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Metropolitan Photography Hidden Gems (150,000 of Them)

By WILLIAM MEYERS August 24, 2006 found at


Perfect Documents Best $5.04! 
metropolitan photography

The Photograph Study Collection

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

The Photograph Study Collection consists of more than 120,000 photographs dedicated to the arts of Africa, the Pacific Islands, and native and Precolumbian America. Both nineteenth- and twentieth-century images are included; among them are photographs showing the cultural context of art and photographs of individual works in public and private collections.

The Metropolitan  Photograph Study Collection is open to the public. Advance appointments are needed to view fragile materials and special collections.

1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street 
Hours: Tuesday–Friday 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
(closed August)
Telephone: 212-650-2823
Fax: 212-396-5039

It's hard to review an exhibition of 150,000 items. But visitors who enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Fifth Avenue, turn left past the Brobdingnagian flower vases in the Great Hall, pass through the impressive white musculature in the Greek gallery, take an elevator to the mezzanine, and navigate through a series of corridors with Sheetrock walls screening off construction projects, will arrive at an oasis of quiet, the Robert Goldwater Library, that houses the Photograph Study Collection of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. About the only photograph on display is a portrait of Goldwater, but there are treasures in the filing cabinets and storage drawers, and they are available to the public.

Robert Goldwater (1907–73) was an art historian who headed the Museum of Primitive Art. The museum, which between 1957 and 1974 was located in two townhouses on West 54th Street, was one of the first to display artifacts such as masks, statues, ceremonial drums, and fetishes as "works of art," and Goldwater was an important interpreter of them. The Photograph Study Collection was begun there and transferred to the Metropolitan when Nelson Rockefeller, who had founded the Museum of Primitive Art, offered it to the larger institution. Virginia-Lee Webb, the current research curator, tends the collection, as she has for 30-odd years.

The Photograph Study Collection was established as a research center for art historians and ethnologists. It includes original prints from the 19th through the 21st centuries, negatives, copies of prints in other collections, books, and reference works, and can provide access to material at other institutions. Today the collection is also an important resource for artists interested in indigenous arts. And it serves as well the curious, like me, who just happen to wander in.The experience of looking at photographs at a table in the room reserved for the library's visitors is quite different from seeing them hanging on a wall in a public gallery. There is a sense of intimacy that comes with being able to handle the objects and scrutinize them at great leisure — from being pretty much alone with them.

As an introduction to the collection, Ms. Webb brought me some of her favorite photographs, along with a pair of the disposable white cotton gloves that are to handlers of vintage photographs what disposable latex gloves are to food preparers. The first was a picture of Antsahatsiroa, Madagascar, (1862–65), taken by William Ellis, an albumen print from a collodion negative, 7 1/2 inches by 6 1/2 inches. Ellis was a British missionary who was taught photography by Roger Fenton, one of its most important practitioners in mid-19th century England. The collodion negative was state-of-theart technology that in conjunction with the albumen print produced a warm, sepia-toned image, rich in detail and the illusion of depth. The print is mounted in a heavy mat; the top corners are rounded, a Victorian touch.

Antsahatsiroa is situated on a hill: The top half of the photograph is taken up with structures built in a set style, the lower half with a crowd of natives distributed on a series of terraces. Poring over the picture, I noticed many details: the steeply sloped roofs with their front and back frames extending upward to form Xs, the second-floor balconies that surround the larger buildings and are typical of French colonial architecture, and the immobile figures wrapped in white, gray, and black robes, their heads featureless globes dotting the hillside.To me it is a work of considerable charm, touched with the romance of distant places and times. And an ethnographer might see even more.

Next to be placed in front of me was a selection of prints from the 477 images Walker Evans took in 1935 to document an exhibition of African sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Evans must have had a great deal of feeling for these objects because he was able to invest them with considerable personality. The item with library catalog number 1978.412.2145 is the head of an ancestral figure from the Fang people in Gabon, a gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 inches by 5 7/8 inches, mounted on dark tan paper and kept in a plastic sleeve. The light Evans played on the shiny forehead, nose, and chin of this sculpture, and his tight cropping, give a sense of the original, which is also at the Met. In 2000, 50 of Evans's photographs got the attention they deserve when they were displayed at the Museum in "Perfect Documents : Walker Evans and African Art."

Evans's study of the Fang head and Ellis's picture of Antsahatsiroa are examples of the two main types of images in the Photograph Study Collection: that is, either objects seen as works of art or location shots of the indigenous makers of these objects. There are also series of pictures in which craftsmen are shown making an object; the object is then seen in its native context, and finally in isolation, or even in the museum. And Evans is not the only famous photographer with work in the collection. There is a picture of a figure from a Papuan housepost that Man Ray took around 1929. There are pictures of many different African peoples by Eliot Elisofon, an artist well-known to subscribers of Life magazine in its heyday. And there are portraits by African commercial photographers like Seydou Keïta of Mali who are just now coming to be appreciated in their own right.

But the pride of the collection is its extensive holdings by great ethnographic photographers: Philip Dark's work on Benin art from western Africa and on the Kilenge, a people who live on the western end of the island of New Britain; Tobias Schneebaum's studies of the Osmat people of New Guinea; Anthony Fordge's work, also of New Guinea; Paul Wirz's, again New Guinea; Paul Gebauer's record of Cameroon; Martin Chombi's Machu Picchu in Peru.The Getty Grant Foundation has provided funds to digitalize much of the collection: By the end of 2007, Ms. Webb expects 60,000 images will be available on line.

Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m., closed Mondays, holidays, and August (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, 212-879-5500).

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