Art beat: Picturing a legacy

The MIA honors the architect of its photography collection

WHITTIER — Carroll T. Hartwell’s death in 2007 marked the end of an era at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The MIA’s original curator of photography, Hartwell (known as "Ted" to his colleagues) was among the first generation of curators to build photography collections at the country’s major museums.

When he organized his first exhibition for the MIA, in 1963, there were just a handful of museums holding significant collections of photographs. At the time, photography was still clawing its way into the art establishment, said Christian Peterson, who worked with Hartwell for nearly three decades.

"That was a period when there was very little serious attention paid to photography as an art form," Peterson, now acting curator of photography, said. "It was [thought of as] largely utilitarian."

That we now recognize so many of the pieces in "Masterpiece Photographs" not just as familiar images but as major works of art is evidence of just how much the perception of photography has changed in the past half-century.

The exhibition features 50 selections from the MIA’s permanent collection chosen by Peterson for their visual impact, historical importance and influence. That collection today includes more than 10,000 images spanning the entire 170-year history of the medium and was largely shaped by Hartwell.

"Masterpiece" features iconic images like a pensive, vulnerable Marilyn Monroe, captured by Richard Avedon’s camera in 1957, and Diane Arbus’s eerie 1970 portrait of pale-eyed identical twin girls.

It’s hard to imagine there’s a pair of American eyes that hasn’t taken in Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph of a ragged, weary migrant worker and her children. Presented here in an early gelatin silver print, the image eloquently communicates the pain of the Great Depression, and must have a place in just about every social studies textbook printed in the last 40 years. (A group of elementary school students on a recent field trip to the museum shouted over each other to identify the photograph.)

Hartwell’s preference was for what he called "straight photography" — images in the mode of documentary, photojournalism and slice-of-life street photos. It’s a category broad enough to encompass both the majestic landscapes of Ansel Adams and the quirky streetscapes of Lee Friedlander, whose photographs were featured in an MIA exhibition that closed in September.

"Ted’s interest … was straightforward photographs, things that weren’t manipulated to look self-consciously artistic," Peterson said.

Still, Hartwell expanded the collection in all directions.

He snatched up important examples of turn-of-the-century pictorial work — mostly gauzy, sentimental photographs — a style at odds with Hartwell’s "straight photography."

The collection also records the progression of photographic technology.

"Masterpiece" begins with early calotypes and cyanotypes, which give way to daguerreotypes and albumen prints, which in turn lead to silver gelatin prints, the standard for a century. The exhibition ends with a large, color print of one of Alec Soth’s oddball portraits.

Peterson said Hartwell’s most important exhibition came early in his career. In 1970, he organized a retrospective of Avedon’s portraits of celebrities, including Monroe.

Prior to that exhibit, Avedon was a well-regarded commercial and fashion photographer but hadn’t yet been "brought into the fold," Peterson said.

"It’s still recognized as the exhibition that brought Avedon into the artistic world," Peterson said.

It was an early high point in a career that lasted 45 years. The arc of Hartwell’s career, particularly in its first decade, in a way traced the changing attitudes toward photography.

Hartwell was hired not as a curator, but as staff photographer.

"He was the one who took photographs for the works of art for reproduction and of events," Peterson explained.

From that position, Hartwell was able to advocate for the inclusion artistic photography in other exhibitions. He was heard and soon had a show of his own to curate. The title of assistant curator soon followed, although he remained staff photographer for some time afterward.

"He wore two hats for a decade," Peterson said.

By the mid-’70s photography had earned its own department at the museum, and Hartwell was able to focus on his role as curator full-time. He remained in the position until he suffered a heart attack in 2007, on his way into the museum for another day of work.

The photographs in "Masterpiece" represent just a small sample of the MIA’s collection, but they are a fitting tribute to the man who built it.

Go see it
"Masterpiece Photographs from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: The Curatorial Legacy of Carroll T. Hartwell" runs through Jan. 25 at the MIA.