Editor's note: The following essay from the catalogue for the exhibition Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images was reprinted in Resource Library on November 20, 2008 with permission of the Museum of Photographic Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Museum of Photographic Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Nancy Newhall and the Museum of Modern Art, 1942-1946

by Erin O'Toole


The first ten years of Nancy and Beaumont Newhall's marriage were intimately linked to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Soon after they were engaged in 1935, Beaumont was hired as the museum's librarian, one of only a handful of positions at the then fledgling institution. A year later, after he was named to organize the first large-scale survey of photography held there, the pair felt financially secure enough to get married, and spent their honeymoon in Europe researching and collecting photographs for the exhibition. MoMA's staff was a tight-knit family in the early years, and the Newhalls' social lives were determined largely by that kinship. They eagerly attended weekly salons and parties organized by fellow staff members and their satellites in the art world, and like other spouses of museum employees, Nancy often would roll up her sleeves and help install exhibitions. MoMA was an exciting and intellectually stimulating place to work in the 1930s, staffed by enthusiastic, bright and like-minded young professionals, and helmed by Alfred Barr, Jr., whom both the Newhalls greatly admired.

After the success of his first exhibition, "Photography 1839-1937," Beaumont began to investigate the possibility of presenting at MoMA more regular exhibitions of photography. In collaboration with Ansel Adams and David McAlpin, a Rockefeller heir and art collector, these efforts led to the founding of a department of photographs there in 1940. The first at a major American museum, the department, in time, would become the most influential institution in the medium, what Christopher Phillips, taking a cue from Walter Benjamin, would dub the "judgment seat of photography."[1] In its early years, however, the department was less powerful and stable than it later would become under curators Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski. For instance, its inaugural exhibition was only allotted a two-week run in a relatively small gallery, and throughout its first five years, supporters continually had to fight to keep it from falling victim to budget cuts.

The first two years were particularly rocky. Determined to limit the department's purview to expressive art rather than to all applications of photography, Beaumont, who was named the museum's first curator of photography, and Adams, his primary advisor, found themselves at ideological odds with powerful individuals both inside and outside the museum's walls. Their curatorial philosophy, based in large part on the ideals of Alfred Stieglitz, conflicted with the then widely held belief that photography was a democratic medium with multifarious uses all worthy of representation at the museum. Rather, Adams and Beaumont advocated a more narrow program, differentiating between photographs notable for their aesthetic qualities, which they asserted belonged at a museum of modern art, and those that were solely functional, which they contended did not. [2] Dedicated to elevating standards of taste in photography, which they believed were threatened by the ubiquity of the medium and the burgeoning popularity of photo-illustrated magazines, they were branded as elitists by those who advocated a more populist approach, including key members of the museum's staff and Board of Trustees. [3]

Alfred Stieglitz was the guiding spirit of the department in those early years, and in order to make explicit the connection they drew between their project and his decades of work to promote photography as modern art, Adams and Beaumont planned to inaugurate the department with a retrospective of his photographs. However, after months of planning, Stieglitz reneged on his commitment to the proposed exhibition, contending he was too old to tolerate the demands of such an undertaking.[4] Despite this setback, Stieglitz's lifelong dedication to expressive photography was the germinal inspiration that drove Adams and both the Newhalls in their efforts at the museum.

Nancy was the last of the three to embrace Stieglitz and his agenda for photography, wary as she was of his legendary wrath. As an aspiring young painter studying at the Art Student's League in the early 1930s, she had often visited his gallery, An American Place, but assiduously had avoided a direct encounter with the notoriously volatile photographer.[5] In the unpublished second volume of her biography of Adams, she writes of being unwillingly dragged in 1940 by him and her husband to meet Stieglitz. Of their first tête-à-tête, she recalls her surprise at his welcoming demeanor.

That this frail little man in his late seventies, with his wild white hair and his deep black eyes -- everything about him seemed black and white -- should be as beautiful as the Place he had created and the things on its walls, was perhaps not so surprising. But that he should be gay and gracious, warm, wise and brilliantly witty, was totally unexpected. [6]

In hopes of becoming the first to pen his biography, Nancy would spend innumerable hours with Stieglitz over the course of the following two years, listening to him hold forth-as he was often wont to do-asking him probing and personal questions, and, most significantly, absorbing his theories on art and photography.[7]

In time, Stieglitz's ethic became her own, and while she was an independent thinker with a distinctive individual style, Nancy's philosophy on art and photography was deeply rooted in what she gleaned from her encounters with him during those transformational years. She was quite frank with Stieglitz about his influence on her, writing to him, "A lot of your battles are, however, now part of my own existence."[8] More so than even Adams, it would be Nancy who would carry the Stieglitzian torch. An unswerving dedication to a select group of artists, a tendency towards bombastic prose, and a disinterest in compromise-such could be said of both Stieglitz and Nancy Newhall. She later wrote of his import to her career, contending he was her most significant teacher.

I find it hard to define my personal relation to Stieglitz; it falls into no category I know of. It was more than friendship, especially when he and I became fighters for the same cause. But it was never master and disciple, though he taught me more than Smith College, the Art Students' League, the Museum of Modern Art, and various media all combined. Nor was it sexual, though I am sure he welcomed me to the Place partly because I was a woman. [9]

Although she never completed the biography, Nancy was forever changed by the relationship she developed with Stieglitz while working on the project.

In the summer of 1942, Nancy was offered an unexpected opportunity to apply what she had learned in the preceding years from Stieglitz. That summer, several months after America entered World War II, Beaumont was called up for duty in the Army Air Force, where he would become attached to a photographic reconnaissance unit. Before leaving for basic training, he met with Nancy and Adams to draw up a five-year plan for the department, which included retrospectives of the work of Adams, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. [10] After a bitter fight with the Trustees, in which Adams and Beaumont argued that she was the only qualified substitute for her husband, Nancy was named acting curator in Beaumont's stead, a position she held from August of 1942 until October of 1945. Working for half his salary, with no museum experience, and little formal background in photography, Nancy's task was daunting. Accusations of nepotism rendered even more difficult her challenge to prove her mettle, but in a very short time she impressed the museum's executive staff with her considerable abilities as a curator, administrator, and writer. [11]

As curator, Nancy continued the crusade her husband and Adams had engaged in when they founded the department, often seeking advice from Stieglitz, whose gallery was around the corner from the museum. It was not an easy fight, however, as internal museum divisions and ever-tightening purse strings threatened their dearly won territory. After several rounds of firings in the early 1940s, the amity that once defined staff relations at MoMA began to dry up. When Alfred Barr was suddenly demoted in 1943, staff morale declined even further, leading to turf wars amongst the remaining staff. [12] A fervent supporter of Barr, Nancy was seen as a member of the old guard in a changing institution. At every turn, she found herself defending the exhibition philosophy of the department, its budget, even its very existence at the museum. In her daily correspondence with her husband, she wrote of her many ordeals, asking for his counsel and support. They exchanged ideas about exhibitions in their many letters, writing of their evolving philosophies about photography, as well as their dreams for developing their own center for photography independent of the museum and its divisive politics.

David McAlpin, Nancy's most dedicated supporter at MoMA, endeavored to smooth the waters for her, contributing money on several occasions to ensure the department would not be dissolved. Despite such efforts on her behalf, Nancy's years at the museum were marked by constant tribulation. The war was partly to blame, as large-scale war-related exhibitions of photography organized for the museum by guest curator, Edward Steichen, such as "The Road to Victory" and "Power in the Pacific," undermined her efforts to restrict the department's scope exclusively to expressive photographic art.[13] Nancy had no say in the planning of these exhibitions, and remained unconvinced that they deserved a place in an art museum. Collectively, the Newhalls and Adams believed that if photographs were to be harnessed to the war effort and shown at the museum, at the very least, the prints should stand on their own as art. Steichen's strategy, on the other hand, was to use photographs to illustrate a propagandistic message, without giving a "hoot in hell" for art, as he is often quoted as saying. [14] This attitude toward photography, popular with the Trustees and the public, confounded the Newhalls' plans to showcase only photographs with aesthetic merit. The type of exhibition they favored, generally small in scale, quiet in design, and scholarly in intent, was bound to pale in comparison to the outsized extravaganzas produced by Steichen.

Despite these significant obstacles, Nancy persevered, organizing in a mere three years over a dozen exhibitions, writing numerous articles and essays on photography, and overseeing the establishment of a photography center housed in a building neighboring the museum. At first, the photography center seemed to be the answer to her prayers for increased recognition from the museum's administration. In the new facility, the department had its own library of photography-related books, greatly expanded exhibition space, a study center, as well as substantial funding for lectures, workshops, and acquisitions.[15] With these features, the photography center quickly became a popular gathering place for practicing photographers, which delighted Nancy. When it opened, Willard "Herc" Morgan, an editor of numerous books on photography, was named director of the center and the department of photography. Unfortunately, during his brief tenure, Morgan produced an exhibition of snapshots funded by Eastman Kodak that was a great embarrassment to the museum. [16] Lowbrow in the extreme, it soured the Trustees on the center, as well as on Morgan, who soon after left to join the staff of Look magazine. Much to Nancy's great disappointment, the center was shuttered after only eight months, and she was left to run the department on a shoestring.

Although a grand Stieglitz retrospective was not to be while she was curator, in late 1942, Nancy was able to organize a small exhibition of ten of his prints that David McAlpin had helped acquire for the museum. [17] As evidenced by their many letters on the subject, this exhibition had more symbolic weight to the Newhalls and Adams than its size would appear to warrant. Organized closely on the heels of Steichen's "Road to Victory," it was expressly designed to counter the ballyhoo and populism that had overtaken the museum during the war; a sign that disinterested, expressive photography still had pride of place in the department. [18]

Not surprisingly, the two most significant exhibitions Nancy organized for the museum featured the work of photographers forged in the Stieglitzian mold. "Paul Strand: Photographs, 1915-1945," and "The Photographs of Edward Weston" were the first two major retrospectives honoring photographers to be mounted at MoMA.[19] The Newhalls and Adams considered such exhibitions to be critical to the public's acceptance of photography as an equal to painting and sculpture. They reasoned that in order to be considered on a par with artists like Picasso, photographers would need to be the subjects of full-scale retrospective exhibitions. Although she had inherited the idea for these exhibitions from her husband, Nancy was the sole curator on both, marking them with her individual imprimatur. She selected all the prints included, planned the installations, and wrote the accompanying texts. Both exhibitions were unqualified critical successes that drew large crowds.

It was while working on these retrospectives that Nancy honed the evocative prose style for which she now is known. Although some of her more colorful flights of literary fancy led one critic to condemn her for "the gushy mysticism usually associated with the English B essays of adolescent school girls,"[20] Nancy did not adapt her style to please her detractors, believing as she did that lyrical photographs deserved poetic explication. Despite a tendency to mythologize her subjects, the essays in the two catalogues are fluid, eminently readable, and refreshingly unacademic. It is easy to be swept up by her evident enthusiasm for the work and personal histories of these artists. For example, of Weston's ascetic lifestyle she wrote:

To thousands of photographers Weston was becoming a challenge; to his friends a sanctuary as well. To live more freely and simply than Thoreau, to work with a bare technique and produce brilliantly, to walk free, without help or compromise-these things are not easily achieved in the cluttered and frantic twentieth century. [21]

Writing of Strand's close-ups, she goes into raptures of descriptive detail:

In these photographs he rises to his full stature: the velocity of line developed in slanting grasses, curling ferns, vivid spear thrusts of young iris; the rising counterpoint of dark forest, etched across with dead lichened branches. A fugal development of motifs runs through the series: rain and dew appear as jets of light on a fern frond, as a shower of jewels in a cobweb. Driftwood changes from bosses of splintered silver to passages of Dantean incandescence. [22]

An artist herself, Nancy's deep admiration for, and understanding of other artists were her greatest assets as a writer and curator. It is readily apparent in her writing that she respected Weston's dedication to live simply so that he could be free to make art as he pleased, just as she admired Strand's exquisite sense of design and composition.

During her tenure at MoMA, Nancy was often accused by critics for playing favorites, for privileging the work of her friends. [23] However, she promoted a much broader array of photographers than for which she typically is given credit. Although it is true that in time her attention narrowed to focus on a few select artists, while she was curator at MoMA her tastes were quite catholic. In addition to Adams, Weston, Strand and Stieglitz, who would become the primary subjects of her later work, she also championed photographers as diverse as Peter Henry Emerson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, and W. Eugene Smith, all of whom were represented in exhibitions of one sort or another while she was curator. Besides the Strand and Weston retrospectives for which she is best known, Nancy also organized a wide range of other types of exhibitions at MoMA. "Action Photography" (1943) and "100 Years of Photographic Portraiture" (1943) are examples of large-scale exhibitions she designed around a single theme. For "Art in Progress" (1944), a museum-wide celebration of MoMA's fifteenth anniversary, she planned the first historical survey drawn exclusively from the department's own collection, a much-lauded presentation that included almost 250 prints. These larger exhibitions were offset by small-scale shows featuring the work of emerging artists, such as "Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children" (1943), "Birds in Color: Photographs by Eliot Porter" (1943), "Tunisian Triumph: War Photographs by Eliot Elisofon" (1943), and "Pacific Report: Photos by W. Eugene Smith" (1944). Although she was not trained as an art historian, she also produced historical surveys, such as "French Photographs: Daguerre to Atget" (1945).

When the war was over and Beaumont returned to New York to resume his job at the museum, he felt Nancy deserved to work alongside him as curator. However, the administration of the museum balked at this proposal, allowing her to continue only in a temporary capacity in order to complete the Weston retrospective, which she had already had begun planning.[24] Soon after that exhibition closed in March of 1946, Beaumont learned that the Trustees had named Edward Steichen to serve above him as director of the department of photographs. It was a devastating blow. Beaumont resigned in protest-as did the entire Junior Advisory Committee in a show of solidarity for their much-respected peer-as Steichen represented the antithesis of everything for which he and Nancy had worked for the previous five years. [25]

While they were profoundly disheartened that popularizing pressures had undermined their project at MoMA, the Newhalls were not discouraged in their efforts to counter prevailing trends and promote photography as an expressive art. MoMA was simply a jumping off point for them both, the place where they cut their teeth before launching successful independent careers. For Nancy, her brief but eventful tenure at MoMA was a crash course in both the history of photography and institutional politics that served her for the rest of her career. Although her years as curator are often overlooked in the literature, Nancy made a significant contribution to the museum and to the history of photography in those years. [26] A forceful advocate for artists, she helped launch the careers of many photographers widely known today, such as Helen Levitt, as well as solidified some that were already established, such as Strand and Weston. Most notably, the Paul Strand exhibition she organized was the first major retrospective exhibition of the work of a photographer held at an American museum.


1 Christopher Phillips, "The Judgment Seat of Photography," in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Richard Bolton, editor. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 15-47.

2 In the brochure for the department's inaugural exhibition, "Sixty Photographs," Newhall wrote, "Through the very facility of the medium its quality may become submerged. From the prodigious output of the last hundred years relatively few great pictures have survived-pictures which are a personal expression of their makers' emotions, pictures which have made use of the inherent characteristics of the medium of photography. These living photographs are, in the fullest meaning of the term, works of art." The New Department of Photography (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1940), 4.

3 Tom Maloney, publisher of the popular journal, Camera Craft, and photographer Edward Steichen, who often served as guest editor of that magazine, were the most vociferous outside critics of the department. Significantly, Steichen had the ear of influential MoMA trustees Henry Allen Moe and Nelson Rockefeller, who supported his contention that photography should be considered more broadly at the museum.

4 Stieglitz's letters to his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, suggest that despite the efforts of Adams and the Newhalls to win his favor, he was not completely supportive of their plans for the department. He wrote to her of a need to "protect" himself, and likely decided not to allow them to mount a retrospective because he did not feel their agenda was exactly in accord with his. Alfred Stieglitz to Georgia O'Keeffe, 23 October, 1940, Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O'Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven (YCAL).

5 Ironically, Nancy had studied under Stieglitz's arch nemesis, Thomas Hart Benton, who in the mid-1930s became a conservative populist and railed in the press against Stieglitz's supposed elitism.

6 Nancy Newhall, "Anselography," in Nancy Newhall 1908-1974/ Friends of Photography 10 (1976): 32.

7 Beaumont Newhall, Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993), 161. Nancy never finished the project, deferring to Dorothy Norman, whom Nancy discovered was farther along in her research than she was. She planned to write the biography after Norman finished hers, but never did.

8 Nancy Newhall to Alfred Stieglitz, undated, Labor Day, 1942, YCAL.

9 Nancy Newhall, From Adams to Stieglitz: Pioneers of Modern Photography (New York: Aperture, 1989), 101.

10 Newhall, Focus, 137.

11 Nancy's key allies at the Museum were Alfred Barr, David McAlpin and James Thrall Soby, Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum, who also served as Chairman of the Photography Committee after McAlpin's term expired.

12 See Russell Lynes, Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Atheneum, 1973).

13 "The Road to Victory," May 21-October 4, 1942; "Power in the Pacific: Battle Photographs of our Navy in Action on the Sea and in the Sky," January 23-March 20, 1945.

14 Newhall, Focus, 149.

15 See "Museum of Modern Art Annex: Photography Center," Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 2, vol. XI (October-November 1943).

16 "The American Snapshot," March 1-May 10, 1944.

17 "New Acquisitions: Photography by Alfred Stieglitz," December 16, 1942-February 28, 1943.

18 It would not be until after his death in 1946 that Stieglitz would be the subject of a full-scale retrospective at the MoMA. That exhibition, which featured work by Stieglitz himself, as well as by the many artists he represented at his galleries, was organized by James Johnson Sweeney and Georgia O'Keeffe.

19 Nancy organized the Edward Weston retrospective after Beaumont returned from the service and she was no longer curator of the department. "Paul Strand: Photographs, 1915-1945," April 25-June 10, 1945, and "The Photographs of Edward Weston," February 11-March 31, 1946.

20 John Adam Knight, "Photography," The New York Post, April 27, 1944.

21 Nancy Newhall, The Photographs of Edward Weston (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), 9.

22 Nancy Newhall, Paul Strand: Photographs 1915-1945 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1945), 6.

23 For example, Roy Stryker, then chairman of the department's advisory committee wrote to Nancy, "I have one comment to make, perhaps a little unfairI do hope that these fellowships [that the department was about to begin awarding] are not going to the chosen few who seem to have gotten the most out of the Museum during the past few years." Roy Stryker to Nancy Newhall, 10 October 1945. Department of Photography files, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

24 Newhall, Focus, 143.

25 Steichen and his primary backer, Tom Maloney, promised to raise $100,000 per year from the photographic industry to fund the department. The money never materialized. Newhall, Focus, p. 147

26 For example, despite the fact that Nancy was curator for almost as many years as her husband, in his "Judgment Seat" essay, which compares the manner in which photography was presented under the first three curators of the department, Christopher Phillips does not address Nancy's tenure at all. In his history of MoMA, Good Old Modern, Russell Lynes, a personal friend of the Newhalls', only mentions in passing that Nancy had served as curator.

About the author

Erin O'Toole is an assistant curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A doctoral candidate in the history of art at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, she is writing her dissertation about Ansel Adams' role in the founding of the department of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 20, 2008, with permission of the Museum of Photographic Arts, which was granted to TFAO on November 11, 2008.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lauren Turner of the Museum of Photographic Arts, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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