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Newhall himself, of course, had his own ideas in this regard. Initially, he was interested in the still-new medium's own intrinsic aesthetic, independent of painterly standards. To his mind, it seemed that optical and chemical perfection were adequate criteria that could be measured in an abundance of clearly recognizable details and the truest possible reproduction of tone. In this respect, he praised Charles Marville's photographs for their "subtle light and painstaking detail"; Marville had photographed city districts in Paris destined for demolition in the course of Haussmann's urban renewal from around 1860. To Newhall, "the melancholic beauty of a past doomed to decline and disappearance" seemed far more important than the actual social critical content of the documentation, as he wrote in his catalogue essay.

As the museum's photography curator, Newhall unswervingly continued to maintain a connoisseur's perspective on the medium. In the end, this led him to restore visual art's traditional vocabulary and apply it to photography, whereby the notion of connoisseurship as had been developed in the area of printmaking played an important role. The approximately 30 exhibitions put on by MoMA's photography department, during which the collectors David Hunter McAlpin and the photographer Ansel Adams acted as advisors to Newhall, concentrated on historical surveys such as French Photographs - Daguerre to Atget, 1945, the canonization of masters such as Paul Strand in 1945 or Edward Weston, 1946, and finally the support of young photographers such as Helen Levitt in 1943 or Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947. The photographs were always presented in the manner of prints or drawings, carefully framed in passepartouts under glass and hung at eye level: Beaumont Newhall's curatorial practice has remained the prevailing norm to this day.


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: Portrait (Repose), 1920/1926-29 Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin
In 1947, however, MoMA's Board of Trustees abruptly withdrew their support, appointing instead the 68 year-old Edward Steichen as director of the photography department. Newhall hadn't succeeded in rescuing photography from its marginal role within the fine arts and bringing it to a wider public. Steichen, known both for his work as fashion photographer and war journalist, wasn't the slightest bit interested in whether photography should be considered an autonomous art form. He now made his mark on the following 15 years of photographic history at MoMA, reintroducing the German approach to the medium as it had been practiced in the Weimar Republic and that had initially influenced Newhall. Already in 1942, Steichen had organized the show Road to Victory at the MoMA. Herbert Bayer, head of the graphics class at the Bauhaus in Weimar in the mid-twenties and subsequently director of the Berlin branch of the American advertising agency Dorland, was entrusted with the design. In 1936, two years before his emigration to America, he had designed the catalogue for the Germany Exhibition accompanying the Berlin Olympics. In an act that was inconceivable to Newhall's taste, Bayer blew up the photographs for Road to Victory to a large scale and had them mounted as freely standing displays without frames. A modern, aggressive typography and photomontages added to the dynamics. Thus, a walk through the exhibition, which was meant to bolster American patriotism, was like leafing through the pages of Life Magazine.


Robert Frank: Charleston, South Carolina, 1955
Robert Frank, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

Steichen also remained true to this style after the war ended. He was interested in photography's central role as a mass medium, and he sought to capitalize on it. Nelson Rockefeller, who was at the time president of MoMA's Board of Trustees, supported him throughout; in 1947, the board announced that the photography department would no longer restrict its interests exclusively to the aesthetic area: it was the time of the Cold War, and it went without saying that the war extended to culture as well. With Rockefeller and CIA men such as William Burden and Tom Braden in the museum, the MoMA became a key player.

This development culminated in the exhibition The Family of Man from 1955, whose relevance went far beyond the ideological implications of celebrating the patriarchal family on a global scale: the show clearly demonstrated photography's direct availability and reproducibility. In the nineteen-thirties, this principle had still been considered revolutionary. In his essay from 1936, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which was only discovered in the sixties and promptly elevated to the level of paradigm, Walter Benjamin attempted to work out the effects on the further development of the arts and society. In Steichen's case, this principle had now become a useful tool in serving patriotic propaganda. He always planned his exhibitions in the form of several editions of varying dimensions meant to be circulated in the manner of newspapers or films throughout the United States and the rest of the world. Dorothea Lange's photograph Woman in Migration Labor Camp, California from 1938, which Kicken showed in Berlin, was one of the works in Steichen's exhibition The Bitter Years from 1962, which made the photographs from the Depression era public again for the first time in two decades. Now, they were being staged as an inspiring testimony to the unerring pride and courage that helped make America great.



Ralph Gibson: Untitled, from the series
'The Somnambulist', 1968
Ralph Gibson, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

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