened up new doors that hadn’t been possible previously. So instead of a parade of 19th century gems, especially those that drew liberally from the aesthetics of painting, this “early” room feels intentionally eclectic and experimental, marking where the risks in seeing were taking place. There are scientific images (x-rays, organs, facial expressions, and even a severed foot), plant specimens (from Atkins, Blossfeldt, and Aubry), Muybridge’s motion studies, stereographs of war and politics, and a dense panorama of industrial architecture – these were pictures that no other medium could match. Photography is also seen documenting both the past (in Durandelle’s ornate carvings,  Atget’s swirled iron railings, and Girault de Prangey’s Capitoline Lion in Rome), and the unnoticed present (Käsebier’s portrait of an American Indian, Johnston’s images of African-American training school classes, and “cakewalk dancing” in Middleton’s film.) The logic behind these choices (and the omission of so many others) is that they seem to represent an extension what was artistically possible.

Given MoMA’s history, especially in the photography department, what we might have expected to see in the next few rooms would be an in-depth celebration of between-the-wars photographic Modernism, as expressed primarily in European, American, and Russian modes. But astonishingly I must admit, that’s not actually what happens. After Picasso, Matisse, and German Expressionism get their due, Man Ray contributes a group of rayographs to a section on readymades, which eventually leads to a room entitled Machines, Mannequins, and Monsters, which peels off a group of photographs that edges toward strangeness, horror, and found oddity. What’s fascinating is that the logic here is almost an inversion of what we normally consider important – instead of being shown the photographs that celebrate industrial modernity and romantic notions of streamlined, efficient progress, we are given images that in essence question that climate of rapid technological change. An entire wall of movie stills offers us the fears of King Kong, Frankenstein, and Metropolis (among many others), and images of storefronts from Atget, Abbott, Brandt, and Álvarez Bravo tease out other examples of weirdness hiding in pain sight. We are then taken one step further by distortions by Abbott, Kertész, and Weston, Bellmer’s eerie dolls, Tabard’s spooky long-fingered spirit, and a selection of mannequin images that play on our human vulnerabilities. Thought-provokingly, these choices seem to be saying that photography was perhaps more durably innovative when it pushed into these fears and fantasies, than when it was glorifying the crisp lines of factories.

We do get a few soaring skyscrapers in the next room, The Vertical City, but the thrust here is really more architecture (and the accompanying urban transformations of scale, height, and technology) than photography. Works by Stieglitz, Steichen, Abbott, and Lissitzky all make appearances, as do fast-paced films by Strand, Vertov, and Ruttman, but the central ideas largely turn back once again towards new ways of seeing – these artists and architects were boldly reimagining the shapes of the city. And after an interlude of strict abstraction, design gets its own space to examine redefining the surfaces of everyday life, and photography once again plays a supporting (almost singularly documentary) role, with a burnished image by Funke highlighting the gorgeous elemental curves of dinner plates.

The pendulum of expressiveness swings back toward looseness and eccentricity in the next few rooms. Images by Krull and Henri appear with more radical paintings from 1920s Paris, Monet’s water lilies make a well-timed appearance, and two rooms devoted to Surrealism swirl with exaggeration, bizarreness, and dreamlike distortion, punctuated by a handful of solid photographic inclusions from Shiihara, Man Ray, Cahun, and Ubac.

Another pillar of the old photographic MoMA was Walker Evans, and he makes his appearance – in much smaller volume than we might have expected – in a room called Picturing America. Balanced by lonely paintings by Hopper, the photographs on view hit several high points all at once: the FSA photographers (Lange, Rothstein et al), a New York album by Rudy Burckhardt, 1930s/1940s Edward Weston (mostly in the West), black life in the 1930s/1940s (Parks, McNeil, and others), Disfarmer’s studio portraits, and two gatherings of vernacular photobooth imagery. The choices don’t put Evans and his ordered eye at the center of the aesthetic discussion anymore, but place him in a broader continuum of thinking about how America was settling into its post-Depression rhythms, how the East and West were evolving, and how we as people were seeing ourselves. The run of rooms on the fifth floor essentially ends with the trauma of World War II as seen in monumental paintings, rather than photography.

Seen together, and although there is a lot of photography actually on view, this isn’t the narrative we’ve come to expect from the first century of photography. It’s a photography that is less isolated and insular, less fearful of its more prominent artistic cousins, and with less of a chip on its shoulder. The balance with the other mediums feels more natural and appropriate, and photography’s strengths and advantages (when they appear) are better encouraged to show through. That said, by mixing in with the rushing river of art, the continuity of internal photographic history is almost entirely lost in this installation; even with a loose chronological march that we can follow, how photography steps from one idea to the next, and who is actually important or influential in the grand scheme of things (especially in the 19th century), gets thrown into the wind. But fittingly, the same can be said for plenty of other brand name painters and sculptors who are represented in this same flow by just one or two works – the long arm of art history is an uncompromising judge and we’re far enough removed from the art of this period to have a decent sense of what matters and doesn’t. So in a sense, the photographers have graduated to a place where they no longer receive special treatment, and with that promotion comes a much tougher set of artistic competitors.

Aside from the seemingly random inclusion of a sword-swallowing Arbus portrait from 1970 in among the 1930s mannequins, the curatorial logic at work here feels sound and the results feel lively and unexpected. 19th century photography fans will find the early room maddening in its omissions (and may signal a further walking away from this work by MoMA, given 1880 as a nominal cut off), but a longer look reveals a context that does indeed organize the grab bag.

What I hope this edited historical flow provokes is an active discussion of where exactly photography contributed something to the artistic dialogue during these years that no other medium could or did. This is what was turning over in my head as I moved on the fourth and second floors (the summary reports of which are forthcoming), and wrestling with that broader perspective (and rubric for evaluation) is undeniably valuable for those of us who typically stay safely protected inside the photography bubble.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show of permanent collection highlights, there are of course no posted prices. Given the broad number of artists and photographers included in the exhibition, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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  1. Peter Barker (www.peterbarker.org) /

    That’s a really interesting review of what itself sounds like a fresh approach to photographic history. I’m looking forward to your reviews of the second and fourth floors.
    What about the pure visuals though: how does the photography hold up? I always think that when photographs are displayed with other art, especially painting, the photography tends to look diminished, a lesser form – perhaps because while it can offer a variety of subject matter it can offer nothing like the variety of approach that other forms can. Would you say that the photography can hold its own visually, as opposed to historically, in the refurbished MoMA?

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Gnomic Book (here). Softcover, 136 pages, with 96 color and monochrome reproductions. Includes an essay by Jason Koxvold (in English/Arabic) and transcriptions ... Read on.

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