Photography's Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection
“Photography’s Last Century is an indispensable addition to one’s library. The catalogue provides a tasty main course for the reader and then adds the satisfaction of a rich dessert from its probing and provocative menu of analysis and scholarship.”
It takes bold ambition to document and analyze 100 years in the history of an art form. That ambition is richly rewarded with the publication of the museum catalogue Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection.
Viewing the photographs and reading the text in this important work is akin to the experience of attending a series of brilliant and inspiring college lectures.
Photography’s Last Century provides a remarkable historical, intellectual, and aesthetic context for an exhibition of photographs organized at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that opened on March 10, 2020, and was scheduled to run through June 28, 2020. The show highlights photographs from the Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, and the book successfully sets the stage for this exhibition. The text is deftly handled by Jeff L. Rosenheim who is the Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at the museum.
With precision and historical reference, aided by an astute observer’s eye, Rosenheim shares his enthusiasm for photography as an important art medium. His contribution consists of an introduction which is followed by three chapters that are didactic and dynamic. In Part I (1910s–1930s) Rosenheim begins with a comprehensive discussion of Paul Strand’s seminal modernist image, From the Viaduct, New York, 1916. In Part II (1940s–1960s) Rosenheim brings Richard Avedon to the stage for analysis of Noto, Sicily, September 5, 1947. In Part III (1970s–2010s) the curator opens with an examination and appreciation of the haunting William Eggleston image, Memphis, 1970. From these starting points, Rosenheim weaves, with precision and scholarship, the careers of these gifted photographers into a quilt of a brilliant design. He next adds to this tapestry many of the other great names and photographs of the last 100 years.
Rosenheim’s observations and source material are meticulously researched and footnoted.
Each of the marvelous photographs that introduce the three chapters lead to a discussion of the photographer’s contemporaries and the other images of their generation, which pack an equally great photographic punch. Many of the great names are well represented here, but there are other lesser-known talents whom Rosenheim presents and appreciates. Every image in the catalogue gets a thorough description of the artist’s intent and methodology. Each of the photographs from the last 100 years speaks to the ones from prior decades while foreshadowing the future of what will emerge from generations of artists to come.
In aggregate, the photographers and photographs in the catalogue are historical and contemporary and are from American and European roots. Equal weight is given to the contributions of male and female photographers. There is also an important inclusion and discussion of the emergence of transgender artists and subjects. Emerging photographers from outside the American-European spectrum are also a significant addition to the catalogue and exhibition.
The more than 100 masterworks illustrated manifest the oeuvre that has propelled fine-art photography to its current stature and popularity. These photographers and their photographs, which Rosenheim has carefully curated, then proceed to advance and validate the photographic medium’s place in the mainstream of modern art movements.
Following his 100-year chronology over the three chapters and a brief conclusion, Rosenheim ends with a spirited and enlightening conversation with the collector, Ann Tenenbaum. It is quite interesting to examine the same photograph through two different sets of eyes and sensibilities. The museum curator analyzes the image through the lens of art history and the perspective of museum walls. The collector, on the other hand, responds viscerally and emotionally to the pictures she has gathered to display in her own home. These perspectives are equally rewarding and important to read and consider.
Tenenbaum surprises with a very open discussion of her life history that gives the reader important insights into her collector’s mind. It is revelatory to read of the magnetic pull of a particular image on her psychology and circumstances. This complex attraction leads quite often to the inclusion of a particular photograph in Ann Tenenbaum and her husband Thomas H. Lee’s expansive art collection.
There is a bounty of insights in this conversation between the collector Tenenbaum and the curator Rosenheim just as there is throughout Rosenheim’s profound and deep dive into the last 100 years of photographic history.
The design and execution of the catalogue are first rate. However, the choice of a glossier paper stock might have enhanced many of the illustrations. But in the larger context, that preference is a mere quibble about an otherwise sterling publication.
Photography’s Last Century offers a lot to lay one’s eyes upon and a lot to sink one’s teeth into throughout its concise yet encyclopedic execution.
For the photography lover, Photography’s Last Century is an indispensable addition to one’s library. The catalogue provides a tasty main course for the reader and then adds the satisfaction of a rich dessert from its probing and provocative menu of analysis and scholarship.