Works by some of the world’s great photographers have been gathered for a new exhibition at the National Gallery, writes Marjorie Brennan
Corporate collections have been a mainstay of the art world since the 1950s, when David Rockefeller of the famous American dynasty began the acquisition of art for the Chase Manhattan Bank.
In 1967, Samuel William Sax, president of the Exchange National Bank of Chicago, decided to follow suit, except he wanted the bank to focus solely on photography, which was unusual for the time. He called on husband-and-wife art experts Beaumont and Nancy Newhall to procure work for the collection, the first of its kind in the US, which features iconic images from some of the world’s best-known photographers.
Now, Irish audiences will get a chance to see the pioneering collection, which is being shown at the National Gallery in Dublin.
According to Anne Hodge, co- curator of the exhibition along with Sarah McAuliffe, ‘Moment in Time: A Collection of Photographs / Works from the Bank of America Collection’ is a significant exhibition for the gallery to secure.
“Bank of America have an incredible collection of photography,” says Hodge. “This exhibition was curated by Deborah Klochko, the director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego in 2017. It’s our very first major loan exhibition of photography, and a new departure for the National Gallery of Ireland.
"It happened because we have built up a really good working relationship with the bank over the years, they have been incredibly supportive on a number of projects, particularly in terms of conservation, such as the work we did on ‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’ [Daniel Maclise].
Sax was ahead of his time in terms of seeing the artistic merits of photography, and in harnessing the vision of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who were instrumental figures in establishing the medium as an art form in the US.
“Sax was convinced really that photography was a fine art and worthy of collection. There were no other corporate collections of photography, and he saw the bank’s permanent collection as a commitment to Chicago as a great cultural centre,” says Hodge.
While the collection mainly features 20th century photography, Nancy Newhall was keen to have some earlier images included, such as an image of Orléans Cathedral in France, taken in 1843 by scientist, inventor and MP, William Henry Fox Talbot, the British ‘father of photography’.
“It is quite a faded image and you might walk by it, without realising how important it is,” says Hodge. “It allows us to see the beginning of photography.
Fox Talbot went on to develop the calotype, in which paper coated with silver chloride was exposed to light, yielding a negative image.
Someone who built on this work and significantly contributed to the development of photography as an art form was Edward Steichen, whose iconic image of Brooklyn Bridge features in the exhibition.
“It encapsulates the idea of pictorialism, which was taken up by photographers of the early 20th century like Steichen, who rather than just documenting a scene, wanted to create beautiful images, which they would often do by manipulating the images by hand during the photographic process,” says Hodge. “The idea was to increase the sense of mood and make them similar to paintings.
"Steichen’s image of Brooklyn Bridge could be compared to the paintings Whistler had done of London’s Battersea Bridge. Steichen was trying to raise the status of photography so people would see it could be just as beautiful as a painting.”
As the century progressed, photography became more accessible as a medium. Hand in hand with the seismic effect of two world wars and economic collapse, photography also became a form of documentary, especially in the context of social injustice, a progression that can be clearly seen in the exhibition.
“You have someone like [US photographer] Dorothea Lange….so many people would be familiar with her image of the ‘Migrant Mother’, but the one we have here in the exhibition, ‘One Nation, Indivisible’, shows this lovely little Japanese American girl among her fellow students at a primary school. Just days after this photograph was taken in April 1942, children like her were sent to internment camps across California in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour bombings.”
The modern resonances of such an image are unmistakeable, something that is also echoed in the work of legendary Californian photographer Ansel Adams, whose evocative black-and-white landscapes reflect modern-day environmental concerns.
“We have several images from Ansel Adams, including one from the Sierra Nevada series, called Winter Evening. It is just one of those iconic works, the mountains are towering over the landscape,” says Hodge.
Today, with the climate emergency and so on, the work of photographers is still incredibly relevant.”
Less well-known but equally capable of producing striking images was American photographer Paul Caponigro, who came to Ireland in 1967, when he took one of the photos featured in the exhibition, a particular favourite of Hodge’s.
“It is an amazing image of white deer in County Wicklow. It’s a really strange image — you look at it and wonder what’s going on. The story is that he went to a private estate in Co Wicklow to photograph this rare herd of white deer, and was out waiting for them when they suddenly appeared out of the forest and started running.
“Caponigro was caught so unaware that he literally just had time to make one exposure. The blurring of the deer gives the image a strange feeling and quality, I just love it. That’s the thing about these photographers — they manage to capture that perfect moment, which most of us would just miss.”
This ‘definitive moment’, as it was famously described by Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work also features in the exhibition, is what makes these images stand out, and the connection it engenders still has artistic power in our visually-overloaded society.
“Yes, all of us can take images but when you see a really brilliantly composed photograph, that can move you,” says Hodge.
“And I think that’s why these works are still relevant, as is the work that is being produced today by very skilled photographers, be they photo-journalists or artists.
“The fact that these photographs are being hung in the National Gallery of Ireland, hopefully will also make people realise that we as curators really value this kind of work and we rate it, just as we rate paintings and sculpture.”
‘Moment in Time: A Legacy of Photographs, Works from the Bank of America Collection’ opens at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, on November 30 and runs until March 22, 2020