Top Photography Collections Inspire and Educate: You Don't Have to Go to Art School to Become an Expert on Master Photographers. (Photo Collections)

By Seiling, Susan | Art Business News, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Top Photography Collections Inspire and Educate: You Don't Have to Go to Art School to Become an Expert on Master Photographers. (Photo Collections)


Seiling, Susan, Art Business News


I spent three years working at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park. Though my job, on the surface, seemed like little more than selling note cards and posters, the time spent within those gallery walls gave me a priceless skill: The ability to recognize fine photography.

The gallery's collection included works by Adams and other historically significant photographers and also a wide body of contemporary photography. All of the artists represented there had a reverence for craftsmanship and the ability to use photography as a way to creatively and effectively express themselves.

Like a wine connoisseur sampling various Merlots, I can now walk into a fine art gallery or museum and intuitively understand the photography and its value, or lack thereof. With a large number of photographers venturing into the gallery market, it's important for gallery owners to nurture this aesthetic understanding of photography. I've seen many galleries branch into the photography sector, falling prey to an artist who has a knack for marketing but creates mediocre work. The bottom line is if a photograph resonates with the viewer, is of a high quality and is aesthetically pleasing, it will sell.

Learning to recognize high-quality work can only come from immersing yourself in great photography. To do this, you don't need to spend three years of your life working in a fine art photography gallery. By spending some time looking at great collections, studying the craftsmanship of the masters and becoming familiar with the work of well-known photographers, you can glean an intrinsic understanding of the art.

To help with this endeavor, I've compiled a list of museums throughout the country that have excellent photography collections. Many run exhibitions throughout the year, and some allow you to schedule appointments to view their photographs on an individual basis. This isn't a comprehensive list of photographic collections, but simply a starting point for your perusal.

Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson

When Ansel Adams died, he donated his negatives and most of his archives to the Center for Creative Photography. Sixty more photographers have followed suit, including Edward Weston, Richard Avedon and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. The collection includes photographs, negatives, albums, correspondence and other memorabilia, and it numbers more than 60,000 works by 2,000 photographers.

The amazing thing about the CCP is that you can make an appointment to view specific works that interest you. You aren't at the mercy of a featured exhibition--if you want to see a box of Weston photographs, they will bring out the images for your review. You can view up to three boxes of prints per one-hour reservation, and if you don't know which images you want to see, the curator will make recommendations.

After making your selections, a CCP staff member brings out the print boxes and begins your individualized viewing. The viewing is set up so you can examine the photographs very closely but can't actually touch them.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1924, Alfred Stieglitz donated 27 of his photographs to MFA Boston, making it one of the first museums in the country to collect photography. "It was a very important group of photographs that Stieglitz chose himself," said Curator of Photographs Anne Havinga.

With more than 4,000 pieces, the museum's collection today boasts of works by Weston, daguerreotype portraits by Southworth and Hawes and images by Paul Strand, Man Ray, Yousuf Karsh and Bradford Washburn. It continues to collect work by contemporary photographers, adding to the collection each year. "We don't collect by filling gaps or by buying major works by major photographers. We think about how we are going to use a work and picture what goes best with other things in the collection," Havinga said.

The MFA frequently features one-man shows, as well as exhibitions that explore a genre of photography--such as creative landscapes or studies of the human body.

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