Object: Photo, Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A large group show of black and white photographs and films, variously framed and matted, and displayed against white and green walls in a series of six rooms on the museum’s third floor. The Thomas Walther Collection is comprised of 341 photographs (mainly taken in the 1920s and 1930s) and was acquired by the museum in 2001. The exhibition was curated by Quentin Bajac and Sarah Hermanson Meister. A complete catalog of the collection has been compiled and organized by Maria Morris Hambourg, Lee Ann Daffner, and Mitra Abbaspour (here, cover below) with the support of the Mellon Foundation, showing all of the works in the collection, with supporting essays and texts by a variety of authors; it is available in the bookshop for $75. A comprehensive in-depth website has also been created (here, screen shots below).

The museum show has been separated into six thematic sections, as laid out in the six often divided rooms. For each section below, the photographers included have been listed, along with details (number, dates) of the images on view:

The Modern World (room 1)

  • Gustav Klutsis: 7 offset lithograph postcards, 1928 (in case)
  • Aleksandr Rodchenko/Varvara Stepanova: 2 journals (shown unfolded), 1935
  • Willi Ruge: 13 gelatin silver prints, 1931, 1 magazine spread, 1935
  • Unknown Photographer(s): 2 gelatin silver prints, 1917-1918, 1935
  • Robert Petschow: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1920-1933
  • Aleksandr Rodchenko: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1934
  • Martin Munkácsi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925-1928
  • Leni Riefenstahl, 4 gelatin silver prints, 1936
  • Kate Steinitz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • John Gutmann: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Wanda Wulz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932

Purisms (room 2)

  • Anne W. Brigman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • George H. Seeley: 1 gum bichromate over platinum print, 1910s
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1 palladium print, 1918, 1922
  • Bernard Shea Horne: 4 platinum prints, 1916-1917
  • Paul Strand: 1 silver platinum print, 1 palladium print, 1916, 1922
  • Jaromír Funke: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1923-1924
  • Jaroslav Rössler: 1 pigment print, 2 gelatin silver prints, 1923-1925
  • Theodore Roszak: 1 gelatin silver print, 1937-1939
  • Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1942, 1944
  • Edward Weston: 4 palladium prints, 4 gelatin silver prints, 1921, 1922, 1924, 1925, 1927
  • Karl Blossfeldt: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1898-1928

Here Comes a New Photographer (room 3)

  • László Moholy-Nagy: 1 sculpture, 1921
  • Aleksandr Rodchenko: 1 sculpture, 1920
  • Edward W. Quigley: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1931, 1932, 1933
  • Franz Roh: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1 set of 9 gelatin silver prints, 1928-1933
  • Edmund Kesting: 1 gelatin silver print: 1927
  • Georges Blanc: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Hans Finsler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Adolf Navara: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Margaret Bourke-White: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Willy Zielke: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
    Heinz Loew: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Theo Blanc et Antoine Demilly: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Hans Richter: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Hannes Meyer: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1926
  • István Kerny: 1 gelatin silver print, 1916
  • József Pécsi: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1926, 1928
  • František Vobecký: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Florence Henri: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928-1930
  • Aurel Bauh: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1932
  • Franciszka and Stefan Thermerson: 1 set of gelatin silver prints on board, 1933
  • Andreas Walser: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Alvin Langdon Coburn: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1916-1917
  • Francis Bruguière: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925-1929
  • Oskar Nerlinger: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1925-1929
  • Gyula Pap: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Edmund Collein and Heinz Loew: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927-1928
  • Iwao Yamawaki: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • El Lissitzky: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • Anton Giulio and Arturo Bragaglia: 1 gelatin silver print, 1911

Artist’s Life (room 4)

  • André Kertész: 17 gelatin silver prints, 1914, 1925-1929
  • Unknown Photographer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Erich Comeriner: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1927-1928
  • Lotte (Charlotte) Beese: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1926-1928
  • Paul Citroen: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1930
  • Irene Bayer-Hecht: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Iwao Yamawaki: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1931
  • Gertrude Arndt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1930
  • Lucia Moholy: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1926,1927
  • Hajo Rose: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Lyonel Feininger: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Irene Hoffmann: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1933
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920
  • August Sander: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1926, 1928
  • Lotte Jacboi: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1929, 1930
  • Frieda Gertrud Riess: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Germaine Krull: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1929, 1931
  • Marianne Breslauer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Walter A. Peterhans: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1929-1930
  • Edward Steichen: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1917, 1927
  • Werner Rhode: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Roger Parry: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Gertrude Leroy Brown: 1 platinum print, 1914-1916
  • Umbo (Otto Umbehr): 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Berenice Abbott: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Otto Lindig: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925-1930
  • Gustav Klutsis: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Lore Feininger: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • László Moholy-Nagy and Lucia Moholy: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • El Lissitzky: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: 1 gelatin silver print, 1921-1922
  • George Platt Lynes: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Tina Modotti: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • Maurice Tabard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928-1939
  • Charles Sheeler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1917
  • Peter A. Juley: 1 gelatin silver print, 1915-1916
  • Constantin Brancusi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920
  • Hannes Meyer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Georg Muche: 1 gelatin silver print: 1921

Magic Realisms (room 5)

  • Aenne Biermann: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1925-1930
  • Jacques-André Boiffard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Harry Lachman, 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Umbo (Otto Umbehr): 1 gelatin silver print, 1926-1927
  • Helmar Lerski: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1936
  • Max Burchartz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Stansliaw Ignacy Witkiewicz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1911-1912
  • Raoul Hausmann: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1931
  • Edmund Kesting: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1924, 1928
  • Maurice Tabard: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1928, 1929, 1931, 1936
  • Jean Painlevé: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Werner Rhode: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Jindřich Štyrský: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934-1935
  • Horacio Coppola: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Johan Niegeman: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926-1929
  • Iwao Yamawaki: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Karl Grill: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Oskar Schlemmer: 1 gouache, ink, and cut gelatin silver prints on black paper, 1924
  • Herbert Bayer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Paul Edmund Hahn: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928-1929
  • Osamu Shiihara: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932-1941
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Raoul Ubac: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Cami Stone: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Roger Parry: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • György Kepes: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938-1939
  • Arthur Siegel: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947

Symphony of a Great City (room 6)

  • Raoul Hausmann: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Berenice Abbott: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1935, 1936
  • Charles Sheeler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Anton Bruehl: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Albert Renger-Patzsch: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Marjorie Content: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • John P. Heins: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920
  • Dziga Vertov: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927-1928
  • Herbert Bayer: 1 gelatin silver print,1928
  • Unknown Photographer: 1 gelatin silver print,1929
  • Lee Miller: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1929-1932
  • Sasha Stone: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Semyon Fridlyand: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Jiří Lehovec: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Cesar Domela-Nieuwenhuis: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Jaroslav Rössler: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • Ralston Crawford: 1 gelatin silver print, 1949
  • Germaine Krull: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1926-1928, 1930
  • Florence Henri: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1931, 1928-1930
  • Carl Van Vechten: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • László Moholy-Nagy: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1928, 1929
  • Aleksandr Rodchenko: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1932, 1932-1933
  • Imre Kinski: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1930, 1929-1932
  • Paul Citroen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1923
  • Friedrich Seidenstücker: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Felix H. Man: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Peter Sekaer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Lisette Model: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1940-1941,1942
  • Paul Parker: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920s-1930s
  • Georges Blanc: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Weegee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1944
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • John Gutmann: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1935, 1939
  • Walker Evans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929-1930
  • Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Werner Mantz: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1928
  • El Lissitzky: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Georgii Zimin: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Roman Karmen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Fred Korth: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1928
  • Alexander Hackenschmied: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1930s
  • Umbo (Otto Umbehr): 4 gelatin silver prints, 1928, 1929, 1930
  • Walter R Latimer Sr.: 1 gelatin silver print, 1915
  • Alvin Langdon Coburn: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1909, 1913
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 platinum print, 1915
  • John P. Heins: 1 platinum print, 1919
  • Johan Hagemeyer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • André Kertész: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • J. Jay Hirz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Joris Ivens: 1 35mm film, 1929
  • Walther Ruttmann: 1 35mm film, 1927

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While the manic follow-the-obvious-trends collector is the one that routinely gets the most press these days, it’s the deliberate contrarian collector, the one that follows his or her own insistent instincts, disregarding the “hot” markets or the famous names, that often ends up teaching us something durably important. It’s an approach to collecting that consciously looks away from the spotlight, toward the dark corners where artworks are undervalued, overlooked, forgotten, misunderstood, or just plain unknown, where treasures can often be affordably unearthed if the searcher is armed with the right knowledge and the competitors are few.

Given the now canonical place of between the wars Modernism in the history of photography, choosing this specific pool to dive into wouldn’t seem like a particularly fertile area for out-of-the-way investigation, even back a few decades when photography collecting was still in its infancy. But this is what makes Thomas Walther’s collection, and this masterful exhibition, so truly revelatory – Walther built a world class collection right in the center of the established historical narrative, and in doing so, upended much of what we had come to take for granted about that period in the medium’s history. Not only did he disregard what the MoMA and others were focused on at that time, he consciously searched out examples of works that opened up an alternate line of thinking.

For those enamored with the burst of innovation we have recently seen with the digital revolution, the 1920s and 1930s were an equally exciting and disruptive time for photography. Those years saw the introduction of the hand held camera (and the flexibility it offered), the broadening of photojournalism (and the magazines that featured it), the growth of film making, and the expansion of the avant garde. It was a time of intense experimentation both in Europe and America, with new technical developments quickly opening up new areas of artistic exploration and new visual vocabularies. Photographers from across the globe were connecting and cross pollinating in exhibitions, publications, and face to face meetings, taking advantage of their new found freedoms.

Maria Morris Hambourg’s essay in the exhibition catalog picks up the analysis at this point, and lucidly fills in the gaps; it’s the most cogent and impressive essay I’ve read in years. Out of the palette cleanser of Man Ray, Duchamp, and Dada came both American Modernism (Weston, Strand, Sheeler, and their active proponent Stieglitz) and European Constructivism. To make a long story short, while there was a flourish of new photographic activity and experimentation in both Germany and Russia (led by Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko and their schools respectively, among many others), as those countries became increasingly politically belligerent and economically isolated, the artists and photographers there were largely marginalized (Hitler’s return to realism didn’t help either). As they fell out of the mainstream, the “axis of Modernism” shifted and became more a dance between America and France. This is the history that curators Beaumont Newhall and later John Szarkowski rallied behind, and which became the unargued set of assumptions that would lay at the foundation of the medium for decades.

The Thomas Walther collection is in many ways a sharp corrective to this original analysis. In building a comprehensive collection of photography from the period, Walther not only gathered superlative examples from the US and France, but he more importantly unearthed many of the jaw droppingly disruptive works that had been made in Germany, Russia, and other Eastern European countries at that time and then boxed up, hidden, or lost in storage. The exhibit returns them (both the famous and the lesser known) to their rightful place in the narrative, rebalancing the forces and influences of the times and clarifying the actual string of events. Between the collection and the intense curatorial and conservation scholarship applied to the prints in the past four years, it’s as if the history of photography has been emphatically rewritten, fixing some stubbornly persistent errors.

The exhibition itself is organized into thematic sections driven by subject matter and style, each one a selection of individual works and a group of works by a single highlighted photographer (shown on the green walls); as a result, there is some chronological wandering between rooms, moving back and forth across the roughly two decade period, which can be a bit disorienting. The first room highlights a modern world of photographic movement and the birth of photojournalism, particularly as applied to sports. Willi Ruge’s series of images chronicling a parachute jump are full of unexpected angles and active motion; his dangling feet above the buildings below are memorably weird. The split second nature of sports photography offered other opportunities for new visions – Aleksandr Rodchenko’s divers hanging in mid air, Leni Riefenstahl’s track athletes running and throwing javelins, and Martin Munkácsi’s in-the-dirt soccer save all have an of-the-moment immediacy that remains engagingly fresh.

The second room swings back in time and chronicles the stylistic journey from Pictorialism to pure Modernism, mixing in many lesser known Europeans into the discussion. While the Strand and Weston classics on view here will be familiar to most, still life studies by Jaromír Funke and Jaroslav Rössler fit the evolution argument just as well, and Karl Blossfeldt’s plants are as formally elegant as any of Weston’s shells and smokestacks.

The show really gathers momentum when it lets its freak flag fly, showing off the collection’s deep holdings of experimental work. This is where it becomes astonishingly clear what we have been missing by excluding this whole group of artists. In this room and in a later room devoted to more Surreal images, the vibrancy of the experimentation is palpable. There are solarizations, multiple exposures, negative experiments, photograms, extreme close ups, mirror tricks, shadow play, twisted angles, chemical treatments, oddball distortions, and jittering cinematic frames, all exploding off the walls in a flourish of rule-breaking creativity. (As an aside, Quentin Bajac’s smart essay about the influx of fragmented, multiplied, cinematic image techniques in the photography of the period is the other standout analytical piece in the catalog and not to be missed.) Franz Roh and Maurice Tabard are deservingly highlighted in the two spaces, with a dizzying array of other lesser known names filling in the harmonies. From Oskar Nerlinger, Gyula Pap, and Willy Zielke to Raoul Ubac, Karl Grill, and Herbert Bayer, there were literally dozens of photographers who were actively contributing to the visual dialogue, and their inclusion here gives the period a feeling of electric action.

This photographic egalitarianism is one of the most powerful facets of both the collection and the show. There is no sense that unfamiliar works or unknown makers are somehow filler to bridge between the treasures; in fact, that entire idea seems wholly foreign to the structure of this collection. There is a profound underlying attitude here that says that the obscure pieces are just as exciting as the recognizable ones, perhaps even more so when we really look closely. In this, we see Thomas Walther’s personality come through in his collection – he was clearly passionately interested in the complexity of the entire period, not just the trophy prints that others would notice.

A deep selection of artist portraits and images of studios and art schools seems to point to this collecting thesis as well – not only was Walther tracking the photographic innovations, but he worked his way back to the artists, teachers, and physical places where the ideas were percolating. Severely angled Bauahus buildings are paired with experimental portraits, where faces are deconstructed, multiplied, whitened out by intense light, or punctuated by extreme facial expressions. An impressive selection of André Kertész’ softly intimate vintage prints that covers the length of a long wall both reinforces this fascination with artist’s and their studios (in this case Mondrian’s) and opens up yet another line of inquiry into the collection – the physical qualities of the prints themselves and what those details can tell us.

In conjunction with the recent curatorial studies of the works, the Thomas Walther collection has also been intensely studied from a conservation point of view, led by an entirely different team of interdisciplinary scholars and experts. By looking carefully at papers, chemistries, processes, and the companies in various countries that manufactured them, they have been able to not only track the choices individual artists were making, but also to trace connections between the rise and fall of national manufacturers/distributors and the changing scarcity of resources, particularly in Germany and Russia; in short, the photographic objects themselves have secrets to tell. Deep dive essays into scientific details uncover answers to why Rodchenko’s prints were so poor or how the percentage of straw in the papers can lead us to conclusions about the dynamics of the economies. What is most powerful about these analyses is how well integrated they are into the larger effort to come to grips with the period – they aren’t just arcane off-in-the-corner investigations, but studies that interlock with the open questions on the curatorial side.

The final gallery of the exhibition is filled with the sharp lines of city and industrial imagery. Germaine Krull and Umbo are given the featured treatment in this divided space, with Albert Renger-Patzsch, Florence Henri, László Moholy-Nagy, Werner Mantz, and Imre Kinski providing foils to the better known skyscrapers and angles of Abbott, Sheeler, Model, Coburn, and Evans. Once again, there is a strong sense of consciously rebalancing the narrative, of reintroducing photographers who were part of the discussion at the time back into the agreed upon historical flow.

If all of this wasn’t enough, MoMA has also created a tremendously detailed website of the collection (linked above), which draws connections between geographies, materials, exhibitions, publications, and artist histories. One could literally spend hours reloading the visualizations, mapping links between the artists in Dessau, tracking each picture made by Jaroslav Rössler, seeing which photographs were included in Film und Foto in 1929 in Stuttgart, following the graduates of certain schools, or comparing all the double exposure images in the collection. The new idea here is that the collection is seen not as a standard cataloged list of pictures, but as a network of information that can be sliced and diced in nearly infinite ways to gather insights.

While it may not be entirely obvious from a lazy stroll through the galleries, both this collection and the comprehensive exhibition that has been built around it are full of risk taking. In many ways, the acquisition of the Thomas Walther Collection in 2001 and the significant investment of resources made since that time to understand more fully the implications of its contents are a humble admission of earlier mistakes and a concerted thoughtful effort to redress them – the key figures of the period from Germany and Russia were largely overlooked, but have now been welcomed back into the fold. There is a newfound sense of openness and accessibility in both the collection itself and the way the museum has responded to it that is encouraging, particularly in the website, which allows everyday visitors to follow their own curatorial instincts and interests, rather than being led by a single omniscient point of view. This is undeniably one of the best photography shows of the year, not only because it dazzles us with astonishing pictures and teaches us something new, but because it signals an approach to scholarship full of curiosity, inclusiveness, and maturity.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. While many of the icons of between the wars Modernism are among the most valuable vintage photographs ever made, given the astonishing breadth of work on view here, the usual detailed examination of prices and secondary market histories that can normally be found here is beyond the scope of this particular review.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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