Washington’s Phillips Collection and Its 20th C. Photography Collection: ‘American Moments’

Amy Henderson
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Phillips cropThe Phillips Collection is a lovely alternative to Washington, D.C.’s massive museums strung along the National Mall. Founded by Duncan Phillips in 1921, this private museum is nestled among row houses and restaurants in the vibrant Dupont Circle neighborhood. Known as America’s first museum of modern art, the Phillips today continues its founding vision to be known as an “intimate museum combined with an experiment station.” xxxxxx

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Bruce Davidson, ‘Sitting in the Back of the Bus (Brooklyn Gang series)’, 1959.Gelatin silver print, 11×14″. Gift of Saul E. Levi, 2013. All images: The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

While Duncan Phillips was primarily a collector of impressionist and modern paintings, he became interested in photography in the 1920s through his friendship with Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz convinced Phillips that photography was essential to the story of modernism, and in the 1940s Phillips began exhibiting works by Stieglitz and Louisiana photographer Clarence John Laughlin. The museum slowly continued to acquire photographs until the 1990s, when there was a burst of acquisitions: photography was becoming more prominent in the art scene, and the Phillips added a number of significant works by such notable artists as Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand. In 2006, there was an important donation of 152 photographs by Brett Weston.

But the main thrust for building a photography collection has come since 2012.  Photography is one of the museum’s fastest-growing collections, and an astonishing 70% of the Phillips’ 4,000 images has been acquired in the past three years.

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Walker Evans, ‘Landowner, Moundville, AL’, 1936. Gelatin silver print, 10×10″. The Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection, partial and promised gift of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, 2005.

The collection is now deep enough to support a showcase exhibition, and American Moments does just that. It is the first major photography exhibition of gifts drawn exclusively from the Phillips permanent collection, and includes examples of Modernist images, documentary expression, photojournalism, and street photography. There are works by such major photographers as Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Imogene Cunningham, Walker Evans, Weegee, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Aaron Siskind, and Sally Mann. According to exhibition curator Renee Maurer, “this show is our moment to show these gifts.” The strength of these images sounds the trumpet that the Phillips today is a major photography center.

Maurer grouped her selection of 130 works by 33 artists in seven categories that she believes best-illuminate the collection’s strengths: “Framing the City” includes such key works by Berenice Abbott as “New York at Night” (1931) and “Canyon: Broadway and the Exchange Place” (1936);  Margaret Bourke-White’s “Steps, Washington, DC” (1934); several by Louis Faurer, including “New York” (1939); Lewis Hine’s “Empire State Building” (1931); Paul Strand’s “New York” (1916 and 1917); Weegee’s “Top Hat, Outside the Metropolitan” (1943); and Brett Weston’s “New York, 47th Street” (c. 1940).

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Berenice Abbott, ‘Under the “El” Lower East Side, New York’, c. 1935. Gelatin silver print, 11×14″. Gift of Lisa Finn, 2012.

A section on “Labor” includes images by Esther Bubley of telephone operators at Rockefeller Center, and tenant farmers on a tobacco plantation in North Carolina; photographs by Bruce Davidson of “boomers” building the Verrazano Bridge; and LIFE photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt of girls getting “practical preparation” for employment at an Oklahoma vocational school, and models showing off summer styles in 1940.

Along with categories on “Connection,” “Separation,” “Artists Portraits,” and “Framing Nature,” there is a fascinating section depicting “Scenes from the Road.”  The road trip is part of America’s DNA, and photographs here include works by Berenice Abbott, Esther Bubley, Clarence John Laughlin, William Christenberry, Bruce Davidson, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and Alfred Eisenstaedt.

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Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp’, 1942, printed later. Gelatin silver print, 20×16″. Gift of Lisa Finn, 2012.

Curator Renee Maurer told me in an interview that defining themed categories was challenging, but that her intention was to make them elastic enough to allow natural transitions to flow among them.

The exhibition has a wonderful artifact case that well-illustrates how the technology of picture taking changed radically in the twentieth century: a cumbersome large format camera is juxtaposed next to a vintage Leica, illustrating how the introduction of small and lightweight 35-mm cameras helped usher in the age of photojournalism.

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Louis Faurer, ‘Times Square, N.Y. (Home of the Brave)’, 1950, printed 1981. Gelatin silver print, 11×14″. Gift of Steve LaMantia, 2013.

Exhibition-related events are something the Phillips specializes in, and for American Moments, programs include a lecture by photographer Bruce Davidson, a staged reading of a relevant play (Time Stands Still), a talk by a photo conservator who played a vital role in getting the photographs prepared for exhibition, and an “American Road Trip” event that offers samples of American cuisine “through a moveable feast of food trucks.”

American Moments will be on exhibit through September 13, 2015.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and critic in Washington, DC

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