Photography at MoMA: 1920 to 1960

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by the Museum of Modern Art (here). Hardcover, 416 pages, with 533 illustrations. Edited with text by Quentin Bajac, Lucy Gallun, Roxana Marcoci, and Sarah Hermanson Meister. Includes essays by Douglas Coupland, Kevin Moore, Drew Sawyer, and Pepper Stetler. $75. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A companion volume entitled Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now was published in 2015 by MoMA (here).

Comments/Context: MoMA’s unique authority in fine-art photography rested for many years on an institutional support that was as steadfast as it was precocious. A combination of scholarly dedication and public-mindedness, along with its open-door attitude toward unrecognized talent—with free, weekly portfolio reviews—earned the museum bountiful good will from critics and photographers.

The commitment began not long after its founding. In 1937, it published Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography: from 1839 to the Present, a pioneering survey now in its 8th edition. In 1940, it innovated again by establishing a separate department of photography, the first art museum in the world to do so.

Beginning in 1964, visitors could also see a sample of its burgeoning collection in situ. Refreshed with examples by the canonic as well as relative unknowns—a Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype, an Eugène Cuvelier salt print, a mammoth albumen print by Carleton Watkins, an Atget, Helen Levitt, Bill Brandt, Roy DeCarava, Grancel Fitz, Ted Croner’s Taxi, New York Night, William Eggleston’s red ceiling, a Cindy Sherman film still—this revolving chronology was a permanent installation.

The dedicated galleries symbolized the uncommon respect that photographs enjoyed as art historical objects within a museum justifiably renowned for its painting and sculpture holdings. No other place offered such a comprehensive and up-to-date survey, viewable by the public six days a week.

After the millennium, MoMA expanded its headquarters in midtown Manhattan and rethought its mission. When the building reopened in 2004, photography was more integrated into the story of modern art that the curators wanted to tell. But a complete, linear and permanent history, from the mid-19th century to the present, was only intermittently a feature in the photography galleries and disappeared for good in 2012.

Instead, MoMA has now become the first museum to publish a multi-volume history of its own photographs collection. Two-thirds complete, the project is not your typical self-congratulatory monument. The department itself plays only a minor, supernumerary role in the narrative. Readers hoping for a grand recontextualizing social history of art and photography, or stories about the tenures and personalities of its four influential directors—Newhall (1940-46), Edward Steichen (1946-62), John Szarkowski (1962-1991), and Peter Galassi (1991-2013)—will be disappointed. The two books don’t even list the museum’s hundreds of photography exhibitions and publications since 1937. For that, one has to poke around its excellent website.

Overseeing the projected three volumes is Quentin Bajac. Chief curator since 2013, he published a three-volume history of photography—in French, with Gallimard—between 2000-13, when he was a curator at the Musée d’Orsay and then at the Centre Pompidou.

For MoMA’s history, he chose to begin in the present and work backwards. Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now, published in 2015, touched on some of the many trends that have marked artistic practice over the last 55 years: sardonic documentary; the Conceptual deconstruction of photographic premises and cliches; the camera’s role in the art of performance and the politics of feminism as well as ethnic identity in the 1970s; critiques of mass media in the 1960s and the archive in the 1990s; staged photography and the rise of postmodern theory in the 1980s; color printing as the new normal; the Düsseldorf School; computer graphics and camera-less abstraction in the digital era.

The odd decision to initiate the series with the most current photographs seemed as much of a political signal about the future of MoMA as it was a survey of the past. By embracing so many competing styles in its view of recent history—divided into 8 equal parts—and by featuring artists from five continents, many of whom had never been discussed by Newhall or exhibited by Szarkowski and Galassi in MoMA’s galleries, the volume was a declaration that the department would henceforth be a more visibly impartial arbiter in the world, no longer favoring artists from one country or with a background in one practice.

The latest volume, Photography at MoMA: 1920-1960—roughly 50 pages longer than the first, although spanning 15 fewer years—covers the halcyon era of European Modernism (Constructivism, Surrealism, the Bauhaus); the sobriety of Neue Sachlichkeit; American social documentary during the Great Depression; the flowering in magazines of small-camera reportage and studio-based fashion portraits and advertising campaigns; the rebirth of darkroom experimentation and personal documentary in the post-WWII period.

Bajac’s brief overview of MoMA and photography during this period notes drily that the department has not always operated under its present code of ethics. In 1941, for example, Newhall and Ansel Adams mounted an exhibition called American Photographs at $10, which offered prints by Adams, Berenice Abbott, Moholy-Nagy, and others for sale. (The idea that the museum might double as a commercial gallery was tried only one other time, under Steichen.)

Certain tensions have persisted within the structure of MoMA since its inception in 1929. In the 1930s, when Alfred Barr directed the museum in all phases except title, its critics—which included certain American artists, as well as Lincoln Kirstein—derided the exhibition program as “too European.” Newhall was hired, and his department created, to counter this attack. In Barr’s judgment, Americans were also more advanced than Europeans in photography and film, whereas they lagged behind the Old World in painting and sculpture.

After World War II, though, Newhall found himself criticized as “too American.” Steichen, too, eventually was charged with being too parochial as well, and during Szarkowski’s long tenure, the volume of the blasts only increased. They were not unwarranted. As Bajac noted in the introductory chapter to the first volume, “between 1962 and the late 1980s, the exhibitions devoted to contemporary non-American photography can be counted on one hand.” Although Galassi’s first show, in 1992, was pointedly titled More Than One Photography, his single major historical overview, American Photography: 1890-1965 (1995), was also nativist. Bajac was imported from France, many suspect, to swing the pendulum back and to prepare MoMA for an international mission in the 21st century.

In these histories, he has generously allowed others to speak on the museum’s behalf. The four double-pages he has allotted himself for his single essay, on American Modernism, is the same amount of space given to the seven other contributors. It’s an egalitarian format, albeit one without room to develop much of an argument. Images outnumber text by a page-ratio of more than eight to one.

Surveying these four decades, the museum could be forgiven for touting its own landmarks. Walker Evans continues to intrigue artists with the devious plain-spokenness of American Photographs (1938), and The Family of Man (1955) remains the most visited photographs display in history. Regarded by artists and critics, then and now, as propaganda for a Pax Americana under the guise of U.N. brotherhood, its long-lived popularity can’t be denied. The book has sold more than 4 million copies and the original installation still exists, reconstructed at the Chateau Clervaux in Luxembourg.

Each of these shows gets its due in these pages but not at the expense of other figures and developments. Efforts are made to highlight exhibitions and figures formerly marginalized or unmentioned in Newhall. Drew Sawyer’s essay on America and the Documentary Style gives the Walker Evans-Lincoln Kirstein collaboration two paragraphs. But that’s not much more than is granted to Harlem Document (a 1932-40 project sponsored by the Photo League) or to 12 Million Black Voices, a 1941 exhibition and book, with words by Richard Wright and photographs by Edwin Rosskam.

The Family of Man is relegated to a page in Bajac’s introduction, while Lucy Gallun’s essay, A Subjective Eye: The Postwar Photographer’s Vision, attends to Steichen’s other less celebrated group shows, In and Out of Focus (1946) and Abstraction in Photography (1951). She cites the pedagogy of Moholy-Nagy in Chicago during the 1940s, pivotal for the direction of American photography in the years after, but gives equal time to the teaching in Germany of Otto Steinert, an artist and curator who led a return to Bauhaus principles of experimentation after the war.

As these volumes attest, the quality and breadth of MoMA’s photographs collection is fairly staggering. Works by more than 300 photographers are represented. Many of the expected names are here—Stieglitz, Steichen, Hine, Man Ray, Evans, Adams, Weston, Modotti, Outerbridge, Abbott, Cartier-Bresson, Moholy-Nagy, Blossfeldt, Rodchenko, Edgerton, Steiner, Kertész, Funke, Lange, Alvarez Bravo, Bourke-White, Brandt, Capa, Levitt, Penn, Callahan, Model, Sudek, Klein, Platt Lynes, Strand, DeCarava, Avedon, Frank, Arbus, Erwitt, Winogrand, Friedlander—some appearing in more than one chapter.

They aren’t allowed to dominate, however, and room is given to Claude Cahun, Ilse Bing, ringl + pit, Jay DeFeo, Otto Piene, Edmund Teske, Rudy Burkhardt, Saul Leiter, Christer Strömholm, and Dave Heath. Photographers associated with other media are brought together in unexpected two-page spreads: Richard Pousette-Dart’s double-exposure action-portrait of Mark Rothko smoking faces across from Robert Rauschenberg’s dark and somber view of his friend Cy Twombly seated in the pew of a church.

The photography of World War II’s unique destruction is seldom treated with the sensitivity found in these pages. In the chapter titled Public Stories, the looming violence and mendacity of the chief players is foreshadowed by a series of ominous newspaper images from the 1920s and ‘30s: a dark gray portrait of sun passing low overhead on the shortest day of the year; a tornado behind a series of empty storefronts; the shadow of the Akron blimp before it crashed; a photoradiogram of a doomed expedition to the North Pole; a truck that has fallen into a sinkhole; and Houdini at a card table exposing a spiritualist fraud.

Only a few scenes from unspecified battles and another small group of photos—of prisoners, dead or barely alive, from the concentration camps—illustrate the war itself. The climax of the sequence is a 1949 photo of three spectators in heavy coats looking out the blown-out panoramic window of Hitler’s denuded Reception Hall in Berchtesgaden at the snowy mountains. All of these pictures were available on the news wires, a condition that only magnifies their devastating effect.

While the editorial flow of the images in these chapters is hard to fault, the same can’t be said for the text. The first volume may have presented photographers seldom, if ever, noticed before in a MoMA photography publication—Allan Sekula, Bas Jan Ader, Lyle Ashton Harris, Harrell Fletcher, Zhang Dali, Walid Raad, David Wojnarowicz, Lisa Oppenheim, Jan De Cock—but the texts hewed squarely to a formalist view of each topic, ignoring the market forces that transformed the status of fine-art photographs after 1970.

None of the essays discussed the impact of limited edition prints, an idea fostered by Ansel Adams and dealer Harry Lunn; Sotheby’s inauguration of regular photograph auctions; the Getty’s secret purchase of six major collections in 1984; the steady infiltration of photographs into painting and sculpture galleries, and their integration into surveys of contemporary art during the ‘80s and ‘90s; the vast price discrepancy between “photographs” and “Conceptual Art”; or the explosion of MFA programs.

It is often considered impolite to discuss the role of money in art history, but worth at least a footnote was the $1 million paid in 1995 by the museum for a complete set (69 prints) of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills—a record price at the time that now looks like a bargain. Gursky’s exhibition at MoMA in 2001, which quickly launched him into a higher orbit than his contemporaries—and carried a few other photographers with him—was curiously downplayed in the first volume.

This new volume at least tries to broaden the perspective beyond standard art historical analysis. Sarah Hermanson Meister’s essay lists several factors that altered the destiny of many photographers in the years 1920-60: the introduction of Guggenheim Fellowships (Edward Weston was the first photographer awarded in 1937 and dozens of others—Frank, Winogrand, Arbus—have benefited from the freedom and status it provides); the appointment in 1934 of the avant-garde Alexey Brodovitch as art director (and mentor) at Harper’s Bazaar; and the appearance in the 1950s of venues in NYC where artists could show and sell their work, such as Limelight and the Photographer’s Gallery.

All of these socio-economic events continue to affect how photography is understood by the public, and how young artists go about making their living, in ways more profound than, say, the fact that Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence (1972) “references the Lumière Brothers’ first film”; or that Liz Deshenes exposed her photograms by “sidereal or lunar light—a subtle reference to the nineteenth-century ‘celestographs’ of August Strindberg.”

The intended audience of these volumes is unclear. They’re too unwieldy, expensive, and luxurious to replace the one-volume surveys by Newhall and Naomi Rosenblum for the general public or in the classroom. And the essays are too cursory and elementary for specialists in contemporary art hungry for bracing revisionist thought.

The tone veers wildly from sober to excessively breezy. Pepper Stedler writes dutifully about Surrealism, with paragraphs doled out to Breton, Atget, Man Ray, Lee Miller, Brassäi, Brandt, Álvarez Bravo and Cartier-Bresson. You can feel her straining against the space restrictions. Douglas Coupland’s essay on picture magazines, on the other hand, is so glib that one has to wonder why he was chosen to contribute. “We learn more about class in England from W. Eugene Smith’s Welsh Miners (1950) than from any Charles Dickens novel,” he claims. (Has Coupland actually read Hard Times or Bleak House?) He believes that “photojournalism at its most potent accelerated the civil rights movement by making the white-washing of racial truths politically impossible.” (As we’ve seen once again in Syria, photographs of violence or injustice seldom lead the world to enact direct political change.)

It’s more than frustrating that a multi-volume of scholarship that purports to offer a comprehensive history of the medium in these decades has no timeline of significant events in the art world (or beyond)—and no index. Hoping to find how many times Evans, Steichen, and Moholy-Nagy were mentioned, and in which contexts, I had to give up.

Kevin Moore’s essay, The Studio and the Snapshot, does the most with the limited space. His analysis of the differences among Penn and Avedon and Klein is astute, and his parameters are wide enough that Mike Disfarmer belongs, too. He notes that his Arkansas “portraits reveal, in a more pared down setting, a psychological awkwardness we have been prepared to appreciate through work by Diane Arbus.” Szarkowski was among the first curators to incorporate amateur snapshots into his view of photography as a peculiar form of art, and this volume features 12 pages of them. By such a measure, the greatest artist in MoMA’s collection is “unknown photographer.”

One of the surprises in this mid-century volume is the high number of recent acquisitions. By my rough count, the bulk of the prints reproduced have entered the collection only since 1990, an indication either that Newhall, Steichen, and Szarkowski did not put a premium on buying photographs, or that the finest examples from 1920-60 became available only in the last 25 years. Perhaps both statements are true.

The necessity of buying the Thomas Walther collection in 2001 has never been so striking. Many of the most unusual prints here from the 1920s and ‘30s can be traced to him. Instead of the great names, he bought great pictures, many by lesser-known Germans, such as Willi Ruge’s self-portrait (1931) of his dangling feet as he descended to earth on a parachute jump; a frenetic photo-collage of the vertiginous city (1923) by Paul Citroen; and a double-exposure self-portrait (1930) by Hajo Rose, in which windows from a modern apartment house are over-printed on his shorn head.

Without being overtly critical of the department’s previous regimes, Bajac has not spared them entirely either. In the first volume, he tweaked what he wittily called Szarkowski’s “American tropism.” In this volume, he alludes to the shady deal that gave Steichen his directorship: his suggestion to the board that the photography industry would lend financial assistance to the museum if it pursued a “less elitist” programming agenda. It may be that by exposing a cross-section of the museum’s holdings with admirable transparency, Bajac may also be highlighting gaps to be filled. Photographs from Asia, Africa and South America are glaringly rare in this second volume.

His ideas about the history or direction of photography, though, are not clarified by this project. Apart from making the department more democratic, it’s hard to know what he stands for after reading these books. Evenhandedness can disguise a lack of passion, and it must be said that his tenure has so far seemed unfocused, as if ecumenical internationalism were his curatorial guideline. His predecessors left their mark on the field by singling out a few young living artists and advocating for their importance. If he feels ardently about anyone under 50, he has yet to reveal his or her name.

Did MoMA dominate the conversation around fine-art photography for many decades because its curators identified new talent before others and were able to extend the influence of their exhibitions by traveling them and publishing catalogs? Or did its curators excel because for years MoMA was almost the only institution in the world that consistently treated photography seriously as an art?

Whatever the answer, no one disputes that the axis of the art world has tilted over the last 30 years. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Museum, MFA Houston, Art Institute of Chicago, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, LACMA, and SFMOMA have built collections of photographs that can rival MoMA’s in many areas.

That MoMA no longer towers above other museums seems not to bother Bajac, and shouldn’t. He is right to be wary of the effects that splashy solo exhibitions there can have on an overheated art market. The Stephen Shore retrospective this fall will be his first large-scale solo effort. Perhaps he will imprint more of his personality on the final volume of Photography at MoMA. Spanning the broadest number of years of the three (1840-1920), it will also analyze the period about which he has already demonstrated his expertise.

But fears persist, with justification, that MoMA may soon dissolve its photography department as a separate entity. SFMOMA and the Nelson-Atkins have replaced it as the only major museums in the world with a permanent history of photography exhibition on their walls. Let’s hope these handsome but unsatisfactory volumes are not intended to substitute for the guidance the museum has exercised in the past.

Read more about: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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