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Commissioned by railroad magnate Leland Stanford, Muybridge made his first extensive study of horses in motion in a specially constructed, large, indoor and outdoor studio. It included a battery of up to 24 cameras lined up in a shed. To get the fastest exposure times, he had the wooden background painted white and the horse track covered in lime in order to reflect as much light as possible. Muybridge’s assistants are shown adjusting the measuring devices and the wire used to trigger electronic shutters placed in front of the cameras. Here, cameras are set up to photograph the horse from five different angles. Produced by Stanford and authored by J. D. B. Stillman, The Horse in Motion was published in 1882 and sadly failed to recognize Muybridge for his work on the project.

Eadweard Muybridge, Arrangement of the Cameras for Taking the Illustrations of the Paces, 1879, in J. D. B Stillman, The Horse in Motion as Shown by Instantaneous Photography with a Study on Animal Mechanics, 1881–1882, heliotype, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon 2008.11.2

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In 1879, Muybridge produced photographs documenting the gait of moving horses seen from different angles. By depicting them from an oblique angle, he produced a foreshortened view that helped artists and scientists study different positions of a horse’s movement. Muybridge used five cameras arranged in a semicircle with a wire drawn across the track. When the breast of the running horse broke the wire, it triggered all five shutters, thus making all of the photographs at the same instant.

Eadweard Muybridge, Studies of Foreshortenings. Horses. Walking. Mahomet. Nos. 119–120, from The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, 1879, albumen print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2006.133.106

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A mustachioed white man and a woman crowd in the basket of a hot air balloon in this vertical, sepia-toned photograph. To our left, the man wears a tall top hat and a dark coat and cravat. His body angled slightly towards our right, he holds a pair of binoculars at his waist as he looks down and off to the side to our left. On our right, the woman wears a plaid patterned shawl that wraps around her body and seems to cover her head. A bow tied under her chin is a little wider than her face, and the wide ends reach far down her chest. She looks directly at us. The profile and torso of a studio assistant is cropped by the right edge. Building on that, upon closer inspection, we realize that the basket hangs a few feet above the floor in front of what must be a painted backdrop in a studio. The left edge is blurred and a sliver showing other people, or perhaps another exposure, is visible.

Nadar (a pseudonym for Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) was not only a celebrated portrait photographer, but also a journalist, caricaturist, and early proponent of manned flight. In 1863, he commissioned a prominent balloonist to build an enormous balloon 196 feet high, which he named The Giant. The ascents he made from 1863 to 1867 were widely covered in the press and celebrated by the cartoonist Honoré Daumier, who depicted Nadar soaring above Paris, its buildings festooned with signs for photography studios. Nadar made and sold small prints like this self-portrait to promote his ballooning ventures. The obviously artificial construction of this picture—Nadar and his wife sit in a basket far too small for a real ascent and are posed in front of a painted backdrop—and its untrimmed edges showing assistants at either side make it less of the self-aggrandizing statement that Nadar wished and more of an amusing behind-the-scenes look at studio practice.

Nadar, Self-Portrait with Wife Ernestine in a Balloon Gondola, c. 1865, gelatin silver print, printed c. 1890, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel 2000.21.1

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291 was Stieglitz’s legendary gallery in New York City (its name derived from its address on Fifth Avenue), where he introduced modern European and American art and photography to the American public. He also used 291 as a studio, frequently photographing friends and colleagues there, as well as the views from its windows. This picture records what Stieglitz called a “demonstration”—a short display of no more than a few days designed to prompt a focused discussion. Including two works by Picasso, an African mask from the Kota people, a wasps’ nest, and 291’s signature brass bowl, the photograph calls into question the relationship between nature and culture, Western and African art.

Alfred Stieglitz, 291—Picasso-Braque Exhibition, 1915, platinum print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection 1949.3.374

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James Van Der Zee was a prolific studio photographer in Harlem during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance, from the end of World War I to the middle of the 1930s. He photographed many of Harlem’s celebrities, middle-class residents, and community organizations, establishing a visual archive that remains one of the best records of the era. He stands out for his playful use of props and retouching, thereby personalizing each picture and enhancing the sitter’s appearance. In this portrait of three sisters, clasped hands show the tender bond of the two youngest, one of whom holds a celebrity portrait, revealing her enthusiasm for popular culture.

James Van Der Zee, Sisters, 1926, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Horace W. Goldstein Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel 2000.83.2

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Penn once remarked that as a young photographer, confined to work in a windowless commercial studio, he dreamed of being mysteriously transported to his “ideal studio [in] remote parts of the earth.” In 1948, he traveled to Cuzco, Peru, and rented a studio with natural light from a portrait photographer who had a single painted curtain as a backdrop. Reversing the normal practice, Penn paid people to pose for him, including these diminutive children whom he depicted with as much respect as he did the celebrities who sat for him in New York.

Irving Penn, Cuzco Children, 1948, platinum/palladium print, printed 1978, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Irving Penn 2002.119.26

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Sally Mann, who is best known for the pictures of her children she made in the 1980s and 1990s, began to photograph when she was a teenager. In this rare, early, and intimate self-portrait, the artist is reflected in a mirror, clasping her loose shirt as she stands in a friend’s bathroom. Her thoughtful, expectant expression, coupled with her finger pointing directly at the lens of the large view camera that towers above her, foreshadows the commanding presence photography would have in her life. 

Sally Mann, Self-Portrait, 1974, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Olga Hirshhorn) 2015.19.4924

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Harry Callahan, Cutouts, c. 1956, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Callahan Family 2011.95.24

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A painter, photographer, video artist, feminist, activist writer, and teacher, Martha Rosler made this photomontage while she was a graduate student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Frustrated by the portrayal of the Vietnam War on television and in other media, she wrote: “The images were always very far away and of a place we couldn’t imagine.” To bring “the war home,” as she announced in her title, she cut out images from Life magazine and House Beautiful to make powerfully layered collages that contrast American middle-class life with the realities of the war. She selected color pictures of the idealized American life rich in the trappings of consumer society, and used black-and-white pictures of troops in Vietnam to heighten the contrast between here and there, while also calling attention to stereotypical views of men and women.

Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972, inkjet print, printed 2007, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee and the Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund 2015.76.1

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Levinthal’s series of photographs Hitler Moves East was made not during World War II, but in 1975, when the news media was saturated with images of the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In this series, he appropriates the grainy look of photojournalism and uses toy soldiers and fabricated environments to stage scenes from Germany’s brutal campaign on the Eastern Front during World War II. His pictures are often based on scenes found in television and movies, further distancing them from the actual events. A small stick was used to prop up the falling soldier and the explosion was made with puffs of flour. Hitler Moves East casts doubt on the implied authenticity of photojournalism and calls attention to the power of the media to define public understanding of events.

David Levinthal, Untitled, from the series Hitler Moves East, 1975, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the artist) 2015.19.4339

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In her 1976–1978 series In and Around the House, Simmons explores ideas about personal memory and gender stereotyping. Working in her studio, she used toy furniture and a doll to question the portrayal of women found in magazines or on television. Devoid of color, Woman/Purple Dress/Kitchen depicts a female doll standing in a playhouse kitchen with an oversized can of Heinz Oven Baked Beans and an oddly placed radio, presenting the home as an environment that both shapes identity and is shaped by it. “I love the photographic image,” says Simmons, “the way scale can become meaningless and everything is unified within the surface.”

Laurie Simmons, Woman/Purple Dress/Kitchen, 1976, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2008.30.45

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Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–1978, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee and R. K. Mellon Family Foundation 2010.60.3 

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While most traditional portrait photographers worked in studios, Sugimoto upended this practice in a series of pictures he made at Madame Tussaud’s wax museums in London and Amsterdam, where lifelike wax figures, based on paintings or photographs, as is the case with Oscar Wilde, are displayed in staged vignettes. By isolating the figure from its setting, posing it in a three-quarter-length view, illuminating it to convey the impression of a carefully lit studio portrait, and making his final print almost six feet tall, Sugimoto renders the artificial as real. Triply removing his portrait from reality—from Oscar Wilde himself to a portrait photograph to a wax sculpture and back to a photograph—Sugimoto collapses time and confounds our expectations of the nature of photography.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Oscar Wilde, 1999, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection) 2015.19.5239

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Muniz has spent his career remaking works of art by artists as varied as Botticelli and Warhol using unusual materials—sugar, diamonds, and even junk. He has been especially interested in Stieglitz and has re-created his photographs using chocolate syrup and cotton. Here, he refashioned Stieglitz’s celebrated self-portrait using wet ink and mimicking the dot matrix of a halftone reproduction. He then photographed his drawing and greatly enlarged it so that the dot matrix itself becomes as important as the picture it replicates.

Vik Muniz, Alfred Stieglitz, from the series Pictures of Ink, 2000, silver dye bleach print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase with funds provided by the FRIENDS of the Corcoran Gallery of Art) 2014.136.415

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Unlike many other photographers, Stieglitz made few self-portraits. He created this one shortly before he embarked on a series of portraits of the artists who frequented his New York gallery, 291. Focusing only on his face and leaving all else in shadow, he presents himself not as an artist at work or play, but as a charismatic leader who would guide American art and culture into the 20th century. 

Alfred Stieglitz, Self-Portrait, probably 1911, platinum print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection 1949.3.303

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