Photographic Study Collections Consolidated

  • Posted on Oct 04, 2010 by

The Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive consists of more than 1,000,000 reproductions of works of art of the Western tradition dating from the 4th to the mid-20th century. Although photoarchives were the foundation of art historical study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these extraordinary resources, which allow researchers to review comprehensive holdings of individual artists and regional schools, have become increasingly rare during the past decade. Because of limitations of space, staff, or funds, many photoarchives have been dismantled. Several historic research collections, however, including those of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, have been preserved in part or in their entirety at the Frick Art Reference Library. Scholars, students, dealers, and artists active in New York City now have access to a diverse collection of study photographs in one location.

The Photograph Reference Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was acquired in part by the Frick Art Reference Library in 2006, originally consisted of more than 280,000 reproductions of objects that reflected the varied collections of the museum, ranging from Egyptian monuments to Tiffany glass. This encyclopedic research tool was indispensible to the museum’s staff and visiting scholars before the increasing availability of color slides in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the decreased use of the collection, which was moved off-site in the 1980s to create additional exhibition space. In 2005, the Met’s curators selected photographs relevant to their areas of study for incorporation into their departmental libraries. The remainder of the collection was divided between the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in Rochester, New York, and the Frick Art Reference Library. As observed by Valentina Branchini, the former Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester, these institutions have used this rare resource in remarkably different ways. Capitalizing on the historic nature of the photographic and photomechanical reproductions represented in this ninety-year-old collection (i.e. focusing on the reproductive processes as opposed to content), the IPI has recontextualized the images as test cases for laboratory experiments and teaching tools for anyone interested in acquiring connoisseurship in photography, especially the characterization and identification of technology and process. The photographs acquired by the Frick Art Reference Library, however, have maintained their original function as vital documents for the study of art history.  

Richard Davis (1904-1965), “Bear” (1938), red sandstone, life-size
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art gift: Richard Davis (1904-1965), “Bear” (1938), red sandstone, life-size

The Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive’s methodology for selection was simple: reproductions that met the criteria of the Library’s collection and were listed as the property of a private collector or a little-known public collection were acquired in preference to those reproducing works in well-known public collections and famous locations (such as the Sistine Chapel). More than 6,500 photographs were selected and checked against the Library’s holdings. After duplicates were discarded, approximately 60 percent of the photographs (which include reproductions of works of art by more than 240 artists not represented previously in the archive) were cataloged and are available to the public. Thanks to the Met’s generosity, the Photoarchive not only expanded its holdings but also augmented one of its most important resources: its unparalleled record of private collections. As the foundation of the Center for the History of Collecting in America at The Frick Collection attests, the Photoarchive remains an important source for provenance information, one enhanced significantly by this gift.

Victor Vasarely (1908-1997), “Tlinko 1” (1965), painted metal, 10’ x 10’

From the MoMA gift: Victor Vasarely (1908-1997), “Tlinko 1” (1965), painted metal, 10’ x 10’

Augmenting the Photoarchive’s holdings in modern art, the Art Reference Photo Files of The Museum of Modern Art were donated to the Frick Art Reference Library in 2001. Originally a miscellaneous accumulation of unsolicited images sent to the museum or collected by the museum’s curators in the course of exhibition or acquisition research, the Reference Photo Files became an important focus for the museum’s research staff in the 1930s and 1940s. A 1944 report in The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin noted “the Library has taken great care to accumulate thousands of reproductions of modern painting, sculpture, industrial and stage design, and architecture.” This extraordinarily diverse collection eventually expanded to more than 47,000 photographs and photomechanical reproductions representing works by more than 5,500 artists, design companies, and architectural firms active in the 19th and 20th centuries. Artist names and subject headings represented in the Files are listed in the Guide to the Museum of Modern Art Reference Photo Files, which is available at the Museum of Modern Art Queens Library Archive and the Frick Art Reference Library. Records for 1,708 of the artist files may be found through Arcade and WorldCat, and records for the remaining files will be added later in the year. Like all materials preserved in the Photoarchive, researchers may access the Files for study in the Reading Room of the Frick Art Reference Library during regular hours.

Ellen Prokop, Associate Photoarchivist, Frick Art Reference Library


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