A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
1st floor West, American Art Museum
(8th and F Streets, N.W.)
June 28, 2013 – January 5, 2014
Walt Whitman described photography as a quintessentially American and democratic art form, a viewpoint that is celebrated in A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition showcases 113 photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent photography collection, amassed during the past thirty years. Works by photographers such as Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Walker Evans, Irving Penn, Roy DeCarava, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, Mitch Epstein, Alfredo Jaar, and Trevor Paglen, among others, as well as examples of vernacular types of images such as daguerreotypes, tintypes, and photo albums, provide a survey of photography in America, tracing its evolution from a purely documentary medium to a full-fledged artistic genre. The exhibition is organized by Merry Foresta, guest curator and independent consultant for the arts. Foresta was the museum’s curator of photography from 1983 to 1999.
The exhibition charts a particularly American preoccupation within the larger history of photography— the use of photographs as empirical evidence of the country’s economic, social, and cultural development. From the moment photography arrived in the United States, photographers became engaged with the life of an emerging young country, the activity of new urban centers, and the possibilities of unprecedented access to a vast frontier. Photography not only captured the country’s changing cultural and physical landscape but also evolved into an art form possessing its own language and layers of meaning.
A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is organized around four major themes that defined American photographic character and culture. Each section ranges from the earliest examples of American photography to contemporary work. “American Characters” provides a diverse catalogue of America’s people, landscape, architecture, and everyday objects. “Spiritual Frontier” examines the way in which our early idea of a sprawling, inexhaustible America has changed over time. “America Inhabited” traces America’s rapid industrialization and urbanization and examines our contemporary urban and suburban landscapes. “Imagination at Work” demonstrates how photography’s role of spontaneous witness gradually gave way to contrived arrangement and artistic invention.
A free mobile website will include photographs on view in the exhibition as well as an expanded list of works from the museum’s collection, and an interactive timeline of American photography. It will be available through tablet stations in the exhibition galleries and online.
A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is made possible with generous support from Saundra B. Lane, Lisa and John Pritzker, The Crown Equipment Exhibitions Endowment, The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, and The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund.