Reinstallation of the Permanent Collection of Photography, 2011 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of a total of 214 black and white and color photographs from 141 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey and white walls in a series of 6 connecting rooms on the third floor of the museum. The works on view span the entire history of the medium, ranging from 1841 to the present, and are arranged roughly chronologically. This reinstallation of the permanent collection of photography was curated by Sarah Meister.

The following photographers are included in the show, with the number of works and dates in parentheses. The names have been listed in their order of appearance around the galleries.

Room 1

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (1, 1841-1848)
John B. Greene (1, 1855-1856)
William Henry Fox Talbot (1, 1844)
Bisson Freres (1, 1841-1846)
Felice Beato (1, 1860)
Samuel Bourne (1, 1864)
Robert Hewlett (1, 1857)
Carleton Watkins (1, 1889)
Gertrude Kasebier (1, 1907)
Robert Demachy (1, 1910)
Frederick Evans (1, 1903)
Edward Steichen (1, 1900)
Jules Janssen (2, 1885)
Adam Clark Vroman (1, 1902)
Jacob Riis (1, 1890)
Radio Corporation of America (1, 1926)
E.J. Bellocq (1, 1912)
Eugene Atget (1, 1899)
Unknown (2, 1923 and 1933)
Underwood and Underwood (1, 1910)
Automatic Camera/Photomaton (1, 1928)
Arthur Bedou (1, 1915)
Dornac (1, 1892)
Lewis Hine (1, 1908)
Seeberger Freres (1, 1912)
Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1, 1917)

Room 2
Alfred Stieglitz (1, 1922)
Jospeh Cornell (1, 1933)
Imogen Cunningham (1, 1931)
Hugo Erfurth (1, 1926)
Edward Weston (1, 1925)
Alexander Rodchenko (2, 1924 and 1932)
Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1, 1911)
Edmund Kesting (1, 1928)
Man Ray (1, 1930)
Laszlo Mohloy-Nagy (1, 1923)
Tina Modotti (1, 1924)
Umbo (1, 1930)
Walker Evans (2, 1935 and 1936)
Ben Shahn (1, 1935)
Dorothea Lange (1, 1937)
Jack Delano (1, 1940)
Marian Post Wolcott (1, 1938)
John Vachon (1, 1938)
August Sander (2, 1927 and 1929)
Eugene Atget (2, 1921 and 1925)
Brassai (1, 1932)
Ilse Bing (1, 1932)
Bill Brandt (1, 1936)
Helen Levitt (1, 1941)
Antonio Reynoso (1, 1944)
Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1, 1934)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1, 1934)
Paul Strand (1, 1920)
Ralph Steiner (1, 1929)
Berenice Abbott (1, 1936)
Lewis Hine (1, 1930)
Arkadii Shaikhet (1, 1930)

Room 3
Barbara Morgan (1, 1943)
Weegee (2, 1942 and 1950)
Emmy Andriesse (1, 1945)
Ernst Haas (1, 1947)
US Army Signal Corps (4, 1944 and 1945)
Dmitri Baltermans (1, 1942)
Times World Wide Photos (1, 1941)
Unknown (1, 1953)
Neal Boenzi/New York Times (1, 1956)
Meyer Liebowitz/New York Times (1, 1957)
Unknown (14 panels of vernacular families)
Robert Rauschenberg (1, 1949)
Geraldo de Barros (1, 1949)
Aaron Siskind (1, 1949)
Minor White (1, 1964)
Frederick Sommer (1, 1961)
Guy Bourdin (1, 1956)
Clarence John Laughlin (1, 1941)
Josef Sudek (1, 1954)
Ansel Adams (1, 1932)
Eugen Wiskovsky (1, 1946)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1, 1952)
Robert Doisneau (1, 1956)
Leonard Freed (1, 1954)
Lisette Model (1, 1942)
Roy DeCarava (1, 1952)

Room 4
Rudy Burckhardt (4, 1940)
Philip Elliott (3, 1950)
Lola Alvarez Bravo (1, 1958)
Louis Faurer (1, 1949)
Leon Levinstein (1, 1952)
Robert Frank (1, 1956)
Garry Winogrand (1, 1962)
Christian Stromholm (1, 1959)
Paolo Gasparini (1, 1968)
Diane Arbus (1, 1965)
Unknown (1, 1957)
Lee Friedlander (1, 1970)
Jerry Schatzberg (1, 1964)
Arnold Newman (1, 1955)
Richard Avedon (1, 1965)
Irving Penn (1, 1979)
Harry Callahan (2, 1957)
Zeke Berman (1, 1979)
Kenneth Josephson (1, 1967)
Martus Granirer (1, 1964)
Otto Piene (1, 1964)
Shomei Tomatsu (1, 1960)
Daido Moriyama (1, 1970)
Miyako Ishiuchi (1, 1977)
Kohei Yoshiyuki (1, 1973)

Room 5
Joseph Dankowski (20, 1970)
David Goldblatt (1, 1967)
Ernest Cole (1, 1960-1963)
Jeane Moutoussamy-Ashe (1, 1977)
Frank Stewart (1, 1981)
Geoff Winningham (1, 1971)
Candice Lenney (1, 1977)
William Gedney (1, 1975)
Martine Barrat (1, 1984)
Stephen Shore (1, 1973)
Frank Gohlke (1, 1973-1974)
Robert Adams (1, 1974)
Lewis Baltz (1, 1974)
Joel Sternfeld (1, 1979)
Nicholas Nixon (1, 1973)
Bill Owens (1, 1972)
Tod Papageorge (1, 1969)
Henry Wessell (1, 1972)
William Eggleston (1, 1980)
Sheron Rupp (1, 1984)

Room 6
Jan Groover (1, 2006)
Michael Spano (1, 2003)
Bernd and Hilla Becher (18, 1959-1973)
Hai Bo (2, 1999)
Philip-Lorca diCorcia (1, 1981)
Vik Muniz (1, 2003)
Tina Barney (1, 1998)
William Christenberry (1, 2004)
Brian Rose (1, 2006)
Nicholas Faure (1, 1997)
Guy Tillim (2, 2008)
Leandro Katz (6 panels, 1978-1979)
Jiro Takamatsu (1, 1973)

Comments/Context: In between the special exhibitions and annual features like the New Photography series that usually populate the photography calendar at the MoMA, the curatorial team reinstalls the permanent collection of photography in the main series of galleries on the third floor. While this isn’t a press release type event (or one that generally gets written about at all), it does offer an opportunity to peer into the minds of the organizers, mostly to see how new acquisitions are filling holes and to consider how the implied narrative arc of the history of photography is slowly evolving.

This is now my fourth year of covering the rehanging of the collection, and it’s instructive to go back and remember what has been done in recent years (all the reviews are linked below). Three years ago, a grouping mechanism was used, where half a dozen images or so by a single photographer (from a related series) were chosen and hung in clusters, allowing a deeper dive into a smaller number of master photographers. Two years ago, the show was dominated by recent acquisitions (particularly 19th century) and peppered with lesser known works and artists, making the story more diffuse and harder to follow. Last year, the history of photography was seen through the prism of female photographers (known and unknown), providing a surprisingly different set of anchor points and references.

In prior years, these rehangings were “unsigned”, in that they were tacitly meant to represent an institutional point of view rather than an individual one; therefore we could arguably read them as a monolithic perspective, an orthodoxy as to the “right” (or at least most recent) history of photography. What’s different now is that MoMA has moved away from this approach and has begun to “sign” the reinstallations; this one was curated by Sarah Meister, and presumably the task (or opportunity) will rotate to someone else in the future. But make no mistake, this is now a new world, where a large number of alternate histories of photography are suddenly both acceptable and encouraged, and the process of identifying any one individual slice through the central mass of the collection could produce an unexpected and insightful outcome.

This selection of works sprinkles in a few more recognizable icons than the effort two years ago, and as a result, feels a bit more comfortably tied to a known line of thinking. The first room does a whirlwind tour of the 19th century (travel, scientific experimentation etc.), starting with the early masters and crossing over into Pictorialism, mixing artful images and vernacular shots with equal aplomb. The recently acquired Watkins still life of a box of peaches is the single best work in the entire exhibit; it is mind blowingly modern and lusciously crisp. It’s the kind of picture that forces you to reevaluate everything you think you know about 19th century photography. (Carleton Watkins, Late George Cling Peaches, 1889, at right, top.)

The second room is the standard “between the wars” room, with bunches of European avant-garde and Surrealism, North American modernism, and FSA documentary reportage. To my eye, this group felt a little like “one of each”, since there’s one Brandt, one Brassai, one Weston, one Strand, one Man Ray etc., although never one of the better known images of the master identified on the wall label, presumably to keep things fresh. (Man Ray, Untitled, 1930, and Edward Weston, Nude, Mexico, 1926, at right, second and third from top.)

The next room follows chronologically into the 1940s and 1950s, bringing together a selection of professional press and vernacular photography with images from those working in a more fine art context where introspection, expressionism, and abstraction were taking hold(Siskind, Sommer, Sudek, Minor White et al.). The styles and approaches could hardly be more different, but their juxtaposition offers the first glimpses of multiple paths forward, of combination, dialogue, and confrontation. (Barbara Morgan, Use Litter Basket, 1943 and Aaron Siskind, Palm Springs, 1949, at right, fourth and fifth from the top.)

The fourth room continues a broad expansion of photographic paths forward, with 1950s hand held camera work (Frank, Winogrand, Levinstein, Faurer etc.), large format portraiture (Penn, Avedon, Newman), various forms of conceptual photography, and the arrival of the Japanese avant-garde (Tomatsu, Moriyama) in the 1970s. (Paolo Gasparini, Bello Monte, Caracas, 1968, and Zeke Berman, Still Life with Necker Cube, 1979, at right, sixth and seventh from top.)

Continuing into the other half of the divided space (which I have named the fifth room), the South Africans are added to the mix, along with the New Topographics photographers and the arrival of 1970s color. Again, many of the names will be familiar, but the specific image choices will keep you guessing. (Joel Sternfeld, Solar Pool Petals, Tuscon, Arizona, 1979, and William Eggleston, Untitled from Troubled Waters portfolio, 1980, at right, eight and ninth from top.)

The last room in the show runs from roughly 1980 to the present, and it’s here where I think the exhibit loses momentum a bit. Maybe a different way to say the same thing is that I was looking for a more definitive point of view on the current state of the world, and felt like I didn’t get as sharp an opinion as I might have liked. The challenge is of course to make sense of the chaos, to follow both “contemporary art” and purely “photographic” progressions and to bushwhack a path through the thicket of competing aesthetics and mind sets, which is tough to do in a single room filled with a relatively small number of large pictures. That said, I did enjoy the Barney, the Tillim diptych, the Christenberry mess of kudzu and the multi-layered diCorcia. Perhaps a better way to look at this last room is to see it as simply a collection of new acquisitions that can tell us something about what the museum is interested in and continuing to follow closely, even if the thematic patterns are hard to discern. (William Christenberry, Kudzu Devouring Building, Near Greensboro, Alabama, 2004, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Catherine, 1981, at right, tenth and eleventh from top.)

In the end, I think this reinstallation of the permanent collection of photography makes a case for three distinct periods: the early period, from inception to roughly 1950, where the influence of vernacular photography and “history” is more pronounced and instructive, the middle period, from roughly Frank to Eggleston, where there is a flowering of bold experimentation in multiple directions, but mostly still connected to the existing photographic traditions, and the current period, where photography is stretching beyond its usual borders, crossing over into the context of contemporary art. In this realm, we’re opening a dialogue beyond the confines of looking inward at photographic history and instead playing on a grander stage. While I’m sure this is an oversimplification of the nuanced ideas of the curators, I think this general framework has merit, especially if it can help to make the underlying forces tugging at contemporary photography more legible.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a permanent collection exhibition, it seems only fitting to forego the prices and secondary market discussion that usually fills this section.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Previous installations of the permanent collection of photography: 2010 (here), 2009 (here), 2008 (here)

Permanent Collection of Photography
Through March 2012

Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

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Read more about: Aaron Siskind, Barbara Morgan, Carleton Watkins, Edward Weston, Joel Sternfeld, Man Ray, Paolo Gasparini, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, William Christenberry, Zeke Berman, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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