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The Phillips Collection opens its summer exhibition highlighting recent gifts
Berenice Abbott , Under the “El” Lower East Side, New York , c. 1935. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Lisa Finn, 2012. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON, DC.- In celebration of recent major gifts, this summer The Phillips Collection presents for the first time a major photography exhibition drawn exclusively from the museum’s permanent collection. American Moments: Photographs from The Phillips Collection features more than 130 photographs that evoke a sense of time, place, and experience. More than 30 renowned artists are represented in the exhibition, including Esther Bubley, Bruce Davidson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Louis Faurer, Joel Meyerowitz, and Arnold Newman. On view June 6 through September 13, 2015, American Moments showcases the strength and variety of the museum’s fast-growing photography collection through a selection of mid-20th-century images of American subjects, many on view at the Phillips for the first time.

Recent gifts to the museum, which include Modernist work and street photography, documentary expression, and photojournalism guide the broad themes of this exhibition. The city became one of America’s most potent symbols after World War I, and photographs by Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Lewis Hine, Clarence John Laughlin, and Paul Strand, among others, capture its sense of wonder. Their abstractions of buildings and machinery—tightly cropped compositions taken at unconventional angles—evoke signs of invention and industry. Abbott documented the transformation of New York City into a modern urban center with impressive photographs of the skyscrapers that replaced older buildings. These photographs, featured in her book Changing New York (1939), show Abbott favoring a dynamic style of strong contrasts and dramatic views. Louis Faurer’s bustling street scenes and crowded spaces lit by movie marquees offer a different point of view, capturing the energy and nightlife of Times Square. Nearby galleries explore the expressive potential of land and nature; an inspiration to many of the great modernist photographers including Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Alfred Stieglitz, Brett Weston, and Edward Weston.

Photographs of urban and rural scenes taken on travels across America for the federal government, as magazine commissions, and as private work are highlighted in this exhibition. Sent to the field to frame images of middle-class life during and after World War II, Bubley, drawn to the world of the everyday, responded with photographs of women at work and boarding house life in Washington, DC, and Northern Virginia. Documentary photographers Jack Delano, Walker Evans, and Life magazine contributor Alfred Eisenstaedt also recorded the changing face of the workforce during this time.

Traveling along Route 1, Abbott took photos from Maine to Florida, expertly capturing the essence of small-town America, while William Christenberry, Bruce Davidson, Eisenstaedt, and Lee Friedlander transformed vernacular subjects into engaging social commentaries. Also on the road, Bubley detailed American bus travel, which had dramatically increased during and after the war, while Davidson and Faurer captured a postwar society on the move in buses, cars, and on subways.

Portraits by Arnold Newman offer a glimpse into the character of the artist. Other photographs show intimate scenes of familial connection inspired by the snapshot and moving images that broadly consider issues of identity, representation, and memory such as those in Davidson’s East 100th Street series.

“These new additions by seminal American artists greatly enhance the Phillips’s photography collection,” says exhibition curator Renée Maurer. “They distill key narratives taken during a time of immense change and transformation in the United States.”

Although a passionate collector of painting, Duncan Phillips became increasingly interested in the creative possibilities of photography, expressing his belief by the mid-1920s that photography was important for a museum devoted to Modern art. For Phillips, Alfred Stieglitz revolutionized photography with his artist’s sensibility and perception. In 1935, Phillips wrote, “Stieglitz has made the technique of photography not merely self-controlled but sensitive and intensely emotional.” This appreciation led Phillips to begin collecting photographs during the 1940s including 27 works by Clarence John Laughlin and 19 of Stieglitz’s Equivalents, given to the museum in 1949 by Georgia O’Keeffe. In the 1940s Phillips inaugurated a series of photography exhibitions at the museum, including one of Laughlin’s first solo museum shows. Before his death in 1966, Phillips, who knew and admired the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, made certain to acquire a number of his photographs in addition to organizing a solo show of the artist’s work at the museum.

“Although Duncan Phillips never made photography a primary focus of his collecting, he recognized its importance to his museum endeavor and to our understanding of Modernism,” says Associate Curator for Research Susan Behrends Frank. “The photographs in American Moments emphasize qualities that Phillips always championed—the artist’s personal vision and the universality of the human condition.”

The Phillips’s photography collection has continued to develop and is now the museum’s fastest growing area of acquisition. Approximately 1,000 examples comprise the collection—black-and-white and color photographs—94 percent of which have been gifts to the Phillips. Works by American photographers make up 84 percent of this total collection, and more than 50 percent of those images have been gifted in the last five years. American Moments presents an unparalleled opportunity to exhibit a selection of these iconic images of American life while highlighting the breadth and depth of this important collection.

“The Phillips has grown and shaped the photography collection through gifts, especially in the last five years when the collection has doubled in size,” says Director Dorothy Kosinski. “Of the more than 130 photographs on view in American Moments, nearly 70 percent have come into the collection since 2012. We are thrilled to share these recent gifts as evidence of the museum’s continuation of Duncan Phillips’s taste and his enthusiasm for American artists.”

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