Seen at MoMA (Part I)

Photographs seen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

EXHIBITION Feb 18 — May 8, 2004

Kicken Berlin is showing “Seen at MoMA”, an exquisite selection of photographic works. The prints shown here are examples of photographs which were shown in exhibitions given at the Museum or works that are included in the general collection. Due to the wealth of material, the exhibition will be shown in two parts. Each part presents approximately 40 pictures, enabling the viewer to gain some understanding of the importance of the role of photography at The Museum of Modern Art. “Seen at MoMA” will remain at Kicken Berlin throughout the “MoMA in Berlin” show until the fall of 2004.
The Museum of Modern Art was one of the first museums to engage in collecting, researching and exhibiting photography. Founded in 1929, the museum’s early interest in the medium is seen in the fact that its 23rd acquisition was a photograph, taken by Walker Evans. The decision to have photography as one of their 6 museum departments was made by the first director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr, who was convinced that the various means of expression in the modern arts could only be understood through their interrelationship. MoMA, with its synoptic way of presenting modern art – painting and sculpture, printmaking, design, architecture, film and photography - played a decisive role in the acceptance of photography as a legitimate art form. From this time on, modernity was above all an intellectual position that found artistic expression through various media, material and forms.
Kicken Berlin’s homage to MoMA brings together a number of important milestones in photographic history, and in doing so honors once again the outstanding role of MoMA in the recognition of photography as an artistic medium.
A partial list of photographers represented in the show reads like a who’s who of the most famous photographers in the world. Exhibited in original prints are: Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Richard Avedon, Ilse Bing, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Capa, Frantisek Drtikol, Dr. Harold Edgerton, Elliot Erwitt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Hanna Höch, Gertrude Käsebier, André Kertész, Heinrich Kühn, Dorothea Lange, Jaques Henri Lartigue, Helen Levitt, Man Ray, Joel Meyerowitz, Duane Michals, Lisette Model, László Moholy-Nagy, Eadweard Muybridge, Arnold Newman, Paul Outerbridge, Irving Penn, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Alexander Rodchenko, August Sander, Stephen Shore, Aaron Siskind, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, UMBO and Weegee.
Some rare treasures are to be found in the exhibited works, for example a vintage print of Man Ray’s "Noire et Blanche (Kiki and the mask – positiv), 1926", probably one of the most well-known and highly regarded photos in the world.
The fact that MoMA is still one of the most important institutions for the art photography is due only in part to the museum’s early interest in promoting the medium. Equally important to MoMA´s pioneering role was the setting of standards for what should be considered as art photography in the first place. This is especially true of Beaumont Newhall, the first curator of photography at MoMA. Newhall served in the post for only two years, but in that time through the exhibition "Photography: 1839 - 1937" and the best-selling book based on this show “The History of Photography”, he established a solid foundation for anyone interested in the medium. Furthermore, Newhall was able to draw widely on the prints in the museum’s own collection for his work as he prepared this landmark publication on the history of photography. MoMA’s main focus geographically and chronologically is naturally on American photography in the 20th century. None-the-less, MoMA has always tried to exhibit and acquire distinguished examples of the most important movements in the field of art photography. For this reason the MoMA collection is one of the largest in the world. Newhall’s successor at MoMA, Edward Steichen, brought to the force the expressive potential of photography, which had gone largely unrecognized until then. In 1955 his landmark exhibition, “The Family of Man” was seen at MoMA by 270,000 people. The show of 593 photographs by 273 photographers then traveled to 85 different locations in 68 countries introducing fine photography to a worldwide audience. This show remains, even today, the most widely attended exhibition of all time. Following the credo laid out by Alfred H. Barr: "conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity", John Szarkowski served as photo-curator at MoMA in a distinguished tenure from 1962 until 1991. In that time, Szarkowski would become photography’s highest authority. Under his stewardship from 1964 to 1973 the museum published more books and catalogues about photography than it had in the previous 35 years. Without exaggeration, it is possible to say that Szarkowski´s, rational but lyrical concept of art photography influenced photographic thinking for over a generation and that he made one of the most significant contributions to the history of the medium. Before photography really made its way into European museums, MoMA had already established itself as one of the prime authorities in defining the canon of photography’s most important practitioners. Starting with the recognition of the seminal works of Walker Evans and continuing with the introduction of color by such luminaries as William Eggelston or Stephen Shore, MoMA has played a decisive role in shaping the character of American photography. The fact that virtually no art museum today can afford to ignore photography is in large part thanks to MoMA’s historic contribution to the recognition of photography.
Today, the current photo-curator at MoMA, Peter Galassi, is confronted with new challenges. Faced with competition from the many new museum collections, the vast number of contemporary exhibitions, and the steadily growing collectors market with its rising prices, MoMA is challenged to advance its own collection to retain a leadership position. This was the reasoning behind the acquisition of a significant proportion of the Thomas Walther Collection in 2001 (one of the finest private collections in the world). Or recently with the addition of complete series of contemporary classics by Cindy Sherman or Lee Friedlander.
Whoever views the important photographic images in “Seen at MoMA” at Kicken Berlin, will not only encounter wonderful pictures, but also one of the most important focal points in the history of art photography. (Ronald Berg)