For the first time in its 63-year history , the National Gallery of Art is permanently dedicating galleries to photography, giving prominence to the work of Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Paul Strand and Ansel Adams.
The photography corridor includes five galleries and 3,000 square feet on the ground floor of the West Building. In a few weeks the museum will welcome the genre into its arts family with a survey of Roger Fenton, a Victorian-era British photographer. Three of the rooms have been restored to the museum's original John Russell Pope design with thick marble bases and borders and 161/2-foot ceilings. The other two rooms are being updated with some of the same decorative touches of marble.
The change enhances Washington's reputation as a trove of photography, adding to mother lodes at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Archives and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The National Gallery has moved gradually toward this formal public embrace. "Photography was always appreciated but we weren't always collecting," Sarah Greenough, a curator and director of the department of photographs, said yesterday.
The gallery was in its infancy when a historical gift of photos came its way. In December 1948 Georgia O'Keeffe was thinking of places to put work by her late husband, Stieglitz. According to gallery lore, she liked the museum because it didn't have "a speck of dust anywhere." In 1949 she donated 1,300 prints of his famous images, and later 330 more (most of those were portraits of her).
This "key set," said Greenough, represented "one print of every photograph he kept. He had cut out works that he thought were lesser. He had worked so hard to establish photography as fine art. But it did sit here for a long time."
Photos have found their way onto the gallery's walls in the past. In 1958 some Stieglitz works were shown; another show of Stieglitz in 1983 drew record crowds. Adams was highlighted in the mid-1980s. In 1989 the gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago organized a survey marking the 150th anniversary of the announcement of breakthroughs in print processing.
Over the years the National Gallery's holdings have grown to 8,700 photographs representing 75 American and European artists, covering the medium from its earliest days in the 1830s. The archives include works by early practitioners such as William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the positive and negative process of developing and printing photographs, and Julia Margaret Cameron, the amateur photographer who became a noted 19th-century portraitist.
The collection is anchored by a gift of 75 photographs from Ansel Adams's widow, and special materials by Strand, Evans, Robert Frank and Harry Callahan. "In the early 1990s we starting building up by getting key individuals. We wanted to make sure someone was of the importance of Stieglitz and Frank. We wanted them to be the most major figures in photography and have had an impact on their era and the understanding of photography at that point," said Greenough.
Three shows a year are planned for the new galleries. They will present a mix from the permanent collection and collaborations with other museums. The Fenton show, which opens Oct. 17 and contains 91 photographs, was organized with the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fenton was an early war photographer, visiting the front lines in the Crimea War in the 1850s. He also turned his camera to country houses, still life scenes and the royal family.
That show will be followed by an exhibition of Andre Kertesz, the Hungarian-born American who was admired for his pictures of ordinary people, places and things in Paris and New York's Washington Square Park. "He was one of the first people to understand the snapshot had profound merit in photography," Greenough said.
Coming up is a third show based on a gift of platinum-palladium prints by Irving Penn. He developed the prints himself using this iron-based process until he achieved the artistic standard he wanted. "These are the prints he made for himself," she said. And now for the rest of us.