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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Monday, November 4, 2019

Brief History of Photography at WAM

In preparation for our upcoming exhibition--Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman--we asked WAM's Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Nancy Burns, to explain some of the background of WAM's world-class photography collection.

Honey Locust and Leaf Pod
Anna Atkins (1989.9)
The Worcester Art Museum organized its first exhibition dedicated solely to photography in 1904, in a time when the new medium had not yet become fully accepted into the domain of fine art. Few museums at the turn of the century demonstrated such a progressive approach to photography. The Museum’s founder, Stephen Salisbury III, deserves much of the credit for WAM’s early venture into photography. Salisbury was an avid collector of photography and impressed upon Museum leadership the importance of the medium nearly from the day the doors opened.

WAM acquired its first photograph, a daguerreotype—the earliest photographic process—as a gift in 1901 (Portrait of a Young Girl; 1901.1279). Six years later, the collection expanded significantly when it received a cache of 107 daguerreotypes, albumen prints, and tintypes as part of a bequest from Salisbury. Though the Museum continued to receive photographs as donations from benefactors, only one photograph had been purchased by the Museum before Stephen Jareckie was appointed as the first dedicated curator of photography in 1962. With Jareckie at the helm, the Museum began to collect aggressively.

There have only been three curators of photography in the nearly six decades since the department began: Jareckie, David Acton (now Curator of Photography at the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame), and myself. Jareckie and Acton deserve the lion’s share of praise for the Museum’s rich holdings. Between them, they acquired over 90% of the 4,000+ photographs over the course of fifty years. At present, WAM’s highly respected collection of photography spans the history of the medium, beginning with an 1840s cyanotype by British photographer Anna Atkins to a 2019 photo-relief by the Vietnamese artist Thế Sơn Nguyễn.

As the Worcester Art Museum looks toward the future of photography, we recognize a significant shift that has taken place in the past two decades. Photography is no longer solely a paper-based medium. Rather, with the advent of digital photography, it migrates instantly from screen to screen. Today, people engage with photography almost exclusively using digital platforms like tablets, cell phones, and computers. Society’s new “frames” are social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram. In fact, museums and galleries are some of the last places where one finds contemporary photographs on paper. As an encyclopedic collection, the Museum is always looking back and forward. Looking to the years ahead, WAM considers the exciting possibilities presented by photographs that exist beyond the page.

Our upcoming exhibition - PhotoRevolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman - will look at art from the 1960's 70's and 80's, including photographs, works incorporating photographs, and works inspired by photography. You can learn more about the show on our website.

Nancy Kathryn Burns
Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs
November 4, 2019

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