Some of the most enduring and powerful photographs of the 20th century, from Edward Steichen’s Gloria Swanson (1924) and André Kertész’s Chez Mondrian, Paris (1926) to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) will be on view together for the first time in the United States at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), in Viewpoints: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection. Featuring 150 prints from the Howard Greenberg Collection of Photographs—446 works recently acquired by the MFA—this exhibition showcases the breadth of the collection. Included are defining images from the 20th century made by many of the era’s most notable photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Gordon Parks and Robert Frank. The selection of highlights chosen for the exhibition reveals photography’s transformative power and examines its role in contributing to collective memories, celebrating the medium as an art form as well as a cultural, political and social force. In addition to exploring the historical importance of the photographs on view, Viewpoints highlights the material properties of these exceptional prints—many the first print of the image, the only print, or the best existing example. On view now through December 15, 2019 in the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery, the exhibition features a video interview with Greenberg and is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue produced by MFA Publications.
“I am truly thrilled and delighted to have the MFA as the recipient of my personal collection of photographs,” said Greenberg. “Assembled over 35 years and reflecting the unique access I’ve had to so many treasures of 20th-century photography, the collection will be in a perfect resting place at the MFA. The Museum’s enthusiasm for the results of my efforts has been unrelenting. The collection will be married to what is already a world-class museum collection, formed expertly and intently over a long period of time.”
A passionate and discerning pillar in the field, Greenberg above all is a connoisseur. His own experience as a photographer and his early initiation into the world of the darkroom informs his recognition and appreciation of technical mastery, as well as his keen visual sense. Greenberg’s collection is closely related to his professional and personal relationships, which have allowed him special access to photographers’ archives and estates. He has played a key role in establishing the reputations of photographers whose technical and aesthetic contributions had previously been overlooked—including Louis Faurer, David Heath, Leon Levinstein, Saul Leiter and many others. Greenberg’s passion, sense of marvel and excitement of discovery are perhaps what most connect him to the photographs he chose to live with—expressive pictures that invite contemplation. For him, even the most seemingly straightforward photograph, through its composition, print quality and ability to evoke emotion, can transport the viewer to another place somewhere between the real and the abstract. This deeply personal and emotional connection with the objects adds a layer of humanity, intimacy, compassion and empathy to the collection, demonstrating his deep devotion, both personal and professional, to the field of photography.
“We are thrilled to be celebrating our acquisition of this unparalleled collection, which could not have been created by a collector other than Howard Greenberg,” said Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs. “It is a result of Howard’s role in the field of photography and his constant search for the transcendental moments found within this magical medium.”
Beginning with a selection of Greenberg’s particular favorites, photographs in Viewpoints are divided into seven themes: Capturing Modernism; Picturing the City; Conflicts and Crises; Bearing Witness; Fleeting Moments; Defining Portraits; and Music, Fashion and Celebrity. Below is a selection of highlights from the exhibition, accompanied by Greenberg’s own words about each print:
- Described by Greenberg as one of his “holy grail” photographs—and critical in his development as a collector—Consuelo Kanaga’s Young Girl in Profile (1948). This extraordinary print reveals her ability to make a portrait that conveys a person’s inner beauty, nobility and grace. Greenberg first encountered the image in 1984 when gathering work for an exhibition about the Photo League, ultimately borrowing the photograph from Lee Male of Ledel Gallery, who had a small print of the picture on consignment. “I began to fall in love with it and become obsessed. I begged her to ask the owner to sell it to me but he wouldn’t.” Eighteen years later, he received a call from a friend and gallery owner looking to sell none other than a print of the Kanaga image, previously owned by a woman who had known the artist.
- Mounted and signed, Edward Weston’s portrait of Mexican poet and painter Carmen Mondragón, Nahui Olin (1923) (meaning “four movements of the sun”). Weston tightly framed her head, resulting in an intense psychological study of her face and character. “It’s a famous portrait that has been published many times, but I had never seen a palladium print nor any print that looked like this. There is a reddish tinge around it … I always liked to think that somehow some of the clay of Mexico was rubbed into the surface of the print.”
- Edward Steichen’s Three Pears and an Apple, France (about 1921), made after the end of World War I when he retreated to the French countryside and devoted himself to experimenting with photography. “Steichen exposed the negative over a period of 36 hours, and everything, the pears and apple, the negative material, all swelled and contracted with the changes of temperature, affecting the focus. In awe, I salute Steichen’s unique talent by calling him an ‘alchemist.’” Another highlight of Steichen’s work in the exhibition is Gloria Swanson (1924).
- Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), Dorothea Lange’stightly-framed, compassionate portrayal of the “hungry and desperate mother,” as the photographer has described her, at a pea-pickers camp on the Southern California coast. The image went on to be the most requested image at the Library of Congress and a recognized icon of the turmoil of the Great Depression. Lange intentionally removed the subject’s left thumb from the negative after 1939, which helps to date physical prints such as this one, which has a ghost thumb still visible in the lower right-hand corner.
- Known for his harmonious images of seized instants, Henri Cartier-Bresson was often influenced by Surrealist ideas regarding the unconscious; Madrid, Spain (1933) shows his sharp eye for spatial composition and fortuitous encounters. When he purchased the print, Greenberg did not think it was made in 1933 when the picture was taken: “But I didn’t care, it was very special, unusual print … so I bought it for myself.” In a visit to his gallery years later, Cartier-Bresson’s wife Martine Frank remarked, “You know Howard, I think this is one of his scrapbook prints … I have the feeling that it is the first print of the picture he ever made.” She later confirmed that it was indeed the first print he made of the picture.
- Powerhouse Mechanic (1924), one of Lewis W. Hine’s “worker portraits” that portrayed the human presence in modern industries. Through its formal construction and celebration of machinery and labor, the photograph has become emblematic of the industrial age. “My grandfather was a union organizer in the 30s, so I have that in my DNA a little bit, but Hine’s photo is not only a political picture for me. It is simply beautiful in every way. And it came to me in a beautiful way, as well.”
Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s Fog (about 1955). “This is a graphically radical photograph … When looking closely at the dark forms of the window and shade, contrasted with the white outside, the tricycle slowly reveals itself. It almost
appears alive. The transformation occurs while you are looking at it and from the first moment you see the tricycle, and faint signs of the house in the background, you see the magic. Few photographs have this special quality.”
- W. Eugene’s Smith’s Thelonious Monk (1959), an evocative portrait of one of the many jazz musicians he photographed, which was used on the cover of his album Monk in 1964. “I find great synergy between photography and rhythm and blues and jazz—they overlap in certain ways … Smith’s style was to make things dark and dramatic and when I saw this print, my knees shook. There is no way to describe it, you have to see it. It is transcendent.”
- Combining the animated geometry of the city with tender human interaction is Walker Evans’s Couple at Coney Island (1928). “This was an interesting picture for me because Evans is mostly known for his later, formalist photographs, works of wonderful precision and balance. That formal point of view was in part imposed by the nature of the large-format camera that he worked with. In the beginning, however, during the late twenties when this picture was taken, he was using a smaller, handheld camera … For many years I had this hanging at home next to the front door. Every day I would look at this picture—a couple delightfully dressed for a day in the park. I like pictures of people who like each other. I’m a romantic.”
- For Greenberg, André Kertész’s Chez Mondrian, Paris (1926) is “the perfect expression of the perfect photograph.” Kertész often made small prints on “carte postale” photographic paper that was intended for postcards; these are considered to be the artist’s finest prints, however this one is truly unique. The corners are slightly rounded because Kertész is said to have carried it around in his shirt pocket while trying to sell it.
- Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Pioneer with a Bugle (1930) displays the artist’s bold, graphic sensibility. With his diagonal compositions and radical foreshortening, Rodchenko—a Russian Constructivist committed to abstraction—added dynamic elements to his photography, paintings and graphic designs. This contact print made by the artist mounted on a card adds to its history and uniqueness.
- Co-founder of the New York Photo League, Sid Grossman sought to shift the role of documentary photography toward a more personal form of expression. A dynamic and joyous image, Coney Island (Couple Embracing) (1947) is a tightly-cropped photograph that transmits a feeling of post-war optimism. “I grew up two or three miles from Coney Island and on the weekends we’d go there … I love Sid’s photograph, it captures everything. It captures the joy. It captures the human compassion. The love and acceptance in the closeness of the people in the picture is very important to me. I know what that looked like from my own experience of Coney Island as a child.”
- Deeply influenced by his classes at the Photo League, Leon Levinstein took unsentimental photographs of city dwellers, graphically playing with lights and darks. In Handball Players, Houston Street, New York (1955), he transforms a court into a dynamic rhythmic dance, revealing raw and energetic gestures and textures of urban practices. “I have never seen a photographer, even to this day, who made the kind of pictures that he made where the human being becomes so distorted, so elongated or compressed. And he did this without resorting to any optical tricks. This picture was taken with a Rolleiflex camera and a normal lens. Leon knew how to get what he wanted.” For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org