Art Museums

by Paul Hester

Under the banner of saving photography, several divi­sions are apparent. Art museums approach photographic images with a concern for rarity. The ex­clusive nature of their collections is based on a definition of quality borrowed from connoisseurship that exaggerates the cult of beauty and denies any social reading of images. Certain approaches to photographic imagemaking have until recently been excluded. But, as definitions of art have shifted, museum concepts of quality have expanded to include documentary work sponsored by the stale, advertising and fashion images commissioned by corporate clients, and gravures from the pages of magazines.
Formal attributes are no longer the sole criteria for admission to this particular arena which con­tinues to serve as the stamp of
approval for so many aspiring photographers. The value of museum collections is the preser­vation of highly esteemed prac­titioners who have gained signif­icant respect in the realm of art. and the direction of our attention toward newer talent whose work does not fit existing categories and who might otherwise be dismissed as merely unconventional. No doubt about it, inclusion within a museum collection is significant resume material, and an indication of the seriousness of the pho­tographer.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFA), has a vigorous program in photography. In spite of the physical limitations, it is possible for serious viewers to make appointments to look at the permanent collection. Through the generous contributions of the Target Stores and other bene­factors, the Museum has a wide assortment of name photographers represented by one or two prints, and several in-depth portfolios to represent certain photographers like Robert Frank. Edward Steichen. Eliot Portcr, Lewis Baltz, and John Heartfield, One wishes for more space that could permanently display a larger por­tion of the collection, but The Museum has done a good job of integrating particular images into context with other art of their period, as well as a changing wall of new acquisitions and small theme shows that one can view on the way to the Museum movies. The Romansky Gallery provides a special place for works on paper, but this alternates shows between prints and photographs.
The power of museums to influ­ence directions in photography does not seem as omnipotent as it once did when the Museum of Modern Art [MOMA| in New York was one of the very few sources of validation for photographers working outside of the Life magazine mode. The pluralistic growth of photographic styles and the linkage of the MO MA to curator John Szarkowski's particular approach to photography has appeared to limit the domination of MOMA (and, perhaps, other museums) in photography. MFA Curator Anne Tucker, who interned with Szarkowski at MOMA and with Nathan Lyons at Visual Studies Workshop, does not seem to have such a strict definition of photography. Her acquisitions are wide-ranging, her efforts to build a broad, historically significant collection are dependent upon her ability (o attract financial backing for the Museum's photography program. She has managed to enlist major corporate support on several projects, and continues to interest local photographic enthu­siasts to follow her lead in chart­ing new territory, for example, in her pursuit of European and Jap­anese additions to the collection.
As of January 1984, the MFA had 2,801 photographs. Over 1,500 were made by Americans in the years 1945 to the present, but over 300 represented nineteenth century Europe, and ninety came from l9th century Japan. Almost 200 photographs in the Museum came from Europe between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II; more, in fact, than from the United States in the same period.
The other art collection in town with a significant number of prints is the Menil Collection. Last seen by the public in an exhibition at the Rice Museum curated by Beaumont Newhall and entitled Transfixed by Light, this collection of over 1000 prints is not currently available to the public Upon the completion of the new facilities for the Menil Collection (around the comer from the Houston Cen­ter for Photography), the photo­graphs will be open for research, by appointment, by scholars and serious students.
The collection contains 390 photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, selected by the photog­rapher and grouped within a geo­graphical framework, it is the only such set in the United States. The other images in the collection reflect the particular interests of Dominique dc Menil, such as im­ages by black photographers Roy DeCarava and James Van Der Zee. The Surrealists are repre­sented by Man Ray, Clarence John Laughlin. and Eugene Atget. Danny Lyons has a significant number of images in the collec­tion, including several from his project on Texas prisons that was published as Conversations with the Dead. Brassai., Harry Callahan, Edward Curtis, Fred­erick Evans, Lewis Hine, Andre Kertesz, and Ansel Adams are among those with works in the collection. It is still growing; the new director of the Menil Collec­tion, Walter Hopps, has added several photographs by Walker Evans and William Christenberry.
The Menil Foundation also funds an unusual collection of photographs that falls between the standard categories of institutional collecting- The twenty-year-old black iconography project, con­taining some 20,000 images, is currently located in a small house in Montrose. Originated to pro­duce a publication tracing the changes in the representation of blacks from the third millennium BC to the early 20th century, the research has gathered images from all sorts of sources. It has pur­chased photographs from museums, galleries, government agencies such as the National Park Service, New York City boroughs, archeological sites, libraries, and churches. It has also commissioned two separate photographic campaigns to pro­duce original material of three-di­mensional objects in France, Italy, Egypt. and the Sudan.
The archives include photo­graphs of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, vases, manu­scripts, stained glass windows, tapestries. Civil War memorials, vernacular objects such as weathervanes and cigar advertising, as well as work by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins,Joshua Reynolds, Memling, Delacroix, Jheronimus Bosch and Thomas Nast. Not just fine-looking art objects, there are many racist images as well as beautiful images.
The images are meticulously catalogued to record the location of the original piece, the artist,the medium, and the subject. The photographs themselves are ar­ranged chronologically within the categories of the original medium, divided into antiquity, middle ages, and after.
These photographs, unfortu­nately, are also unavailable to the public at this time. Their number continues to grow with active research. After a complete organ­ization, the photographs will be available to historians for schol­arly research. A peculiar aspect of the collection is that a duplicate of the archives, including negatives, is housed in Paris for research in Europe. It’s just another one of the uses of photography and its deli­cate interchange between art and history.