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Don’t miss the Library exhibition! Through January 2, 2011

To call back to mind; recall; remember.
To collect, gather, or assemble again (something scattered).

H originally conceived of Recollection as a counterpart to the 1981 exhibition 96 Images: From Talbot to Stieglitz, which was the debut presentation of the Library’s then newly formed photography division. The exhibition, organized by Julia Van Haaften, appropriately focused on photographic treasures — mostly from the nineteenth century — that recently had been brought to light through her efforts to identify, relocate, and thus preserve many of the original photographs hidden in various divisions of the Library (see “A Brief History of the Collection”). Many people still associate the Photography Collection with the photographs that were featured in that exhibition and its accompanying catalog, From Talbot to Stieglitz: Masterpieces of Early Photography from The New York Public Library. Gene Thornton noted in his December 20, 1981 review in The New York Times that the exhibition did not contain many portraits, which was true, at least in the traditional sense of that term, because of the nature of the collections that Van Haaften first identified. It seemed to make sense, then, to focus the current exhibition (only the second retrospective in the thirty-year history of the Photography Collection) on twentieth-century portraits in order to highlight some “new” treasures, most of which have never been exhibited before at the Library.

As I began going through thousands of photographs, I also had in mind another photographic milestone of 1981, Douglas Crimp’s influential essay “The Museum’s Old, The Library’s New Subject,” published in that spring’s issue of the contemporary art magazine Parachute. Crimp’s essay is a meditation on the end of modernism, turning, in part, on the creation of the Library’s photography collection. Modernism’s demise, according to Crimp, began with the entrance of photography into museums and culminated with what he interpreted as the transfer of photographs from their prior subject-based categorization in various divisions of libraries to new art divisions where they were classified primarily by artist. In reality, of course, cataloging information was expanded for these materials even if their point of access changed. If Crimp oversimplified this process in the service of a critical point of view, he nevertheless proved to be one of the most important voices of his time in articulating the resistance that attended the institutional construction of photography’s history along modernist lines. From the vantage point of 2010, it is difficult to reconcile such a conflict with photography’s current pervasiveness in contemporary art. Most young practitioners and students of art today have difficulty imagining a time when photography was not already considered an independent art. Nevertheless, the rise of photography fed directly into the postmodern use and abuse of images, not to mention the lukewarm reception of reviewers like Gene Thornton, who felt that interest in photography was “beginning to be overdone” by the time it made its official debut at The New York Public Library in 1981. As we know now, of course, photography was instead just beginning to be seen.

Recollection, then, is not only an attempt to show another, perhaps less well-known side of the Photography Collection, but is meant also as an homage to the first crucial recollection, as it were, of photographs at the Library thirty years ago. I have gathered together these photographs under the broad subject of portraiture in order to celebrate their diverse origins, as well as their shared destiny. This destiny has more to do with photography itself than with how, or where, such images are cataloged or described, which is increasingly true in the age of digital access. I think Cartier-Bresson had something close to this shared destiny in mind when he described portraits as “visual reverberations.” Photographs remind us and make us remember. Photographs recall things, and recall one another. Photographs are collected, scattered, and recollected again.

Stephen C. Pinson
Assistant Director and The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Librarian for Art, Prints and
Photographs, and The Robert B. Menschel Curator of Photography
László Moholy-Nagy

"Colossal Sculptures at Philæ." From Francis Frith's Upper Egypt and Ethiopia. London: W. Mackenzie, ca. 1862. The photograph was featured in the Library's 1981 exhibition 96 Images: From Talbot to Stieglitz. NYPL, Wallach Division, Photography Collection.
Digital ID 76461.
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