In 1948, when Georgia O’Keeffe was deciding where to place the largest and most significant collection of photographs by her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she visited the relatively new National Gallery of Art. She was impressed: “Stieglitz worked for the recognition of photography as a fine art—the National Gallery means something in relation to that.” One year later, O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Estate donated 1,320 works by Stieglitz, an auspicious beginning for the photography collection at the Gallery; in 1980 O’Keeffe donated another 330 portraits Stieglitz had made of her.
The Gallery has been actively adding to the collection since 1990, and the holdings have grown to more than 12,000 photographs, dating from 1839 through the present. Among the earliest is a choice group by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of the medium. Other 19th-century British photographers represented in the collection include Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton, Francis Frith, and Peter Henry Emerson.
The Gallery has fine examples by 19th-century French photographers as well, including Gustave Le Gray, Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Édouard-Denis Baldus, and Charles Marville. American 19th-century photographers are also represented in the collection, with stellar works by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, John Moran, Carleton Watkins, and Henry Bosse.
Among the collection’s greatest strengths are large groups of photographs by Paul Strand, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Ilse Bing, Frederick Sommer, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Adams. Modeled after the Stieglitz collection, each of these holdings includes works from throughout the photographer’s career and illustrates all aspects of the artist’s contributions.
The Walker Evans holdings, for example, range from New York cityscapes of the late 1920s and subway portraits from the late 1930s and early 1940s, to color photographs taken at the end of his life in the 1970s. The Robert Frank collection contains thousands of photographs extending from his early career in the 1940s to his highly personal compositions of the 1990s, including all of the contact prints and supplementary work prints for his seminal publication, The Americans (1958-1959). The Friedlander holdings include the only complete set of vintage prints he made for his book Self-Portrait (1970) and a complete set of prints for his book Lee Friedlander (2000).
The Gallery has also acquired many smaller groups of works by other important 20th-century photographers such as Eugène Atget, Charles Sheeler, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Jaromir Funke. Contemporary photographs include works by James Casebere, Chuck Close, Moyra Davey, Sally Mann, Richard Misrach, Lorna Simpson, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among many others. Women photographers are represented throughout the history of the medium from the early 19th-century practitioner Anna Atkins to the 21st-century photographs of Vera Lutter.
Photographs are fragile and subject to deterioration if exposed to light for extended periods, thus the greatest part of the collection is kept in storage. Students and other visitors with a specific interest may take advantage of the Gallery’s photograph study room to examine and enjoy these important examples of the art of photography. Works are regularly drawn from the Gallery’s collection or borrowed from other institutions and private individuals, and shown in temporary exhibitions in the West Building galleries dedicated to photography.