Washington shutterbugs have more than one reason to celebrate this week. Not only did the National Gallery of Art launch its inaugural show of the pioneering British photographer Roger Fenton’s work on Sunday, but it also unveiled its first-ever exhibition space to be devoted entirely to photography.
Located on the ground floor of the West Building, the U-shaped suite of five galleries represents some 3,000 square feet and 380 linear feet of exhibition space, said Sarah Greenough, curator and head of the gallery’s photography department.
The restoration of the galleries, nearly two years in the works, aimed to return the rooms to the original interior design as envisioned by the architect John Russell Pope. With three of the galleries, this meant stripping the walls and ceilings to expose the marble bases and borders and travertine wainscoting, which were obscured during renovations in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the other two rooms are in the process of being transformed to match this historic design.
Due to a construction delay, these two galleries will not be unveiled until February to coincide with an exhibition of the Hungarian-American photographer André Kertész’s work. Following the conclusion of that show in May, the gallery will launch an exhibit of nearly 100 platinum prints of the American photographer Irving Penn, including his portraits of the artists Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Saul Steinberg.
Thereafter, one major show with a catalogue is anticipated per year, in addition to two exhibits drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection of nearly 9,000 photographs, said Greenough.
The National Gallery began collecting photographs in 1949 when Georgia O’Keeffe donated 1,200 works by her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz (an additional 300 of his portraits of her officially entered the collection in 1980). These roughly 1,600 Stieglitz photos represent the world’s largest collection of the American master’s work.
Not until 1990, however, with the launch of its photography department, did the gallery begin a concerted effort to increase its holdings. Today, the photography collection may be relatively modest when compared to others in the nation’s capital (The Library of Congress, for instance, boasts nearly 14 million images), but it still includes works from more than 180 photographers dating back to the origins of the medium in 1839, and includes photographs by Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander, among others.
At the galleries’ preview last week, Greenough compared the refurbished space to a butterfly “emerging from its cocoon.” The new galleries will allow “photography to take flight at the National Gallery,” she said.