Photography

A portrait of a man with goatee contained in a brooch

Unidentified artist, Untitled (brooch, man with goatee), undated, albumen print in metal setting. Smithsonian American Art Museum, the L. J. West Collection of Photographic Jewelry, Museum purchase made possible through the Franz H. and Luisita L. Denghausen Endowment

In 1983, the Smithsonian American Art Museum began actively building its photography collection. That year, more than 1,500 photographs were transferred to the museum from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, the collection has grown to more than 9,000 works that span the history of the medium. SAAM's holdings include works by Mathew B. BradyJames VanDerZeeBerenice AbbottRoy DeCaravaImogen CunninghamWalker EvansDorothea LangeSid GrossmanAnsel AdamsAlfredo JaarHiram MaristanyRoland FreemanMartha RoslerAaron SiskindJohn GossageKen Gonzales-Day, Dawoud BeyAna Mendieta, and many others.

From its inception, SAAM’s photography program has focused on works that capture and address the conditions of everyday life in the United States. Embracing the diversity of the medium and its practitioners, SAAM collected the history of American photography as a story of invention and inventiveness, and exhibitions such as American Photographs: The First Century (1996) and A Democracy of Images (2013) were groundbreaking for their recognition of photography’s plurality.

Deep holdings of works by individual artists include an extensive set of Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument series, the only publicly held set of Diane Arbus’ A box of ten photographs, more than 100 works by Irving Penn, more than 100 works by Man Ray, including the portfolio Electricite, and more than 500 works by David Levinthal. SAAM holds complete sets of Martha Rosler’s seminal series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home and Laura Aguilar’s Latina Lesbian series, as well as Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters series and Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train.

In 1989, the museum acquired the Consolidated Natural Gas Company Collection of more than 300 works by contemporary landscape photographers; in 1994, it acquired the Charles Isaacs Collection, with works by important American artists as well as vernacular material including western survey photographs, stereographs, postcards, and photographs documenting bridge-building, dentistry, and early advertising; and in 2000 and 2009 respectively, it acquired the collections of Bates and Isabel Lowry and Dan and Mary Solomon, adding nearly 200 works of vernacular portraiture to the collection.

In 2021, the museum acquired a significant collection of early American photography from the collector Larry J. West. The L.J. West Collection includes 286 objects from the 1840s to the mid-1920s, including works by African American daguerreotypists James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington. With this purchase, the museum now holds the largest collection of daguerreotypes by these three early African American photographers, as well as the largest collection of daguerrean jewelry, representing the bridge between painted miniature portraiture and early cased photography such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes.

Due to their light sensitivity, photographs may be exhibited for short periods of time only to protect the artworks. You can explore SAAM’s entire photography collection online anytime.

Selected Works

Media - 2019.29.1 - SAAM-2019.29.1_1 - 138052
Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse) from the series…
Date2017, printed 2018
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2013.23A-P - SAAM-2013.23A-P_1 - 85107
Constellation
Date2004
instant color prints
Not on view
Media - 2017.44.1 - SAAM-2017.44.1_1 - 134168
ONE
Date1970, printed 1998
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2007.40.31 - SAAM-2007.40.31_1 - 68302
Untitled, from the series The Pond
Date1985
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1995.54.1.1 - SAAM-1995.54.1.1_1 - 12623
Anima (Alma/​Soul)
Date1976, printed 1977
chromogenic print
Not on view
Media - 1989.58 - SAAM-1989.58_1 - 79875
Portrait of My Father with Newspaper
Date1988
chromogenic print
Not on view
Media - 2013.14 - SAAM-2013.14_1 - 86673
Breakfast Tacos, from the series Seven Days
Date2003, printed 2012
inkjet print
Not on view
Media - 2020.1.3 - SAAM-2020.1.3_1 - 138415
White Angel Breadline
Date1933, printed 1958-1966
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2021.7.19 - SAAM-2021.7.19_1 - 143245
Red Stripe Kitchen, from the series House Beautiful:…
Dateca. 1967-1972, printed 2018
inkjet print
Not on view
Media - 2021.27.3 - SAAM-2021.27.3_1 - 142494
Nature Self-Portrait #12
Date1996
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2016.30.12 - SAAM-2016.30.12_1 - 125908
Young Man with Roses
Date1971
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2021.20 - SAAM-2021.20_1 - 142481
Untitled, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Woman
Artist
Unidentified
Dateca. 1846- 1848
daguerreotype
Not on view
Media - 2016.40.4 - SAAM-2016.40.4_1 - 124798
Butterfly Boy, New York City
Date1949, printed ca. 1949
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2004.29.74 - SAAM-2004.29.74_1 - 77024
Castle Geyser, Yellowstone
Artist
Unidentified
Date1898
chromolithograph
Not on view
Media - 2004.21.36 - SAAM-2004.21.36_1 - 73334
Untitled, Bethlehem, PA
Date1935
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1998.120.46 - SAAM-1998.120.46_1 - 68765
A woman from New Jersey picking beans. Hampers are heavy…
Date1939, printed later
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1994.57.2 - SAAM-1994.57.2_1 - 52008
Studio Portrait of Young Man with Telephone
Date1929
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1990.38.79 - SAAM-1990.38.79_1 - 51537
Liberty, from the Los Angeles Documentary Project
Date1980
chromogenic print
Not on view
Media - 1985.56 - SAAM-1985.56_1 - 79399
Pepper no. 30
Date1930
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1974.32.1 - SAAM-1974.32.1_1 - 85157
Heart of the Turbine
Date1930
gelatin silver print
Not on view

Related Artists

Mathew B. Brady
born Lake George, NY 1823-died New York City 1896

Mathew Brady was born near Lake George, New York, in 1823. He studied art with William Page and learned how to make dauguerreotypes from Page's friend, Samuel F. B. Morse.

James VanDerZee
born Lenox, MA 1886-died Washington, DC 1983

VanDerZee began photographing as a teenager after having won an eight-dollar camera as a premium for selling pink and yellow silk sachets. Beginning in 1916 he worked out of a commercial Harlem studio he opened on 135th street.

Berenice Abbott
born Springfield, OH 1898-died Monson, ME 1991

"Paris was where the 20th century was." Should the remark so often quoted and attributed to Gertrude Stein prove apocryphal, it would make no difference.

Roy DeCarava
born New York City 1919-died New York City 2009
Media - 1994.91.41 - SAAM-1994.91.41_1 - 87363
Imogen Cunningham
born Portland, OR 1883-died San Francisco, CA 1976

Cunningham posed for this portrait at the age of thirty-two, with her new husband, Roi Partridge, tripping the camera's shutter.

Walker Evans
born St. Louis, MO 1903-died New Haven, CT 1975
Dorothea Lange
born Hoboken, NJ 1895-died San Francisco, CA 1965

Dorothea Lange was determined to be a photographer before she had a camera. Rather than follow her mother's wishes that she train as a school teacher, Lange apprenticed herself in a series of New York studios, including that of Arnold Genthe.

Sid Grossman
born New York City 1913-died New York City 1955
Ansel Adams
born San Francisco, CA 1902-died Monterey, CA 1984

One of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, Adams spent a significant part of his adult life in Yosemite National Park.

Alfredo Jaar
born Santiago, Chile 1956
Hiram Maristany
born New York City 1945-died St. Petersburg, FL 2022
Roland L. Freeman
born Baltimore, MD 1936
Martha Rosler
born New York City 1943
Aaron Siskind
born New York City 1903-died Providence, RI 1991
John R. Gossage
born New York City 1946
Ken Gonzales-Day
born Santa Clara, CA 1964
Dawoud Bey
born New York City 1953
Ana Mendieta
born Havana, Cuba 1948-died New York City 1985

Sculptor, performance and conceptual artist, born in Havana, Cuba. Mendieta came to the United States in 1961 and spent her adolescence in Iowa. The trauma of dislocation from her family and homeland is a recurrent theme in her work.

Lee Friedlander
born Aberdeen, WA 1934
Diane Arbus
born New York City 1923-died New York City 1971
Irving Penn
born Plainfield, NJ 1917-died New York City 2009

The conjunction between art and commerce that winds through Penn's career challenges our usual definitions of both these areas.

Media - portrait_image_113733.jpg - 90405
Man Ray
born Philadelphia, PA 1890-died Paris, France 1976

Born in Philadelphia, lived intermittently in the United States, but preferred Paris.

Media - portrait_image_114973.jpg - 137074
David Levinthal
born San Francisco, CA 1949

David Levinthal was born in San Francisco in 1949 into a rapidly changing post-World War II American society.

Martha Rosler
born New York City 1943
Paul Fusco
born Leominster, MA 1930
Laura Aguilar
born San Gabriel, CA 1959-died Long Beach, CA 2018
Nicholas Nixon
born Detroit, MI 1947
James P. Ball
born VA 1825-died HI 1905

Videos

Exhibitions

Media - 1983.63.998 - SAAM-1983.63.998_1 - 55235
Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975 – 1980
July 16, 2021January 23, 2022
Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980 captures a cross-section of East Baltimore residents and businesses in the 1970s, documenting the community’s history and diversity.  These photographs by Elinor Cahn, Joan Clark Netherwood, and Linda Rich were taken as part of a program of photography surveys sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts to celebrate the bicentennial of founding of the United States.
Media - 2019.29.1 - SAAM-2019.29.1_1 - 138052
Dawoud Bey and William H. Johnson
May 12, 2021August 5, 2021
This focused installation features recently acquired photographs by Dawoud Bey in conversation with a painting by William H. Johnson that refer to the Underground Railroad.
Media - 2017.32.10 - SAAM-2017.32.10_1 - 133751
American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs 
June 7, 2019October 14, 2019
Populated with toy cowboys and cavalry, Barbie dolls and baseball players, David Levinthal’s photographs reference iconic images and events that shaped postwar American society. Despite their playful veneer, Levinthal’s images provide a lens through which to examine the myths and stereotypes lurking within our most beloved pastimes and enduring heroes. In doing so, Levinthal encourages us to consider the stories we tell about ourselves—what it means to be strong, beautiful, masculine, feminine, and ultimately, American.
Media - 2012.24.1 - SAAM-2012.24.1_1-000001 - 82537
Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen
June 21, 2018January 6, 2019
Trevor Paglen blurs the lines between art, science, and investigative journalism to construct unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways to see and interpret the world around us.
A black and white photograph by Diane Arbus titled "Mrs. Gladys 'Mitzi' Ulrich with the baby, Sam, a stump-tailed macaque monkey"
Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs 
April 6, 2018January 27, 2019
This exhibition traces the history of A box of ten photographs between 1969 and 1973, telling the crucial story of the portfolio that established the foundation for Arbus’s posthumous career.
Photograph of children playing in the water from a fire hydrant by Hiram Maristany
Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography
May 11, 2017August 5, 2017
America’s urban streets have long inspired documentary photographers. After World War II, populations shifted from the city to the suburbs and newly built highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, leaving isolated pockets within major urban centers. As neighborhoods started to decline in the 1950s, the photographers in this exhibition found ways to call attention to changing cities and their residents. Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography explores the work of ten photographers—Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas, and Camilo José Vergara—who were driven to document and reflect on the state of American cities during these transformative years.
Media - 1983.63.135 - SAAM-1983.63.135_2 - 122826
Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten
August 25, 2016April 1, 2017
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) picked up a camera and discovered the power the photographic portrait has over the photographer himself. Over the decades, his fascination with the medium remained strong and he asked writers, musicians, athletes, politicians, and others to sit for him—many of them central figures in the Harlem Renaissance whose accomplishments fueled not only the New Negro movement but also transformed the broader American culture throughout the twentieth century. These groundbreaking men and women included James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Bessie Smith, and others. Some of the portraits capture their subjects on the cusp of success as they were full of ambition but before they became famous; others depict men and women looking back on long and varied careers, tested by the fickleness of fortune.
Media - 1983.63.1193 - SAAM-1983.63.1193_1 - 52101
No Mountains in the Way: Photographs from the Kansas Documentary Survey, 1974
February 26, 2016July 30, 2016
In 1974, with a grant of $5,000 from the NEA, No Mountains in the Way was organized by Jim Enyeart, then curator of photography at the University of Kansas Museum of Art. He and Kansas natives Terry Evans and Larry Schwarm—all artists who have attained considerable achievement in the intervening decades—travelled the state, photographing whatever struck them as representative. 

Stories

Black and white photograph of a woman holding a monkey that is swaddled like a baby
An unexpected email reveals more about the subject of one of Diane Arbus’s celebrated portraits
Photography of John Jacob by Friedrich Nill.
John Jacob
McEvoy Family Curator for Photography
A black and white photograph of a person with short hair standing in front of a sign that says "Stop AIDS Los Angeles."
Claudia Zapata, curatorial assistant for Latinx art, shares their insights on a series of photographs by Laura Aguilar recently acquired by SAAM
A photograph of Claudia Zapata
Claudia Zapata
Curatorial Assistant of Latinx Art
A photograph of a house with a white fence at night.
Dawoud Bey’s metaphorical photographs of Underground Railroad sites in Ohio turn scenes of darkness into symbols of hope
Laura Baptiste
Chief of Communications and Public Affairs