Unseen Photography at the Getty

Alison Rossiter, Gevaert Gevaluxe Velours, Exact Expiration Date Unknown, ca. 1930s, Processed 2014, 2014
In 1984 the J. Paul Getty Museum moved into photography with the near-simultaneous, secretly negotiated purchase of 16 private collections. With over 40,000 images, the bold stroke instantly established the Getty as the Louvre of photography. In director John Walsh's words, it cost "less than the price of a moderately good C├ęzanne still life."

"Unseen: 35 Years of Collecting Photographs" marks the collection's 35th anniversary with a selection of works that have never been shown before (not at the Getty, anyway).  It throws in a few famous images, such as William Eggleston's Dolls on Cadillac, Memphis and Laura Aguilar's Three Eagles Flying. Mainly it's a selection of works that will be new even to the well-schooled, and there are many new acquisitions.
William Eggleston, Dolls on Cadillac, Memphis, 1972. (c) Eggleston Artistic Trust
Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, 1990. (c) Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. The Getty acquired 35 Aguilar photographs in 2019.
The biggest of the 16 founding collections was that of Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe's mentor and boyfriend, whose life is now the stuff of biopics. Not so well known is Arnold Crane, a Chicago personal injury attorney. Crane had wanted to be a photojournalist but bowed to family pressure to study law. He shaved his head to look more intimidating to juries and wore hippie beads. In the 1960s Crane began collecting. His m.o. was to look up aging photographers, ply them with praise, and offer to buy their unsold work directly. In this way he acquired large groups of prints by Man Ray and Walker Evans.
Walker Evans, Two Giraffes, Circus Winter Quarters, Sarasota, 1941. (c) Walker Evans Archives, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The print is owned by the Getty and was acquired as part of the Arnold Crane collection.
The Getty sent New York dealer Daniel Wolf around the globe to stake out smaller sets of photographs. One stop was North Bennington, Vermont. Attorney Trenor William Park (1823–1882) had acquired a trove of Carleton Watkins photographs while living in California. Park then returned to his native Vermont. His Victorian home, the Park-McCullough House, eventually became a house-museum of local history. The Watkins photographs were still there and didn't fit the Vermont focus. The Getty bought them before it was even known to be collecting photography.
Carleton Watkins, Guadalupe Mill, 1860. Purchased from Trenor Park's collection at Park-McCullough House, Bennington, Vermont
Since 1984 the Getty's photography collection has expanded geographically, chronologically, and culturally. It now includes contemporary work and is increasingly global, with 148,000 works overall. That's half again bigger than the photo collections of the Museum of Modern Art (25,000 images) and Metropolitan Museum (75,000) put together.

The numbers imply that the Getty has been adding something like an average of 3000 photographs a year, post the 1984 blitz. In comparison the Getty Center's photography exhibitions show something like a thousand images a year, and many are loans. At this rate most of the photographs acquired can never be shown in a Getty exhibition.
As one wall graphic makes clear, the collection's future is (partly) digital. A Museum Digitization Project inaugurated in 2019 has now digitized 41,000 photographs. The goal is to have the entire collection online in the not-too-distant future. (Each dot represents 100 images.)
Sharon Core, Early American, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg, 2007
Veronika Kellndorfer, Succulent Screen, 2007

Sam Wagstaff understood the power of photos created for legal, medical, or scientific purposes. Among the newest acquisitions is an album of crime scene photos by the notorious Paris cop Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the mug shot and prosecution witness in the Dreyfus Affair.
Alphonse Bertillon, Affaire Alaux, 1902

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