Photography has undergone a dramatic evolution over the last 200 years. What was once a laborious process requiring metal plates and special chemicals is now just a button you push on a smartphone. Getty’s vast collection of photographs spans the entirety of that history.
So, we invited our social media followers to ask the curators in the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs—Paul Martineau, Carolyn Peter, and Karen Hellman—their burning questions about Getty’s vast collection of photographs.
What’s the most popular photo in the collection?
One of the most popular photographs is Pearblossom Highway by David Hockney (featured above). What first strikes visitors about this particular photograph is its size: 6 1/2 feet by 9 feet. Look closely and you’ll see that it is not just one photograph but a mosaic of 750 color photographs taken by photographer David Hockney over a nine-day period in 1986.
This collage is also an important part of Los Angeles and Getty history. Hockney’s original intention was to keep the photograph for himself. But he agreed to sell it to the then-brand-new Getty Museum because of its state-of-the-art conservation facilities.
How many photographs are in Getty’s collection?
There are over 140,000 objects in the collection. The number is always changing as we acquire new works by purchase or by gift.
What is the oldest photograph in your possession?
We also have examples of pre-photographic works that were made using optical devices such as Sir John Herschel’s 1821 camera lucida drawings.
While not the oldest, perhaps the most stunning example of early photography is the still life by Baron Seguier (below). Created between 1839 and 1842, it is a full plate daguerreotype of an arrangement of plaster casts. It was purchased at auction (through an intermediary) in 2002.
What photography shows are in the works?
Currently on view is Photo Flux: Unshuttering L.A., curated by Los Angeles-based jill moniz. In June we open three shows in the Center for Photographs: Mario Giacomelli: Figure-Ground, The Expanded Landscape, and In Focus: Protest.
What is the best way to keep important family photos in good condition at home?
It’s best to keep them out of direct light. If you put them in an album, mount them on acid-free paper and if possible use photo corners so you can easily remove them in the future. If you’re framing works, be sure to use archival quality mat boards and consider covering with UV plexiglass.
What was the first aerial photo?
Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, a Frenchman known as Nadar, was probably the first photographer to make aerial photographs. He went up in a hot air balloon over Paris in the late 1850s. Getty doesn’t have any of his aerial photographs, but we do have two cartes-de-visite of Nadar posing (on the ground) in a staged version of a hot air balloon.
When works are acquired, do you get the negatives too? Or just the prints?
We don’t tend to acquire negatives, but we do have some amazing examples of early paper negatives such as William Henry Fox Talbot’s Erica Mutabilis, Charles Negre’s ca. 1849 Plaster of Venice de Milo, and Henri Le Secq’s 1852 South Porch, Central Portal, Chartres Cathedral.
I am wondering how Polaroid photos are preserved. How do you stop the decay in chemicals?
We keep color photographs in cold storage when they are not on display. The lower temperatures help keep the dyes stable.
Have you ever set up an exhibition with audio described photographs and tactile diagrams for blind and visually impaired visitors?
Not yet, but that is an excellent question. In audio guides we try to include some description of the work but not specifically designed for the visually impaired. That would be a great addition to explore.
Why was photography not considered art early on?
Some people thought of photography as a form of mechanical reproduction, rather than as a tool for artistic expression. The difference between a driver’s license photograph and a portrait by Richard Avedon or Julia Margaret Cameron should make the difference clear.
What’s the difference between photos at the museum and the Getty Research Institute (GRI)?
A very general distinction is that the Museum holds and collects photographs more traditionally categorized as art photographs, with several works by some of the names discussed in photography history books, but there are in fact many works by unknown makers, commercial photographers, scientists, and anthropologists, not just by artists. The GRI holds and collects larger archives of photographs with the aim of providing resources to scholars conducting research in a variety of disciplines.
Though they are distinct collections, there are actually very similar photographs, and some of the same makers are held in both the Museum and GRI, which speaks to photography’s elasticity as a medium.
Who is your favorite underrated photographer?
Hippolyte Bayard was one of the inventors of photography. He came up with several new processes. If he is known, it is for his direct positive process. His accomplishments were overshadowed by his fellow Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who was backed by the French Academy of Sciences and the French government, as well as by British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. But Bayard was probably the first photographer to make a series of self-portraits. His artistic eye and sense of humor come through in his images. Getty has an album filled with more than 120 photographs by Bayard from the 1840s.
An underrated nature photographer in the collection is Eliot Porter. Porter created a large body of work in color of landscapes and birds and documented over 6,000 different species. Porter was a master printmaker and used the complex dye transfer process to create highly saturated color prints.
Who are some of the photographers in Getty’s collection?