A Letter from America II: Photography as History & Art (March)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Ever since the photography market really got rolling, back in the mid-70s, it has suffered from a split personality: photography as Art vs. ditto as Text. Of course this was never in question with artsy European lads like Man Ray and their American peers from Stieglitz on. It took more effort for the art world to convert other, more documentary, images into proper art objects. Nowhere is this more true than nineteenth century American photography, where the recent rage for pristine daguerreotypes has elevated some previously ignored pictures of nobody in particular to the realm of Masterworks. Funny how they get significant once they get expensive-or do they get expensive because they are significant? It’s confusing.

As it happens, the book world thought early documentary photographs were important long before the art museums did. Many of the great collections of nineteenth century photography were built by libraries, who saw them as evidence; historically valuable, readable, texts which complimented and extended the reach of published sources as effectively as manuscripts. There was certainly a recognition that some images had claims to being works of art as well, but most of the initial scholarly advocates of early photography in the United States , such as Robert Taft, argued its uses in social and historical contexts. Then the photography boom started, and suddenly the libraries were full of art curators itching to disbind albums and get the stuff up on the walls. I saw which way things were going in 1978, when once such researcher at the Beinecke Library at Yale informed me that all of the albums painfully amassed in its Western Americana collection didn’t belong there, and should be turned over to the Art Gallery at once.

Of course, there was never any confusion about the intentions of many photographers from the late nineteenth century on to create self-conscious works of art. I hasten to say, lest you go through the digital manipulation of pointing the finger of scorn at me, that I, too, think early photographs can be art and often are, even if the original intent was documentary. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. The problem is one of balance, and sacrificing one kind of meaning for another if the image is stripped of its context, a loss often suffered with elevation to Masterwork status. Every one of the great albums of Carleton Watkins mammoth plates to come up for sale has been broken up and scattered, and the market forces of the art world almost dictate a similar fate for anything of similar stature.

It’s a pleasure to say that in American photography at least one art museum is balancing these contending forces and doing it right. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Ft. Worth, Texas has just reopened after being shut for almost two years, during which most of the facility was completely rebuilt (under the direction of Philip Johnson, who designed the original museum in 1960). Given my massive expense account, one of the many perks of writing this column, nothing would do me but to get down to the opening and check it out.

The Carter has been a major collector of American photography for many years. Its extraordinary holdings focus primarily on the American West, reflecting the museum’s roots as an institution devoted to the art of the frontier, but it has long made acquisitions designed to broaden its collection to all of America . The new building, which triples the exhibition space of the museum, also demonstrate its willingness to treat works on paper (photographs, prints, drawings, even books!) with great seriousness. These reflect the history of its collecting, which has often straddled the art/document line. The new photography galleries are possibly the most extensive devoted to American images anywhere in the country. The Carter has built both a collection of masterworks and the context to support them, in holdings of albums, archives, and photographs of less exalted status. The Timothy O’Sullivan album I sold them in 1976 was on display (nothing so exciting as seeing the old wares on exhibit), and I was pleased to see it was still an album, not sliced up to go on the walls more easily.

The Carter collections now begin with daguerreotypes (a remarkable group of most of the surviving photographic images of the Mexican War) and progress to the suite of photographs of individuals in the American West they commissioned from Richard Avedon twenty years ago. In between are classics of American landscape from Watkins, O’Sullivan, Jackson, and Hillers to Weston, Adams, and Sheeler. The documentary tradition, celebrating photography’s status as a democratic art, includes a broad range of nineteenth century images, some by unknown photographers, to the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The Carter also has strong holdings in the pictorial style, from Clarence White and Edward Curtis to the entire archive of Laura Gilpin.. All of this is well documented in the museum’s useful catalogue of its collections

Ft. Worth had changed quite a bit since I’d last spent any time there. Downtown used to be a ghost town after business hours, but the deep-pocketed Bass brothers have spent liberally to revitalize it, and there is now an assortment of music places and restaurants, as well as a few nice hotels. Callow European sophisticates may want to stay in Dallas , just over the horizon to the east, where the dining and lodging is more variegated and make a day trip to Ft. Worth . Those seeking the spirit of place, however, will be amply rewarded by barbecue at Angelo’s, one of the legendary Texas B-B-Q joints, or Tex-Mex at Joe T. Garcia’s. The Amon Carter, always known as a liberal entertainer, has introduced many of its guests to the sneaky inebriating qualities of margaritas at Joe T’s. Besides, you’ll want to keep the visit in context.

- William Reese