Photo Essays

Morgan Library Debuts Photography Department

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 13, 2014

Edward S. Curtis, "The Primitive Artist—Paviotso (Paiute)" (1924),  photogravure in Edward S. Curtis, "The North American Indian" (The Morgan Library & Museum, Portfolio 15, pl. 536, Printed Books; Portfolios PML 25543) (all images courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)

Edward S. Curtis, “The Primitive Artist—Paviotso (Paiute)” (1924), photogravure in Edward S. Curtis, “The North American Indian” (The Morgan Library & Museum, Portfolio 15, pl. 536, Printed Books; Portfolios PML 25543) (all images courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)

The Morgan Library and Museum has received much favorable attention in recent years for its drawings-focused and literary exhibitions. But in March 2012, the institution named Joel Smith its first ever curator of photography, and now, nearly two years later, it will open its first exhibition organized by the new department.

The format of the show, titled A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play, is something of a surprise: rather than focus one artist, period, or collector, Smith has selected 85 works that range across time, style, and usage — “from folk art to Conceptual art and from astronomy to law enforcement,” the press release says — and arranged them in a chain of visual and conceptual connection. Each picture is thus tied in some way to those on its left and right — two examples of rock art, for instance, or trapezoidal forms that echo from one photograph to the next. The Morgan’s press release compares the arrangement to the flow of images on the internet.

It remains to be seen what exactly viewers can glean from such a show — whether there’s more on offer than simply a crowd-pleasing visual puzzle. But I did find that, unconnected to any physical exhibition and scrolling through a selection of images in my inbox, the photographs seemed pleasantly open. Some connections between them were obvious; others came to me upon a second or third viewing, feeling more latent, more exciting, more potent.

Below are a number of the photographs included in A Collective Invention. I’ve arranged them in my own way, channeling the spirit of the show, but I’ll be curious to see where each ends up at the Morgan.

Acme Photography Bureau, "Carving Lincoln on Rushmore Granite" (1937), gelatin silver print with mimeograph (Collection of Alan Lloyd Paris)

Acme Photography Bureau, “Carving Lincoln on Rushmore Granite” (1937), gelatin silver print with mimeograph (Collection of Alan Lloyd Paris)

Heinz Hajek-Halke, "Erotik ganz groß! (Erotic—In a Big Way!)" (1928–32), gelatin silver print (Collection of David Raymond) (© Michael Ruetz, Heinz Hajek – Halke Archiv / courtesy Johanna Breede PHOTOKUNST)

Heinz Hajek-Halke, “Erotik ganz groß! (Erotic—In a Big Way!)” (1928–32), gelatin silver print (Collection of David Raymond) (© Michael Ruetz, Heinz Hajek – Halke Archiv / courtesy Johanna Breede PHOTOKUNST)

Julia Margaret Cameron, "The Dream" (1869), Albumen print (Collection of Clifford Ross)

Julia Margaret Cameron, “The Dream” (1869), Albumen print (Collection of Clifford Ross)

José Maria Sert, "Study for The Queen of Sheba" (c. 1920), gelatin silver print with pencil additions (Collection of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro)

José Maria Sert, “Study for The Queen of Sheba” (c. 1920), gelatin silver print with pencil additions (Collection of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro)

Sara VanDerBeek, "Baltimore Departure" (2010), digital chromogenic print (Collection of John A. MacMahon) (courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures)

Sara VanDerBeek, “Baltimore Departure” (2010), digital chromogenic print (Collection of John A. MacMahon) (courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures)

Keith Smith, "Head Movements" (1966),  photo etching, colored inks on etching paper (Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel) (© Keith Smith, courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, NY)

Keith Smith, “Head Movements” (1966), photo etching, colored inks on etching paper (Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel) (© Keith Smith, courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, NY)

Attributed to Pierre Pullis, "City Hall Subway Station" (1904), platinum print (The Morgan Library & Museum, photography; purchase, Goldsmith Fund for Americana, 2013.16)

Attributed to Pierre Pullis, “City Hall Subway Station” (1904), platinum print (The Morgan Library & Museum, photography; purchase, Goldsmith Fund for Americana, 2013.16)

Schagge Brothers Studio, Minneapolis, "Ninety-One Brandle & Smith Candies" (1910s), printing-out paper print with applied colors (The Morgan Library & Museum,  photography; gift of David Winter, 2013.92)

Schagge Brothers Studio, Minneapolis, “Ninety-One Brandle & Smith Candies” (1910s), printing-out paper print with applied colors (The Morgan Library & Museum, photography; gift of David Winter, 2013.92)

Marco Breuer, "Spin (C-827)" (2008) (Collection of John A. MacMahon) (© Marco Breuer, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)

Marco Breuer, “Spin (C-827)” (2008) (Collection of John A. MacMahon) (© Marco Breuer, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)

Maximilian Wolf, "The Milky Way" (c. 1900), gelatin silver print (Collection of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro)

Maximilian Wolf, “The Milky Way” (c. 1900), gelatin silver print (Collection of Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro)

A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play opens at the Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) tomorrow, February 14, and continues through May 18.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: