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Photography's Last Century
Promised Gift of Ann Tenenbaum and
Thomas H. Lee, in celebration of the Museum's 150th Anniversary

Episode 5 / 2020
First Look

. . . the opportunity to trace the arc of makers' careers using their often provocative and extremely rare first achievements."

In celebration of The Met's 150th anniversary, Trustee Ann Tenenbaum and her husband Thomas H. Lee have made a magnificent promised gift to the museum of sixty-two masterpieces of photography from the last one hundred years. While the collection is notable for its breadth and depth of photographs by women artists and the concentrated strength of its nude studies, this episode of MetCollects highlights its special focus on artists' beginnings.

Early works by now-established artists allow historians and the public the opportunity to trace the arc of makers' careers using their often provocative and extremely rare first achievements. In our selection, we see artists experimenting with new approaches to everyday subject matter (Paul Strand, Lee Friedlander, Nan Goldin, and Zanele Muholi). Strand's dramatic view from an elevated subway platform in New York of a house, a billboard, and two pedestrians is the earliest work in the collection. Made in Harlem in 1916, From the Viaduct established Strand as a cutting-edge modernist and is a superb example of his shift away from soft-focus Pictorialism.

We also discover artists who are drawn to unusual compositions and shifts of scale (André Kertész, Walker Evans, and Laurie Simmons). Evans's dramatic, if modest-sized, self-portraits from 1927 marked the first inkling of his commitment to visual culture and camera work at a time when he was pursuing writing, not photography. These studies of his own distorted shadow cast on the wall of his apartment in the south of France have a playfulness that mark the unlikely start of his half-century career as a photographer.

And we see photographs that celebrate the use of innovative techniques (by artists László Moholy-Nagy, Florence Henri, Cindy Sherman, and Lyle Ashton Harris). Made a half-century after Evans's self-portraits, Sherman's unique, intimate, nine-part portrait series, Untitled #490 from 1976 confirmed her stunning ambition and mastery of the medium at age twenty-two. She saw the camera as a cunning tool with which to examine roles assigned to—or denied—women in mass media; here, she references Mrs. Robinson from the 1967 film The Graduate.

The selection also includes a wide range of younger artists and is a welcome reminder how important private collectors who purchase daring works by emerging makers are to the field. Mickalene Thomas, an artist who explores issues of race, sexuality, and female power in painting, photography, and video, is represented by (If Loving You is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right (2006). The title of this self-assured early portrait is borrowed from the 1972 hit R&B song by Luther Ingram about male infidelity.

In this symbolic year, 2020, when vision—seeing as a creative act—should be on everyone's mind, these photographs confirm that the camera remains one of the most vital, poetic, and democratic instruments of contemporary human expression.

Jeff L. Rosenheim
Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge
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