One of the first projects we undertook upon establishing the Thomas J. Watson Library's digitization initiative a few years ago was a collaboration with the Department of Photographs and its Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library. The Menschel Library's holdings in Pictorialist photography exhibition catalogues are unmatched, and provided an easily identifiable batch of valuable research materials with which to begin. The fragile nature of many of these catalogues required great care in handling and scanning their contents.
Malcolm Daniel, senior curator in the Department of Photographs, offers below an explanation of the importance and context of this collection of exhibition catalogues. We are grateful for the support provided to our digitization initiative by Joyce F. Menschel and the Department of Photographs.
—Dan Lipcan, Assistant Museum Librarian, Thomas J. Watson Library
Even before the American photographer, publisher, gallerist, and impresario of modern art Alfred Stieglitz donated twenty-two of his own works to the Met in 1928—the first photographs we acquired as art—he donated a collection of turn-of-the-century photography books, catalogues, and periodicals to the Museum's library. As the central figure and most influential promoter of art photography around 1900, Stieglitz was connected to camera clubs and photographic societies around the country and in Europe as a contributing photographer, a lender of works by others, and a judge or organizer of exhibitions. As a result, he received and preserved exhibition catalogues that now prove to be an invaluable research tool in tracing the progress of art photography ("Pictorialism," as it was then called) in those pivotal years when Stieglitz and his colleagues assertively differentiated themselves from both the amateur Kodak snapshooters and the professional producers of studio portraits, topographic views, and industrial documents.
Now more than one hundred of those Pictorialist catalogues, preserved in the Met's Joyce F. Menschel Photography Library, have been scanned and are available to a worldwide audience through the Thomas J. Watson Library's Digital Collections website and WorldCat, a union catalogue of 71,000 libraries. With a single query, a photo historian can now search all of the catalogues for work by a single photographer ("Steichen" or "Coburn," for instance), a title word ("Flatiron" or "Nude"), or photographic process ("platinum" or "gum bichromate"). The scanned volumes document exhibitions both famous and obscure—the massive, landmark International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography, organized by Stieglitz himself at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1910, on the one hand, and the Ninth Annual Exhibition of the Art Association of Richmond, Indiana, on the other. While some, like the Buffalo catalogue, are available elsewhere, approximately one quarter appear to be unique to the Menschel Library. Who would have guessed that amidst the Apache baskets, decorated china, academic paintings, and examples of sewing by Richmond Public Schools' third graders more than fifty photographs by Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Clarence White, and others were sent by Stieglitz to that 1905 exhibition in Indiana? What does it teach us about how the gospel of art photography was being spread? What budding photographers might have seen and been influenced by the Photo-Secession pictures sent by Stieglitz to the Richmond Art Association? These are the sort of questions one can begin to ask with such a ready resource. Simple but beautifully printed checklists of exhibitions at Stieglitz's famous gallery, "291," are also among the items now available to all.
The scanning project—one of numerous such endeavors in the Museum's Thomas J. Watson Library—also serves an important preservation purpose. Many of the turn-of-the-century catalogues, though beautiful, are printed on fragile paper, and each consultation of the originals leaves a sad residue of paper bits on the Study Room tables. Now those rare and delicate items can be maintained without damage, even as a far wider audience of researchers consults them. Readers can search across the collection or within a volume, can download or print the catalogues, and can click on any of the Library's cataloguing data links to find other catalogues at the same venue, organized by the same entity, or taking place in the same year, for instance, and can organize search results by date, title, or other criteria.
The Met has long been known as the richest collection of photographs from the Photo-Secession, the loosely knit circle of photographers promoted by Stieglitz in the early 1900s, all of which are represented by images in the Collections area of this website. Now researchers also have ready access to some of the behind-the-scenes materials that make the Met not only the place to see these great treasures but also to study their history and context.