For the photographic medium, the era between the first and second World Wars was a period of great freedom and experimentation. The release of the Leica in 1925 got cameras off of heavy tripods and into the hands of photographers. Enlargers and photo papers that were simple to use also democratized the medium, ushering in a period of exploration. The photographic prints produced by photographers between the wars are at the center of a new digital archive, book and exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art.
“Object: Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949,” a collaboration between the museum’s photography and conservation departments, is a deep investigation of 341 prints by more than 150 artists—most of them European—collected by German photographer Thomas Walther and acquired by MoMA in 2001. Walther, who moved to the U.S. in 1977 and was a member of the museum’s committee on photography, focused his collection on early modern, avant-garde photographs. The acquisition of his collection filled a gap in MoMA’s photography holdings. Four years ago, the museum launched a major, cross-disciplinary investigation of the prints, which brought together experts from various fields to conduct what are essentially close readings of the images, with special focus on materiality and provenance.
The brilliant and fascinating collection highlights a period of innovation that the curators argue, in an introduction to the project, was the “second moment of growth” for the medium, after its invention. New, accessible photographic tools, writes MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry, gave photographers of the time “freedom to flip, invert, and recombine images, freedom to concoct new processing and printing techniques and to photograph anything from any point of view.” Sound familiar? —Conor Risch
“Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949” runs through April 19, 2015 at MoMA. Object: Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909-1949 by Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, Maria Morris Mambourg et al., a 400-page, 615 image companion to the exhibition, is also available.