Smithsonian American Art Museum Acquires
Major Collection of Early Photographs:
New Center for the Study of American Photography
Washington, D.C., January 5, 1995
The National Museum of American Art has acquired a major collection of 274 daguerreotypes and photographs dating to photography's first century, 1839 to 1939. Elizabeth Broun, the museum's director, announced the purchase today. This body of work is the result of 20 years of collecting by Charles Isaacs, a Philadelphia collector of American photography.
"This outstanding group of early photographic images by some of the finest early American photographers, painstakingly selected by Charles Isaacs, is a landmark addition to our growing photography program," Broun said. "By acquiring this rare and often unique material, the museum has become a major site for the study of American photography."
Chosen with particular concern for striking images, significance of the photographers, diversity of subjects and techniques, and representation of lesser-known periods of early photography, the Charles Isaacs Collection of American Photography extends the range of the museum's photography collection to the very invention of the medium. Previously, the Smithsonian American Art Museum concentrated largely on post-World War II material. Among the newly acquired images are many showing aspects of Western expansion and industry, the New England and Western landscape, and the Civil War; portraits of Native Americans, working people, and children; and everyday images.
"I am delighted to see the collection become a part of the National Museum of American Art. It belongs in a context where the significance of early photography can be understood as a component of American art," Isaacs said.
"Having worked with the photography collection since its beginning in 1983, I find it tremendously gratifying to make this acquisition, which offers us a new opportunity to study the earliest images of the photographic era," said Merry Foresta, National Museum of American Art senior curator. "We are excited about the relationships between this work and other elements in our collection of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper of the same period--particularly landscape painting, portraiture, and folk art."
Most of the 19 Isaacs daguerreotypes will be included in the museum's upcoming exhibition, Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype, June 30 through October 29, 1995. Co-curated by Foresta and John Wood of McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., the show and its accompanying scholarly catalogue will document the history of the earliest photographic images in America. A major exhibition from the Isaacs Collection is planned for the spring of 1997.
The Isaacs Collection includes rare works by significant mid-19th-century photographers such as James McClees, Samuel Masury, John Adams Whipple, Carleton Watkins, and the Mathew Brady studio. There are mammoth plate landscape views by Charles H. Weed, who in 1860 became the first photographer to take a camera to Yosemite; Eadweard Muybridge; William Henry Jackson, who traveled with painter Thomas Moran; Carleton Watkins; F. Jay Haynes; and others.
Photographers who went West with the geological survey teams after the Civil War are especially well represented: Timothy O'Sullivan, William Bell, A. J. Russell, and John K. Hillers. The Civil War images include works by the later survey photographers O'Sullivan and Bell, and also by George Barnard, Guy Fowx, the Brady studio and Alexander Gardner. Railroads as a significant subject and railroad companies as patrons are represented by the mammoth views created by William H. Rau, photographer for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and F. Jay Haynes, who was commissioned by the Pacific Railroad to photograph the Western route to the newly created Yellowstone National Park.
The artistic photography movements that developed at the turn of the 20th century are illustrated through the work of Thomas Anshutz, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Clarence White, whose famous school instructed many of the most influential photographers of the period. Of special note are works by Gertrude Kasebier, Rudolf Eickemeyer, Paul Haviland, Karl Struss, Doris Ullman, and a spectacular still life by George Seeley.
The birth of a comprehensive photography program at the National Museum of American Art, comprising acquisitions, exhibitions, and publications, dates to the 1983 transfer of 1,884 works of promising contemporary American photographers from the National Endowment for the Arts. Through steady purchases and gifts, including the addition of the Isaacs Collection--made possible through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment- the collection has grown to more than 3,300 images. The museum has concentrations of works by such American masters as Irving Penn, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Aaron Siskin, Helen Levitt, and Harry Callahan, and by artists who belonged to the New York Photo League during the late 1930s and 1940s. A group of 300 contemporary landscapes by 50 photographers from across the United States was added in 1987, and featured in the nationally touring exhibition, Between Home and Heaven: Contemporary American Landscape Photography. Other important photography shows mounted by the museum include Irving Penn Master Images (1990), The Photography of Invention: American Pictures of the 1980s (1989), and Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (1988).
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