The Art Institute boasts nearly 20,000 photographs in an encyclopedic collection, from some of photography’s earliest experiments in the 1830s to works made just last year. So it was a challenge to make the first selection of the 45 works that recently went on view. We wanted to show photography in all its varied guises, so we aimed for range of the following: chronology, geography, medium, genre, high art and vernacular, icons and unknowns. The crucial thing was that the works be truly stellar examples, a great representation of our collection. We eventually decided on some of the biggest names in photography—Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Frank, Lewis Hine, André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz, William Henry Fox Talbot—as well as lesser-known works, such as a full-plate daguerreotype of Niagara Falls attributed to Platt Babbitt, a Mole & Thomas scene of 25,000 servicemen forming the Liberty Bell, and some Andy Warhol Polaroids of Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello hamming it up for the camera.
Several photographs in this installation have never been on view before. As James previously wrote, a remarkable five-part panorama of the Chicago Fire, now believed to have been made by the great recorder of the Civil War, George N. Barnard, was rematted, reframed, and researched. And new acquisitions of works by Ralph Arnold, Jay DeFeo, Miyako Ishiuchi, Sam Samore, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Shomei Tomatsu, and Christopher Williams are being shown for the first time.
Pulling works out of the vault also prompted us to do new research on the collection. I recalled one nineteenth-century portrait of a woman because of the strange presence of her two-headed cat, the result of the cat moving its head during the lengthy exposure. This portrait was part of a group of pictures acquired in 1970 of a Mrs. Craik, all undated and with a maker listed as “anonymous.” Comparing our pictures with other known photographs revealed that they were of Dinah Mulock Craik, a prolific English novelist and poet; correspondence with Craik scholars then suggested that the photographer was her younger brother, Benjamin Mulock, who had studied photography (and later died in an asylum in 1863), and that they were probably taken in the spring of 1858.
As photographs (like all works on paper) are sensitive to light, this “permanent” collection gallery will in fact be temporary; works will remain up for 6–8 months. Please come and look at the range of photographs from the collection and make sure to check back with us next spring to see the second installation of treasures from the vault.