Installation view of Gallery 502: Early Photography and Film, October 2019. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

New Ways of Looking at MoMA’s Earliest Films and Photos

Two curators tell us what goes into a gallery that reflects how image breakthroughs impacted modernism.

Sarah Meister, a curator in the Department of Photography, and Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, had a discussion about their thinking behind Gallery 502: Early Photography and Film, a single room in the newly reinstalled fifth-floor collection galleries.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Rajendra Roy: This was a years-long process. We tried a number of options in terms of the origin story of modernism. Some involved the reproducible image being the lead-off, as in many ways, chronologically, it makes sense to do, given that our earliest holdings on view right now are photographic.

We didn't want to shock people out of a belief system that they had been given by MoMA for many, many decades, and that wasn’t an invalid thing—to look at [Paul] Cézanne and go, “Oh, here are the origins of some sort of modernist thought.” And so, the idea was that you would have a kind of simultaneity. By moving the door opening for Gallery 502 closer to the main entrance point to the fifth-floor galleries, you can take two or three steps in, look straight ahead, see paintings in 501, and turn your head and see photographs and moving images in 502.

Installation view of Gallery 502

Installation view of Gallery 502

Sarah Meister: The idea was to take advantage of these two galleries’ adjacency—allowing the viewer to make connections, but without being hit over the head with a mandate of, “You need to understand it this way.” And what we could do with film and photography is to suggest—in a way that’s very different from 501—the idea that this transformation of the way people saw the world was happening at the same time that those artists were making those paintings: it was so abundant that you couldn’t escape it. As Quentin [Bajac, former Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography] pointed out, there’s no painter in the first gallery who wasn’t aware of, and actually inundated with, this kind of imagery, and that in itself had such a profound effect on the way they conceived of their roles and what it meant to make art.

RR: I learned so much in this process, as I think all of us did—every curator at every level. But certainly, the moment when senior curator of Drawing and Prints Jodi [Hauptman] made me aware of the fact that Cézanne’s Bather was painted from a photograph was this profound “Aha!” moment.

Maurice Loewy, Pierre Henri Puiseux. Lunar Photograph: Eudoxe, Mer du froid, Méton from Photographic Atlas of the Moon. 1903

Maurice Loewy, Pierre Henri Puiseux. Lunar Photograph: Eudoxe, Mer du froid, Méton from Photographic Atlas of the Moon. 1903

SM: 1889 is the year [Vincent] van Gogh painted The Starry Night, but it is also the year that the Kodak No. 1 camera was introduced. The marketing slogan for that camera was, “You push the button, we do the rest.” And, in fact, in a future iteration of this gallery, we’re going to put some of the prints made with these cameras on view.

RR: This room is, by no means, a history of photography or film. It is loosely thematic, but it certainly works on its own terms. And it works in relationship to the gallery that precedes it, and the gallery that follows it.

SM: In conversations with Quentin and Phil [Taylor, curatorial assistant] we asked ourselves, how do you suggest—not a history—but how do you recreate that feeling of discovery and abundance? We started with the back wall that’s anchored by this extraordinary film of the New York subway.

American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, G. W. Bitzer, F. A. Dobson. Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street. 1905

American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, G. W. Bitzer, F. A. Dobson. Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street. 1905

RR: We were very conscious of scale. The size of the film image is based on viewing it from Gallery 501. It’s almost life-size. You see an image of a subway car going through a tunnel from 14th street to 42nd street in 1905. The subway system had opened a month before. This film was almost like a tourist postcard: “Come see this modern marvel.” We see it almost technically now, but at the time, it was a fantastical thing to see, to experience. And the scale is not grandiose; it’s not cinematic, but it’s larger than a...

SM: Than a photograph? One of the things that’s key in photography and film is the scale of the display. Almost all of the photographs that are on view in this gallery are contact prints—the negative is the same size as the print that you’re looking at.

Sarah Meister installing Gallery 502

Sarah Meister installing Gallery 502

RR: I really applaud you, Sarah, for your courage in bringing photographs on both sides of the moving image. The essential thing about including this film is multifold. Most people probably took this subway line, or one very similar to it, to get to MoMA. Not only the people who visit, but the people who work here like myself. That’s important for me in terms of an audience embracing a work and being comfortable as they’re walking into this new experience. It’s something that we’re all familiar with because, alas, more than 100 years later, the subway system has not changed that much.

It’s also an incredible work of cinema. There’s this amazing stroboscopic effect of going through a tunnel. It takes apart filmmaking itself: It’s a camera mounted on the front of a subway train, following another train with a third train on the express track that is the lighting rig. You get all of the elements of filmmaking, the kind of orchestra that it takes to make a film. It was produced by a famous company, the Biograph Company, but it really is a collaborative effort. That was an important gesture as an origin story, to acknowledge that filmmaking is a collaborative art form.

Carleton E. Watkins. Arbutus Menziesii, Pursh. 1861

Carleton E. Watkins. Arbutus Menziesii, Pursh. 1861

SM: To me, that’s one of the key links between the photographs and the films in this gallery. You go from a gallery, 501, where you’ve recognized most, if not all, the names: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Mary Cassatt. Then you come into this next gallery, and what we’re trying to suggest is these things are worth looking at, even though 99% of our visitors don’t know any of these creators; and in fact, many of them are unknown, or anonymous, or collaborative, as Raj was saying.

One of the fulcrums is this gorgeous 1861 photograph by Carleton E. Watkins of a strawberry tree. John Szarkowski, the renowned former director of Photography here, memorably described this as a photograph that is as simple as a Japanese flag and as rich as a dictionary. Its simplicity, its graphic nature, is something that allows it to be this point around which I think certainly this wall and, maybe arguably this whole gallery, revolves. The richness of the dictionary becomes clear when you walk up close and you can see every little clod of dirt, every little leaf on this tree. And that’s an expression of it being a contact print from a glass negative. In all of the photographs on this wall, there’s an extraordinary amount of detail that you can see when you walk up close.

RR: The other film selection in 502 is an excerpt from a work that was recently rediscovered in MoMA’s collection, “Lime Kiln Club Field Day.” It’s a work from 1914 that stars the great vaudevillian actor Bert Williams. And this film was actually produced for him.

Klaw & Erlanger, Biograph Company, Bert Williams, Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter. Excerpt from “Lime Kiln Club Field Day.” 1914

Klaw & Erlanger, Biograph Company, Bert Williams, Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter. Excerpt from “Lime Kiln Club Field Day.” 1914

It was never completed, and never released, and so remained unknown and unstudied, which is a great shame. This was a middle-class comedy with an all African American cast, that was produced right here in the Tri-State area, that starred someone who, as an accommodation to white audiences, wore blackface, but features an entire ensemble of African American actors not in blackface. It’s remarkable for cinematic history.

The other important element of this particular clip is that we have every take on film. There’s usually a PA—a production assistant—who holds up a slate: “Take one, take two, take three.” And we actually have those included here, which is an extreme rarity for any film of this period because most would be cut out. We have proof that this was an integrated set, with a white cast and crew assisting; it’s a young white guy who’s holding the slate. That really upends a lot of our understandings of what was possible in a commercial production at that time.

The central motif of this clip is a cakewalk dance, which is essentially a line dance where you have two rows of folks who cheer on dancers as they go down the center of the aisle. This is a tradition in African American dance that goes way back. And many of us who grew up in the 1970s were like, “It's Soul Train!” It’s something we recognized—back to this idea of self-identification for visitors in the gallery.

Installation view of Gallery 502, looking into Gallery 501

Installation view of Gallery 502, looking into Gallery 501

SM: Do we know if the person operating the camera or the director was African American?

RR: We know that the directors of the film were white, and worked for the company that was owned by D. W. Griffith, but we also have identified assistant directors who were African American, which is an extreme rarity at that time. And everyone basically worked for Bert. So, again, we see the power of the star system, which is something that still exists to this day, of a leading person who was able to dictate the terms of production.

Our conjecture is that this was never released because it was determined it might not make money. The next year, The Birth of a Nation was produced by the same company, which put African Americans in a criminal and terrifying light. So the idea of a middle-class comedy featuring African American faces was seen as not commercially viable, which is such a huge tragedy not only for this work in very specific terms, but also for American culture.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album. 1899–1900

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album. 1899–1900

SM: The film is on one side of the doorway to the next gallery, 503, and on the right side are photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston from the Hampton Album. These are photographs that Johnston, a white photographer, made of a school that was founded after the Civil War for African Americans, and soon thereafter, Native Americans.

These pictures link in interesting ways to the “Lime Kiln Club” film. Johnston was hired to make these photographs by the Hampton Institute. So we have that idea of how something that we’re now considering a work of art was work-for-hire. Even though it was an assignment, and she was working on a tight budget, she’s incredibly attentive to composition. She’s making platinum prints, which was a real signal of artistic seriousness and intent. If you had been making something for a very practical purpose, you might’ve made it as a cyanotype or as a gelatin silver print, and the fact that these are luminous platinum prints signals her artistic ambition even while making this commission.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Geography: Studying the Seasons from the Hampton Album. 1899–1900

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Geography: Studying the Seasons from the Hampton Album. 1899–1900

She was certainly a force of nature. There’s a fantastic picture of her with a beer stein in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and her skirt pulled up over her knee. She was a real badass. She was controlling the scenes in order to make very persuasive pictures.

But what I enjoy is that, in reading the old newsletters, you understand that the students and the faculty at the school were very proud of what this model of education meant then. Instead of reading this as coercion, based on historical documents, I read this as real cooperation. They wanted to help her do this work for the school in order to articulate the incredible range of the curriculum, which in 1899 and 1900 really was a progressive model.

Another thing to note about this gallery: All of these light-sensitive photographs need to come down after three or six months. While the principal idea will remain the same for the first 18 months, we actually have the joy of doing it again.

RR: In a way, this gallery becomes a microcosm for the whole museum. Because we’re going to stick with ideas, but evolve them and move geographies. We’ll have Europe come into the films, eventually.

SM: I love working with Raj.

RR: Yes, same. Can we do this more?

SM: Stay tuned, we have some ideas!