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The Collection of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington

The National Gallery of Art's collection of nearly 15,000 photographs encompasses the history of the medium, from its beginnings in 1839 to the present. The collection features the finest examples by the masters of the art form.

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, Alfred Stieglitz, the seminal American photographer. With keen observation and astute judgment, she noted small details as well as the larger symbolic importance of the newly opened museum. The Gallery, she wrote to a friend a few days later, "as you probably know, hasn't a speck of dust anywhere." More significantly, though, she realized that "Stieglitz worked for the recognition of photography as a fine art—the National Gallery means something in relation to that." The museum, she concluded, "seems like a peak—something finished—standing alone." With that auspicious visit, the National Gallery inaugurated its collection of photographs.

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, Ansel Adams, and a large group of pictures by the distinguished American photographer Walker Evans, donated by Kent and Marcia Minichiello. With these gifts in hand, the Trustees decided to begin actively to collect photographs in 1990 and founded the department of photographs, the youngest of our curatorial divisions.

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, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, André Kertész, Frederick Sommer, and Paul Strand. In 1995 the acquisition of 165 superb photographs made between 1839 and the mid-20th century allowed the Gallery to begin building a truly comprehensive collection surveying the art of photography in Europe and America from the origins of the medium to the present. Since then, the Gallery has greatly expanded its holdings of photographs, which now include 15,000 works by nearly 700 photographers representing the finest examples of the art of photography over the past 175 years.

Nineteenth-Century Photographs

Among the earliest works in the collection is a choice group of photographs by one of the inventors of the medium, the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, a remarkably talented individual with exceptionally broad interests. Talbot, frustrated by his inability to draw while on his honeymoon trip to Italy, embarked on a series of experiments in the 1830s to fix permanently the image of nature. One of his early works was Orléans Cathedral (1843), a photograph he made on a trip to France. With its delicate architectural details and its bold framing and composition, this photograph demonstrates Talbot's fascination not only with photography's ability to record the world, but also with the camera's capacity to see it in new and exciting ways. 

Other important 19th-century British photographers represented in the Gallery's collection include Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Frederick Evans, Roger Fenton, Francis Frith, Captain Linnaeus Tripe, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, and Peter Henry Emerson. Among many highlights are Cameron's photograph The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (1866), one of the many luminous and poetic subjects for which she was celebrated, and Fenton's large, magnificent, and exceptionally rare still-life Fruit and Flowers (1860).

The Gallery's collection also has fine examples by the first generation of 19th-century French photographers, including Gustave Le Gray, Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Édouard-Denis Baldus, Eugène Cuvelier, and Charles Marville. Many of these early photographers were trained as painters and brought highly refined aesthetic sensibilities to the new art of photography. Le Gray's lucid and finely detailed view of the Pont du Carrousel, a bridge in Paris spanning the Seine, lucidly conveys the elegant grandeur of the city and succinctly represents the approach and concerns of many of these early French photographers. Nadar's Honoré Daumier (1856–1858), a study of the painter and caricaturist, is another masterpiece from this period. Although Nadar was celebrated for his portraits of the rich and famous of the Third Empire in France, he depicted his friend and colleague wearing a simple peasant's jacket, thus demonstrating Daumier's touching humility.

Among the highlights of the 19th-century American photographs are an exquisite full-plate daguerreotype by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Hawes, The Letter (c. 1850), stunning Western landscapes by Timothy O'Sullivan, F. Jay Haynes, and Carleton Watkins, and an important group of cyanotypes by Henry Peter Bosse, as well as an extraordinary album of late 19th-century photographs by William H. Rau documenting the Lehigh Valley railroad.

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 Warren de la Rue, Charles le Morvan, Maurice Loewy and Pierre le Puiseux.

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, Ilse Bing, Frederick Sommer, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Adams. Modeled after the Stieglitz Collection, these holdings include works throughout each photographer's career and illustrate all aspects of their important contributions. For example, the Paul Strand Collection contains not only the earliest known print of his groundbreaking modernist photograph The White Fence (1916) as well as his compelling urban studies, such as People, Streets of New York, 83rd and West End Avenue (1916), but also superb examples of his nature studies from the 1920s, his views of both New Mexico and Mexico in the 1930s, his studies of New England from the 1940s, and his photographs of Italy, France, and the Hebrides from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s.

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 150 photographs by the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.

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 Irving Penn is represented by more than 100 platinum/palladium prints of some of his most important works, including portraits of artists, studies of indigenous peoples in New Guinea and Peru, still lifes and fashion work, all carefully selected by him for the National Gallery's collection.

Rare vintage prints by photographers working during the years on either side of World War II—such as Roy DeCarava, Louis Faurer, Sid Grossman, William Klein, Alma Lavenson, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Louis Stettner, Margaret Bourke-White, and Weegee—represent the generation of American photographers who revolutionized our understanding of modern life. These strengths are further enriched by a collection of more than 200 American snapshots from the late 1880s through the 1970s that enables us to chart the evolution of this humble yet pervasive and influential mode of picture making.

Other important 20th-century photographers in the collection include members of Stieglitz's organization, the Photo-Secession, such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, and Clarence White. Avant-garde photography in Europe is represented with significant holdings of renowned photographers Brassaï, Bill Brandt, Jaromír Funke, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, among others.

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 Vito Acconci, Mel Bochner, Dan Graham, Ana Mendieta, and Giuseppe Penone, allows the museum to represent an immense terrain of avant-garde production.

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 William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, William Christenberry, Bruce Davidson, and Barbara Kasten. Important work by Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz represents the generation of photographers who looked with a critical eye at the impact of suburban sprawl on the American landscape. More than 165 Robert Adams photographs were added to the collection in 2012, selected by the artist himself because, as he stated, "these photographs can tell Americans something they might want to know about their country."

The collection of contemporary photographs and time-based media has also grown in recent years, with key acquisitions of work by Uta Barth, Sophie Calle, James Casebere, Chuck Close, Paul Graham, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Vera Lutter, Sally Mann, Richard Misrach, Mark Ruwedel, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others. Rineke Dijkstra is represented by several powerful portraits, as well as her video I See A Woman Crying/Weeping Woman (2009). Other important video works include James Nares's Street(2011). An exceptional promised gift by Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker of some 30 large-scale photographs by Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, and Jeff Wall, among others, will further transform the Gallery's presentation of contemporary photographs.

Among the most recent additions to the National Gallery's photography collection are almost 1,900 photographs formerly in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In addition to 689 works from Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering publication, Animal Locomotion (1887), the Corcoran's collection is especially rich in photographs made from the 1960s to the present. Its photojournalism and social documentary photography, especially the work of Gordon Parks and Jim Goldberg, greatly expands the Gallery's holdings in these areas. Other significant additions include key works by artists from the 1970s and 1980s who were early practitioners of color photography, such as a group of 27 photographs by William Eggleston, along with pictures by Jo Ann Callis, William Christenberry, Jan Groover, and Barbara Kasten.

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 and atmosphere for extended periods, they are stored at intervals. 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].

General Information

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National Gallery of Art
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phone: (202) 842-6353
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Background on the Collection of Photographs

Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art