200 Recent Gifts Celebrate 25 Years of Photography at NGA


No art form more precisely defines the past century of rapid industrial and technological advancement than photography. After its flowering as a sort of new cultural technology in the mid-19th century and its refinement as a tool in the following decades, photography achieved a fluid syncopation with contemporary art movements from Surrealism to modernism and abstraction. It functioned in the 20th century as a bridge between fine art and historical documentation in a way that no other visual medium ever had.

On view through March 13, “Celebrating Photography at the National Gallery of Art: Recent Gifts” is an exhibition about this sweeping history and the culmination of a landmark three-year initiative to broaden the National Gallery’s photography collection.

This contained and powerful show unveils a selection of about 200 works acquired in honor of the 25th anniversary of the museum’s photography program. Presenting pictures made from the dawn of photography in the 1840s to our own day, it concentrates beauty and history into what feels like a single entity.

Remarkably, all of the works on view were given or promised in honor of the 25th anniversary of photography at the National Gallery. Some 1,330 photographs were acquired as part of this undertaking, including major donations of work by photographers whose art is held in depth: Robert Adams, Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Harry Callahan. Important pieces by photographers whose work was previously underrepresented — such as Diane Arbus, Thomas Struth and Edward Weston — as well as by artists who were not previously included in the museum’s holdings — such as Joseph Vigier, Duchenne de Boulogne, Adam Fuss, Sally Mann, Cindy Sherman and Henry Wessel — were also acquired through gifts and pledges.

In addition, the museum has published “The Altering Eye: Photography at the National Gallery of Art,” an exemplary catalogue of the permanent collection of photographs. It proves that the museum can now tell the history of photography from 1839 to the present day through its own holdings.

“Recent Gifts” is organized thematically, bringing together photographs that range from innovative examples made in the earliest years of the medium to key works by post-war and contemporary artists that examine the ways in which photography continues to shape our experience of the modern world.

Joseph Vigier’s “Saint-Sauveur, the Path to Chaos Leading to Gavarnie,” from 1853, for instance, depicts early landscape photography that borders on early notions of Transcendentalism, while Duchenne de Boulogne’s “Surprise,” plate 56 from “The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression” of 1862, shows how photographers around that same time were identifying ways that photography could enhance scientific research.?

The exhibition begins with works that affirm the vitality and flexibility of the medium, from William Henry Fox Talbot’s pioneering study of architecture — “An Ancient Door, Magdalen College, Oxford” of 1843, the earliest photograph in the exhibition — to Adam Fuss’s haunting 1999 picture of a kind of x-ray dress from his series “My Ghost,” which explores the themes of mourning, loss and the brevity of life.

Other influential photographs in the history of the medium include László Moholy-Nagy’s “Untitled (Decorating Work, Switzerland)” of 1925, Edward Weston’s “Nautilus Shell (Cross-section)” of 1927 and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Alicante, Spain” of 1933.

Several unforgettable works by Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, who revolutionized postwar photography, are also on view. Vintage prints from Frank’s seminal photobook “The Americans,” such as “Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey” of 1955, hang alongside Avedon photographs, notably his famous series “The Family,” a suite of 69 portraits of the political, media and corporate elite, commissioned in 1976 by Rolling Stone.

The third room of the exhibition focuses on photography’s multifaceted relationship to the representation of the human body. Some examples: the previously mentioned pseudo-scientific experiments documented by the 19th-century French doctor Duchenne de Boulogne, Diane Arbus’s provocative study “Patriotic young man with a flag, N.Y.C. 1967” and Deborah Luster’s “One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana,” created between 1998 and 2002, which humanizes those on the margins of society.
As a continuation of Vigier’s work, new approaches to landscape in postwar photography are revealed in the fourth room in Lewis Baltz’s series “San Quentin Point” of 1982–83, Henry Wessel’s depictions of Southern California suburbia in “Real Estate” and Emmet Gowin’s aerial photographs of landscapes transformed by human intervention.

The final section of the show explores the representation of time in two 2004 series by Paul Graham titled “Pittsburgh,” Simon Norfolk’s 2014 series “Stratographs” and John Divola’s photographs, made in 1977 and 1978, of an abandoned house on Zuma Beach in California.

Once we see the world through a camera lens, it forever alters our sense of it; everybody in the modern world understands life as seen through the rectangular confines of a picture frame, and we think in these terms without knowing it. Photography opened a window to a new understanding of both art and life, enhancing the visual vocabulary of mankind, and at the National Gallery we can now see how it all happened.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *