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Photograph Collections

In December 1948, when Georgia O'Keeffe was deciding where to place the largest and most significant collection of photographs by her late husband, the seminal American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she visited the National Gallery of Art. Astutely observing both small details as well as the larger symbolic importance of the still relatively new museum, she wrote to a friend a few days later, "as you probably know, [the Gallery] hasn't a speck of dust anywhere," and she noted, "Stieglitz worked for the recognition of photography as a fine art—the National Gallery means something in relation to that." The museum, she concluded, "seems like a peak—something finished—standing alone." One year later, O'Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Estate donated 1,311 works by Stieglitz, an auspicious beginning for the collection of photography at the Gallery.

Following a series of exhibitions in the 1980s, a separate department of photographs was established in 1990. Since then, the Gallery's holdings have grown to more than 10,000 photographs that span the entire range of photographic history, from the beginnings of the medium in 1839 through the present. Among the earliest works in the collection is a choice group by an inventor of the medium, William Henry Fox Talbot. One of his first photographic prints was Orléans Cathedral, 1843, made on a trip to France. With its delicate architectural details and its bold framing and composition, this image demonstrates Talbot's fascination not only with recording the world through photography, but also with the camera's ability to see it in new and exciting ways. Other nineteenth-century British photographers represented in the Gallery's collection include Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill, Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton, Francis Frith, and Peter Henry Emerson.

The Gallery also has fine examples by nineteenth-century French photographers, including Gustave Le Gray, Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Édouard-Denis Baldus, and Charles Marville. Many of these early photographers were trained as painters and brought highly refined aesthetic sensibilities to the new art of photography. Le Gray's Beech Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau, c. 1856, with its broad expanses of light and shade, evocatively describes an ancient tree barely rooted in the earth below. Nadar, celebrated for his portraits of the rich and famous, depicted his close colleague, the painter and caricaturist Honoré Daumier, 1856–1858, wearing a peasant's jacket, thus demonstrating Daumier's humility.

Among the greatest strengths of the collection are groups of photographs by several major twentieth-century American practitioners: Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Frederick Sommer, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, and Lee Friedlander. Modeled after the Stieglitz collection, each of these holdings includes works from throughout the photographer's career and illustrates all aspects of the artists' contributions. For example, the Paul Strand collection contains the earliest known print of his groundbreaking modernist photograph The White Fence, 1916; nature studies of the 1920s; views of New Mexico, Mexico, and England taken in the 1930s and 1940s; and Strand's photographs of Italy, France, and the Hebrides from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. The core of the Ansel Adams collection is the "Museum Set," a selection of seventy-five photographs made by Adams to represent his finest landscape photographs, such as The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942, which encapsulates the monumentality of the American West.

The Walker Evans holdings range from his studies of New York cityscapes, made in the late 1920s, to Polaroids from the end of his life five decades later. The Robert Frank collection is especially impressive, reaching from Frank's early career in photojournalism to his highly personal compositions of the 1990s. Among the thousands of works contained in this collection are all the contact prints for Frank's epochal publication, The Americans (1958/1959), and supplementary work prints relating to that project. The Friedlander holdings include the only complete set of vintage prints he made for his book Self-Portrait (1970), and a complete set of prints for his book, Lee Friedlander (2000). Other important twentieth-century photographers represented at the Gallery include the Hungarian-born American photographer André Kertész and the Soviet photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko. More contemporary photographs have also been added to the collection, including most recently images by James Casebere and a group of photographs by Richard Misrach. The Gallery has expanded its holdings of photographs from the first half of the twentieth century with acquisitions of more than thirty works by Eugène Atget, and Charles Sheeler's images of his house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. A significant collection of works by women photographers, such as Berenice Abbott, Ilse Bing, Lotte Jacobi, and Alma Lavenson, were also added to the collection.

With the opening of five new galleries for the permanent display of photographs in the West Building, these works, as well as others from the rapidly growing photography collection, will be on view in temporary exhibitions at the Gallery. Photographs are fragile and subject to deterioration if exposed to light for extended periods, and the greatest part of the collection will be kept in storage. Students and other visitors with a specific interest may take advantage of the Gallery's Photograph Study Room to examine and enjoy these important examples of the art of photography.

In-Depth Studies

Julia Margaret Cameron: The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty

Edward Steichen: Le Tournesol (The Sunflower)

Selected Online Tours

Selected Photographs from the Collection
Modern Portraits in Photography

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