This celebration of the Metropolitan Museum's acquisitions during the ten years since the establishment of an independent Department of Photographs focuses on two areas of special interest: French photographs of the 1850s and 1860s and photographs since 1960. The French works included in the exhibition reveal the remarkable beauty and technical mastery that French photographers—many of them trained as painters—achieved a mere decade after the invention of the medium. Landscapes suffused with deep swathes of evocative shadow, psychologically revealing portraits, elegantly seductive studies of the nude, and Romantic representations of the nation's ancient and medieval past all demonstrate early photography's links to the painting and print traditions, as well as the ways in which the unique character and capacity of photography set its productions apart from all art that had come before. Together these works trace the rapid development of photography from the humble and intimate creations of gentlemen amateurs to ambitious artistic expressions of Second Empire grandeur.
Among the photographs included are Gustave Le Gray's light-dappled Oak and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau (1849–56) and serene twilight seascape Mediterranean with Mount Agde (1856–59); Nadar's portrait of the fiery left-wing politician Eugène Pelletan (1855–59); landscapes by Édouard Baldus, including the softly atmospheric Entrance to the Port of Boulogne (1855); views of medieval architecture in Normandy by Edmond Bacot, including Saint Maclou, Rouen (1852–54); and nude studies by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve from around 1853, which served as models for painter Gustave Courbet.
The second gallery of the exhibition presents that pregnant moment in the 1960s when one tradition—the gritty verité styles of documentary and street photography—came into its fullest flowering while another, in which the medium revolutionized the subjects and strategies of the postwar avant-garde, was just being born. Like the New Journalists of the same moment, "New Documentary" photographers such as Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand included themselves in the stories they told—an elliptical mix of commentary and confessional characterized by a mordant wit and high irony. At the same time, young artists from outside the medium took up the camera to rewrite completely the rules of the game. Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and others redefined the conditions of painting in an era of mechanical reproduction, Vito Acconci and the Vienna Actionists expanded traditional notions of sculpture to include the body, while Dan Graham, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Robert Smithson took it into the wider arena of architecture and social space. For the first time, these twin poles of documentary and avant-garde photographic practices during the 1960s are examined together in depth.
The final section of the exhibition presents a stunning array of diverse photographic works from the 1970s to the present that loosely follows a number of overarching themes, from the cool cultural critique of "Pictures" generation artists such as Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, and Richard Prince to the lyrical meditations of Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Nan Goldin—artists for whom the personal and the political are inextricably bound. Recent German photography is also featured prominently, including a hallucinatory, large-scale experimental work from 1975 by Sigmar Polke, two exquisite painted photographs by Gerhard Richter, and a suite of magisterial cityscapes from the late 1980s by Thomas Struth. Also included are photographs by Sophie Calle, Patrick Faigenbaum, Adam Fuss, Carrie Mae Weems, and others.
This section is accompanied by a selection of large-scale contemporary photographs that are installed in the first-floor area adjacent to the entrance of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing. Entitled Places in the Mind: Modern Photographs from the Collection, the selection includes work by, among others, Jean-Marc Bustamante, Gabriel Orozco, Michal Rovner, and Wolfgang Tillmans.