In 1969, after serving as a medic in the Vietnam War, Anthony Hernandez began roaming the inner-city neighborhoods of his native Los Angeles with a 35-millimeter Nikon in hand, looking to capture aspects of L.A.’s distinct urban landscape. A brief encounter with a camera-shy man distributing religious flyers yielded a successful “photographic moment,” according to Hernandez, and helped to launch his long career as a street photographer.
Acquired by the Getty Museum in 2005, the intriguing Los Angeles #1 is a fitting emblem for Unseen: 35 Years of Collecting Photographs, an exhibition entirely comprised of previously unexhibited photographs from the Getty Museum’s large permanent collection. Selected by the seven curators who oversee the Department of Photographs—and spanning the history of the medium from its early years to the present day—Unseen highlights visual associations between photographs from different times and places, encouraging its visitors to make fresh discoveries.
Hernandez’s work hangs alongside Carrie Mae Weems’s See No Evil, a large-format Polaroid dye-diffusion print, and one of her first photographs in color. Through her contemporary staging of a familiar pictorial trope, Weems creates a powerfully charged image that invites viewers to contemplate issues around race and the marginalization of African Americans—issues that have profoundly inspired Weems throughout her career. In a Q & A with Dawoud Bey, one of her first teachers at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Weems said, “It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility, [and that] this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time is the greatest source of my longing.”
Dawoud Bey’s work also appears in Unseen, in a gallery devoted to newly acquired photographs that highlight the department’s new collecting initiatives. Our priorities include adding works that grapple with concerns crucial to Southern California communities, and strengthening diversity both in front of and behind the camera.
Like Weems, Bey benefited from the Polaroid Corporation’s Artist Support Program, which for many years provided equipment and materials to photographers and educators. From 1988 to 1991 he used a large format Polaroid camera to create a remarkable series of sidewalk portraits. He chose Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film, which instantaneously produced both a photographic print he could give to the subject and a detailed 4 x 5 inch negative, from which he could make enlargements. “These formal but casual street portraits became a space for the black subjects to assert themselves and their presence in the world—with their gaze meeting the viewer’s on an equal footing,” Bey said of this work.
We devoted another Unseen gallery to photographs that entered the collection when the Department of Photography was established in 1984. Some of these first acquisitions have remained not only unseen, but also uncatalogued—they were virtually unknown, even to members of the curatorial staff. This gallery was inspired by the many exciting works discovered by a dedicated team of cataloguers updating records per the Museum Digitization Project, launched in 2015 to make the Museum’s photography holdings fully accessible online. The team has been particularly engaged in cataloging hundreds of photograph albums derived from the large collections of Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., and Arnold Crane that formed a significant core of the department’s initial holdings.
One of the most extraordinary albums from the Wagstaff collection is a case book documenting the residents of a Walton-on-Thames, England, refuge for orphaned boys dating from the mid-1850s. The book contains portraits alongside written descriptions of each sitter’s background, plus periodic updates of his later activities. William Ford, for instance, arrived at the facility on June 2, 1855, and was identified as a 14-year-old orphan who “reads well, writes imperfectly, [is] quick & intelligent, small + delicate health. Picked up his living in the street of late.” A subsequent entry notes that Ford sailed from London for a new life in Toronto, Canada, in April 1857, but that his conduct during the trip was “not commendable”: he had gambled some of his clothing away during the voyage.
Reflecting the opposite end of the social spectrum, a unique album of photocollages from the Crane collection contains elaborate concoctions of cut photographs and illustrations depicting droll scenes of bourgeois life in Victorian England. Assembling photocollage albums was a favorite pastime of aristocratic women in Great Britain during the late 19th century, providing a creative outlet for their artistry and humor. This album offers an exceptional window into the inventiveness of this genre.
The celebrated documentary photographer Dorothea Lange famously stated that “the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” She is best known for powerful work carried out for the U.S. government during the Great Depression, photographs that captured, with profound empathy, the extreme hardships experienced by the most poverty-stricken Americans. In October of 1938 her travels across agricultural regions turned to dust brought her to a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. There, her encounter with a funeral procession yielded Funeral Cortege, an image that remains one of the most haunting emblems of the era. The photograph was given to the Museum in 2016 by local collectors Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, generous supporters of the Getty’s photography department for many years.
The technical, stylistic, and conceptual breadth of the modern photographic medium becomes clear through the exhibition’s pairing of Lange’s classic Funeral Cortege with An Idea, an avant-garde work created by Japanese painter-photographer Osamu Shiihara in 1937. Although a cache of Japanese photographs arrived with the Wagstaff collection in 1984, the department did not launch a concerted effort to expand its holdings and organize exhibitions in this area until the mid-2000s. Our commitment to adding important Japanese photographs continues, and we recently acquired 43 works from Shiihara’s estate that provide us with a comprehensive representation of his fascinating oeuvre.
The Getty also recently acquired the collection of Japanese American photographs formed over many years by Dennis Reed, a local artist, educator, writer, and curator. Most of these works were created between 1919 and the 1940s by artists affiliated with camera clubs on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Although they published and exhibited widely between the two world wars, if not for the work of Reed, these artists might easily have been forgotten after the United States entered World War II. Indeed, many of their prints were lost or destroyed during the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946.
But new acquisitions lead to new and sometimes surprising opportunities to weave together disparate threads in the history of photography. And with a fortuitous juxtaposition—Harry Kinzi Shigeta’s Fresnel Lenses from the Reed collection with a salted-paper print of a similar glass disc, displayed in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851—this small selection from Unseen comes full circle.
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