Photography at the National Gallery of Art
In 1990 the National Gallery launched an initiative to acquire the finest examples of the art of photography and to mount photography exhibitions of the highest quality, accompanied by scholarly publications and programs. In the years since, the Gallery’s collection of photographs has grown to over 20,000 works encompassing the history of the medium from its beginnings in 1839 to the present, featuring in-depth holdings of work by many of the masters of the art form. The Gallery’s program of exhibitions and publications is now considered among the best in the world.
Alfred Stieglitz’s “Key Set” and the Origins of the Gallery’s Collection
The National Gallery of Art began actively to collect photographs in 1990, but the origins of the collection lay in a visit made to the Gallery in December 1948 by Georgia O'Keeffe. The artist was deciding where to place the largest and most important collection of photographs by her late husband,
In 1949 Georgia O'Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Estate donated 1,311 photographs by Stieglitz and placed on deposit an additional collection of 331 portraits of O’Keeffe, which were later given to the Gallery in 1980. The Gallery’s Stieglitz Collection, known as the Key Set, is an unparalleled selection of his photographs, containing at least one print of every mounted photograph in Stieglitz's possession at the time of his death. It remains one of the most important photographic collections in existence. Carefully selected by O'Keeffe to include the finest examples, the Key Set traces the evolution of Stieglitz’s work from its inception in the 1880s to its rich maturation in the 1930s, and thoroughly documents all aspects of his decisive contribution to the art of photography.
Among more than 1,640 platinum, palladium, carbon, photogravure, and gelatin silver prints is an extraordinary group of over 300 of Stieglitz’s evocative studies of clouds, called Equivalents, made from 1922 to 1937, and over 170 portraits of his friends and colleagues throughout his career. Other highlights are exceptionally rare examples of Stieglitz's earliest work made in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, as well as studies of New York from the 1890s through the 1930s.
Despite the importance of the Stieglitz Collection, the National Gallery of Art did not begin to exhibit photography until the 1980s, when the museum mounted a series of exhibitions, including Alfred Stieglitz, 1983, Ansel Adams: Classic Images, 1985–1986, and On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: 150 Years of Photography, 1989. In addition to focusing attention on the art of photography, these shows brought the Gallery important donations, such as Virginia Adams’s gift of the Museum Set of photographs by her late husband,
At first, using the Stieglitz Collection as both a model and touchstone for the quality and significance of each work, the museum began to acquire in great depth the art of important American photographers including Ansel Adams,
Among the earliest works in the collection is a choice group of photographs by one of the inventors of the medium, the Englishman
Other important 19th-century British photographers represented in the Gallery’s collection include
The Gallery’s collection also has fine examples by the first generation of 19th-century French photographers, including
Among the highlights of the 19th-century American photographs are an exquisite full-plate daguerreotype by
The Gallery’s collection also contains important examples of photography’s application to the realm of 19th-century science. These include a rare group of 32 prints made in the 1850s by the physiologist and photographer Duchenne de Boulogne, who used photography to document the physiological basis of human expression, and lunar studies by a variety of makers such as
1900 to the 1960s
Among the greatest strengths of the collection are large and important groups of photographs by major 20th-century American practitioners Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, André Kertész,
The core of the Ansel Adams collection is the Museum Set, a selection of 75 photographs that Adams believed represented his finest landscape photographs from the early 1920s through the 1960s, such as The Tetons and the Snake River (1942), which captures the monumentality of the American West.
The Walker Evans holdings include significant examples of his work from his earliest studies of New York City made in the late 1930s to some of his late color work, and are distinguished by a large and important group of his photographs made in New York subways between 1938 and 1941.
The Robert Frank Collection is unparalleled. Including many unique and rare works from the beginning of his career as a photojournalist in Switzerland in the 1940s up to his most personal and evocative studies from the 2000s, this collection contains all of the photographs from his 1989 retrospective survey The Lines of My Hand. It also includes bound volumes of photographs, such as Peru (1948), and Black, White, and Things (1952), as well as all of the contact prints for his groundbreaking publication, The Americans (1958-1959), supplementary work prints, and many vintage exhibition prints.
Other major holdings include outstanding collections of the American photographers André Kertész and Ilse Bing, both Europeans who established significant careers in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s before emigrating to the United States. Postwar photography is represented in great depth, with superb holdings of work by Harry Callahan and Lee Friedlander, as well as more than 300 photographs by the Beat Generation poet
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 celebrated fashion and portrait photographer
Rare vintage prints by photographers working during the interwar and postwar years —such as
Other important 20th-century photographers in the collection include members of Stieglitz’s organization, the Photo-Secession, such as
1960s to the Present
In recent years, the collection has greatly expanded its holdings of photographs made since the 1960s. The acquisition in 2008 of 93 works by conceptual, Arte Povera, land, and performance artists from the 1960s through the 1980s, including
Other strengths from this period include important works by the artists who were among the first to explore the artistic potential of color photography in the late 1960s and 1970s, including
The collection of contemporary photographs and time-based media has also grown in recent years, with key acquisitions of work by
Among the most recent additions to the National Gallery’s photography collection are almost 2,600 photographs formerly in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In addition to 689 works from
With the opening in 2004 of five new galleries in the West Building for the permanent display of photographs, these works, as well as others from the rapidly growing collection, are frequently on view in temporary exhibitions at the Gallery. However, because photographs are fragile and subject to deterioration if exposed to light for extended periods, they are stored at intervals.
In celebration of twenty-five years of photography at the National Gallery of Art in 2015, the department of photographs presented three major exhibitions and published The Altering Eye: Photography at the National Gallery of Art, a volume which charts the history and distinctive aspects of the National Gallery’s collection of photographs and highlights 290 of its most important works.
Each year numerous visitors—students, scholars, as well as the general public—take advantage of the Gallery's Photograph Study Room to examine and enjoy these important examples of the art of photography. Photographs not on view can be seen by appointment by visiting the study room page or contacting the Department of Photographs at (202) 842-6144 or at [email protected].