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From Long Shot to Close-Up

A brief history of the photography collection
Barbara Tannenbaum, Chair of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and Curator of Photography
March 1, 2023
Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska, 1947, printed in or before 1979. Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984). 2011.219

With more than 8,200 photographic prints, books, and videos, the photography department is the museum’s second-largest collection area, surpassed only by prints. This is surprising, given that the first photograph did not enter the art collection until 1935, the first purchase of a photograph did not occur until 1963, and the photography department was not established until 1996.

The museum hosted photography exhibitions in 1917, just one year after it opened, and 1918, but then had no shows devoted to the medium between 1919 and 1933 (although photographs were included in the annual May Shows). In late 1934, director William Milliken reinstated the photography exhibition program, organizing a show of work by seven living photographers. One was Margaret Bourke-White, who started her career in Cleveland and had moved to New York City just five years earlier. A second was Alfred Stieglitz, the most prominent American photographer of the time. Other participants included Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Cleveland native Ralph Steiner.

The 10 photographs by Stieglitz in Milliken’s exhibition became the first photographs to enter the art collection. The museum did not initiate the acquisition. Cary Ross, a young New Yorker who worked for Stieglitz as a sometime secretary, wrote Milliken to suggest that the museum buy Stieglitz’s photographs for $100 apiece. In 1936, the height of the Depression, $1,000 was two-thirds of the average man’s salary—and a breathtaking sum for ten photographs. When the museum failed to raise the money, Ross donated the funds, and photography gained its first toehold in the collection. 

Georgia O’Keeffe—Hand and Wheel 1933. Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946). Gelatin silver print; 24.2 x 19.2 cm. Gift of Cary Ross, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1935.99

Gifts continued to be crucial to the early development of the photography collection. The museum did not use its own funds to purchase a photograph until 1963, when two works were acquired from the May Show using the Wishing Well Fund. Only in 1973, when Tom Hinson became assistant curator in the department of modern art, did the CMA start to purposefully acquire photographs. That was also the decade that photography began to be widely collected by museums. Ten years later, when Evan H. Turner became director, he and Hinson made developing the collection an acquisitions focus. 

Take My Hand 2018. D’Angelo Lovell Williams (American, b. 1992). Inkjet print; 126.7 x 84.6 cm. L. E. Holden Fund, 2020.281. © D’Angelo Lovell Williams

They were able to acquire key images by pioneering figures from the 1840s through the 1860s, the earliest decades of the medium, an area that became one of the collection’s greatest strengths. The 20th century is represented by a panoply of masterworks by European and American photographers. Cleveland-specific subject matter produced by regional and national artists was and continues to be another emphasis. The space allotted to photography exhibitions, however, was usually quite small, accommodating around a dozen photos until 2009, when the 2,000-square-foot Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Galleries were completed. Of the three shows per year in that space, two are usually drawn from the collection.

Winter Trees Reflected in a Pond 1841–42. William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800–1877). Salted paper print from calotype negative; 16.4 x 19.1 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 2006.4

When I arrived at the CMA in 2011, only 14% of the 5,000 photographs in the collection had been made by women; that was true of most museum collections at the time. A total of 97% of our holdings were by White artists and only 1% by Black photographers. The contemporary art world, like the contemporary economy, is a global arena. Yet only 3% of the works had been made outside of Europe and the United States. The museum has steadily been working to diversify its collection by growing the number of works by Black artists, other people of color, women, and artists from other continents. The goal of a more representative collection is in accordance with the museum’s diversity, equity, and inclusion plan, initiated in 2018.  

I frequently hear from people in the community that the museum’s photography collection and exhibitions have an impact on their lives. One incident particularly stands out for me. The year I started at the museum, I got a call from a man informing me that his sister had died recently. Lynn Schreiber had loved coming to the museum to see photography exhibitions, and inspired by them, she purchased an Ansel Adams photograph at a local gallery. It was the only significant artwork she owned. She left it in her will to the museum to share it with others and as a thank you for the pleasure she had experienced at the CMA over the years.