Framing a Century: Master Photographers, 1840-1940 @the Met

JTF (just the facts): 154 pictures, displayed in 5 rooms on the 2nd floor of the museum, with a selection of teaser photos on the exterior hallway walls. 3 rooms of 19th century work and 2 rooms of 20th century work, with differing paint/lighting. Here’s a list of the photographers represented in this exhibit (alphabetically), with the number of works by the artist in parentheses:

Eugene Atget (12)
Edouard Baldus (9)
Brassai (16)
Julia Margaret Cameron (11)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (11)
Walker Evans (14)
Roger Fenton (11)
Gustave Le Gray (11)
Charles Marville (11)
Nadar (12)
Man Ray (12)
William Henry Fox Talbot (15)
Carleton Watkins (8)
Comments/Context: The curatorial task of using the permanent collection to tell the comprehensive story of an art form must be as old as the idea of a museum itself. No museum (not even the venerable Metropolitan Museum, my vote for the best museum in the world) has every great masterwork, and so curators must carefully pick and choose from among the holdings to bring together a representative sample that supports the narrative they have selected. The danger of such exhibits, especially in smaller museums, is that they have the tendency to devolve into a “greatest hits” exhibit that is often boring, or they expose the weaknesses of the collection in glaring ways. So while the concept of the historical summary exhibit isn’t a new one, it isn’t as easy as it looks.
In this exhibit, the folks at the Met have bitten off a meaty task: telling the story of the first 100 years of photography. With the addition of the Gilman Collection to an already staggering body of work, the Met has the depth in its collections to experiment with new ways to educate us about the history of the medium. Rather than go down the predictable road of the “parade of masterpieces”, they have chosen to focus on a dozen or so seminal photographers, and to show their work in more depth (plus or minus 10 pictures each).
The first three rooms are “19th century photography”, and seem to me to make a point about the evolution of the medium and the dominant subject matter themes of the times. There are three “landscape” photographers (Fenton, Le Gray and Watkins), two “portrait” photographers (Cameron and Nadar), three “city” photographers (Baldus, Marville, and Atget), and Talbot, who gets a category all his own, given his early and groundbreaking innovations. (The image at right is an installation shot of these galleries; I apologize for the blurriness, but the light is turned down so low in these galleries, it’s hard to get a crisp shot.)
I found these first three rooms to work extremely well in telling the story “economically”, getting the main points across without droning on too long. I also think that the concept of selecting a handful of pictures for each artist, a few of which were well known images, but others of which were equally stunning lesser known works, helped clarify the idea of the “point of view” of the artist – these are not just historical documents; an artist’s eye is at work. I did find myself wondering about Watkins as the only American, and the omission of the Grand Tour as a thematic concept, but these are quibbles, which probably deservedly ended up on the cutting room floor in the name of staying focused.
The exhibition then transitions into another set of rooms, which are less expansive than the first three, and are painted a lighter color and lit more brightly (see another sub par installation picture at right). In here we find Evans, Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray in the first room, and Brassai in the last, on his own. While there are plenty of amazing images in this section as well, I think the multiplicity of views and voices found in the first forty years of the 20th century (along with the transition to the gelatin silver print) isn’t particularly well represented by this grouping. It’s not that these four aren’t a key part of the story; they clearly are. From my view, there is just too much to tell (particularly in the 1920s and 30s); the motif of the representative photographer seems too restrictive. The last two rooms left me scratching my head and unsatisfied, given how splendid the first three rooms were.

Collector’s POV: As a collector, there were many images to covet in this exhibit, knowing full well that they would never be available in the open market, and even if they were, they would be too expensive for us. As flower collectors, two highlights were Talbot’s purplish Botanical Specimen, 1835, and Dandelion Seeds, 1858. I also came away with a more general appreciation for Marville and the consistency and quality of his city scenes. Finally, while not in our collecting sweet spot, Cameron’s Sappho, 1865, with her patterned textile dress, was exquisite.
In general, this is a thoughtful, well-executed survey exhibition, which starts out with a bang, and limps a little to the finish (in my opinion). Overall, however, these are nitpicks. You’re not going to find a more comprehensive and well-constructed historical show of truly spectacular work any time soon anywhere else, so get down and see it before it closes.
Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)

Through September 1st
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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