Nationally recognized theater companies (the Guthrie, In the Heart of the Beast, etc.). A nationally recognized dance scene (Zenon Dance Company, James Sewell Ballet, etc.). Nationally recognized bands (Tapes ‘n Tapes, Cloud Cult, etc.). Nationally-recognized hotels (the Chambers, the W, etc.). Even, thanks to Esquire, nationally-recognized bars. We may or may not have the best of everything, but people have heard of us. I want a bumper sticker that reads minneapolis-st. paul: nationally recognized.
|masterpiece photographs from the minneapolis institute of arts by christian a. peterson. published by the minneapolis institute of arts (2008). $39.95.|
According to the jacket of Masterpiece Photographs from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the MIA’s photography collection is—you got it!—“nationally recognized.” We’ve got an entire stable of stars represented down there in the vaults: Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Man Ray, Lewis W. Hine, even Richard Avedon. Masterpiece Photographs is the companion volume to an exhibit now in its last weekend at the MIA.
The name of Carroll T. Hartwell towers over all others in association with the MIA’s photographic holdings. Hartwell, known as “Ted,” joined the museum’s staff in 1962 as staff photographer. He quickly assumed the position of photography curator, and over the remaining four and a half decades of his life, Hartwell led the museum’s acquisition and display of thousands of notable photographs. Hartwell’s personal preference was for “straight photography”—more or less straightforward documentation of reality, without the use of visual effects or staged tableaus—and this is reflected in the collection he created, but he wasn’t dogmatic. He didn’t miss the chance, for example, early in his career to acquire a complete set of Stieglitz’s landmark periodical Camera Work, which was chockablock with the kind of effects Hartwell disdained.
Masterpiece Photographs spotlights the 50 “most salient and fully realized photographs” (how clinical can you get?) in the MIA’s permanent collection. Each photo is accompanied by a short essay by Christian A. Peterson, the museum’s acting curator of photographs. The images are generously sized and beautifully reproduced, and Peterson strikes an appropriate balance of erudition and accessibility. Discussing the appeal of Todd Webb’s Avenue of the Americas, New York City, for example, Peterson notes that “Webb used the street curb as the baseline for his photograph; the resulting dark line along the bottom of the picture seems like a shelf supporting a three-dimensional miniature scene.” The book concludes with Alec Soth’s Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, the story of which was told in the Daily Planet in an exclusive account by the subject’s friend Daniel Miller.
Whether or not you catch the Masterpiece Photographs exhibit before it closes, Peterson’s book is a fine souvenir, a good read, and a volume that can sit proudly on your coffee table as a rejoinder to any guests who dare to suggest that the Twin Cities lack a nationally recognized collection of photography.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
Clarification 1/24/09: While Christian A. Peterson was acting curator of photographs at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts when this book was published, he no longer holds that position. David E. Little is currently curator of photography at the MIA.