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8 Seminal Photographs from Howard Greenberg's Collection, Now On View at MFA Boston

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson - Madrid, Spain, 1932, from Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York on view at MFA
September 10, 2019
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

A gallery owner for more than thirty years, Howard Greenberg is nowadays considered one of the pillars of the New York photographic scene. The Howard Greenberg photography collection, which has been carefully assembled over the last thirty years, counts around five hundred photographs that distinguish themselves by their high print quality.

A connoisseur informed by own experience as a photographer and a passionate and discerning pillar in the field, Greenberg amassed a collection which reflects his keen visual sense and diverse fields of interest. His deeply personal and emotional connection with the objects adds a layer of humanity, intimacy, compassion and empathy to the collection, demonstrating his deep devotion, both personal and professional, to the field of photography. The collection of the New York gallery acts as a living history of photography, offering genres and styles from Pictorialism to Modernism, in addition to contemporary photography and images conceived for industry, advertising, and fashion, hosting exciting exhibitions which reflect this rich collection.

MFA Boston has recently acquired 446 works from the Howard Greenberg Collection of Photographs. As the collector explained, the collection, which has been assembled over 35 years and reflects the unique access he’s had to so many treasures of 20th-century photography. will be in a perfect resting place at the MFA.

The Museum’s enthusiasm for the results of my efforts has been unrelenting. The collection will be married to what is already a world-class museum collection, formed expertly and intently over a long period of time.

The breadth of this collection is currently on view at MFA in an exhibition featuring some of the most enduring and powerful images of the 20th century. Viewpoints: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection brings together 150 prints from photography masters such as Dorothea Lange, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Gordon Parks, Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson, André Kertész and Robert Frank. Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, described the collection as “a result of Howard’s role in the field of photography and his constant search for the transcendental moments found within this magical medium.”

The showcase of Howard Greenberg collection at MFA Boston is divided into seven themesCapturing Modernism, Picturing the City, Conflicts and Crises, Bearing Witness, Fleeting Moments, Defining Portraits, and Music, Fashion and Celebrity. It also features a video interview with Greenberg.

Viewpoints: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection at MFA Boston will be on view until December 15th, 2019.

Here are the highlights of the show, many accompanied by Greenberg’s own words about each print!

  Editors’ Tip: Viewpoints: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection

Over the course of the 20th century, photography evolved as an art form while serving as an eyewitness to social, cultural and political change. Viewpoints: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection at MFA presents some 100 iconic images that came to define their times, and explores the stories behind the moments they recorded and the photographers who captured them. Among these images―beautifully reproduced from vintage prints―are powerful visual testimonies of Depression-era America, politically engaged street photography, definitive celebrity portraits, celebrations of the performing arts, harrowing visions of war and compelling depictions of the Civil Rights Movement. Drawn from the collection of Howard Greenberg―a gallerist who spent three decades quietly assembling one of the most extraordinary photography collections in the world―these prints have recently been acquired by the MFA, Boston.

Featured image: Henri Cartier-Bresson – Madrid, Spain, 1932. All images courtesy of MFA Boston.

  • Consuelo Kanaga - Young Girl in Profile, 1948, from the New York gallery on view at MFA

Consuelo Kanaga - Young Girl in Profile, 1948

Throughout a career that spanned decades, Consuelo Kanaga‘s approach to photography was driven exclusively by an overriding sense of empathy for her subjects. Although she connected deeply with her colleagues in the field, she was never a member of any movement, remaining true individualist.

One of the finest photographers to ever photograph African Americans, she solely focused on the dignity of the individuals who came before her camera. The photograph Young Girl in Profile was created during a trip to Tennessee in 1948, a trip that resulted in what many consider as some of Kanaga’s best work. It demonstrates the photographer’s remarkable ability to make a portrait that conveys a person’s inner beauty, nobility, and grace.

Describing it as one of his “holy grail” photographs, Greenberg first encountered the image in 1984 when gathering work for an exhibition about the Photo League, ultimately borrowing a small print of the picture from Lee Male of Ledel Gallery. He recalled:

I began to fall in love with it and become obsessed. I begged her to ask the owner to sell it to me but he wouldn’t.

It would be eighteen years later that a friend and a gallery owner contacted him in order to offer him a print of the Kanaga image, previously owned by a woman who had known the artist.

Featured image: Consuelo Kanaga – Young Girl in Profile, 1948. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection—Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. © Estate of Consuelo Kanaga. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Edward Weston - Nahui Olin, 1923, from the New York gallery on view at MFA

Edward Weston - Nahui Olin, 1923

Considered as one of the most important and innovative figures in 20th-century photography, Edward Weston changed the history of the medium with his radical approach to composition, lighting, and form. This portrait of Nahui Olín, Mexican poet and painter, belongs to the series of photographs that Weston referred to as “heroic heads.” The sitters belonged to the circle of intellectual friends with whom he and his companion and photographer, Tina Modotti, associated during his years in Mexico.

Born Carmen Mondragón, the poet and painter took an Indian name meaning “four movements of the sun” upon her return to Mexico from Paris. As the photographer later recalled, she was annoyed by the revealing nature of the portrait, although he considered it to be among the best pictures he had made in Mexico. This tightly framed portrait is a powerful expression of the photographer’s piercing eye, becoming an intense psychological study of her face and character. Greenberg said about the work:

It’s a famous portrait that has been published many times, but I had never seen a palladium print nor any print that looked like this. There is a reddish tinge around it … I always liked to think that somehow some of the clay of Mexico was rubbed into the surface of the print.

Featured image: Edward Weston – Nahui Olin, 1923. Photograph, platinum print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Edward Steichen - Three Pears and an Apple, France, about 1921, from Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York on view at MFA

Edward Steichen - Three Pears and an Apple, France, about 1921

An immortal among photographers, Edward Steichen is celebrated for an impressive oeuvre which provides an extraordinary insight into the context of a history of photographic media. Made after the end of World War I when he retreated to the French countryside and devoted himself to experimenting with photography, Three Pears and an Apple, France is characterized by painterly effects achieved through image’s soft focus and elegant composition. He managed to achieve the subtle, dreamlike qualities of the image by using a 36-hour exposure under indirect illumination. Greenberg further explained the process:

Steichen exposed the negative over a period of 36 hours, and everything, the pears and apple, the negative material, all swelled and contracted with the changes of temperature, affecting the focus. In awe, I salute Steichen’s unique talent by calling him an ‘alchemist.

Featured image: Edward Steichen – Three Pears and an Apple, France, about 1921. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. *© The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, from the New York gallery, on view at MFA

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

An American documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange is best known for her Depression-era images capturing the life of those affected by hunger and unemployment.

In the 1930s, Lange was one of the photographers employed by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Her seminal work Migrant Mother from 1936 is one of a series of photographs that the photographer made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in 1936 in Nipomo, California in a camp filled with field workers whose livelihoods were devastated by the failure of the pea crops.

The photographer explained she was drawn to the hungry and desperate mother and asked her to make a few shots. The mother and her children were living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. The photograph became a symbol of the plight of migrant farmworkers during the Great Depression.

Lange intentionally removed the subject’s left thumb from the negative after 1939, which helps to date physical prints such as this one, which has a ghost thumb still visible in the lower right-hand corner.

Featured image: Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson - Madrid, Spain, 1932, from the New York gallery, on view at MFA

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Madrid, Spain, 1932

Regarded as a pioneer of candid and street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson was the first to introduce the notion of the decisive moment which influenced generations of photographers. Known for his harmonious images of seized instants, he was often influenced by Surrealist ideas regarding the unconscious.

In 1933, Cartier-Bresson traveled to Spain with his newly purchased Leica camera, only three years before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Experimenting with formal components from Cubism and Surrealism, he produced images with humanist insight and empathy that have proven to be powerful and enduring records of the time. A photograph imbued with vitality, the image Madrid, Spain demonstrates the artist’s sharp eye for spatial composition and fortuitous encounters.

When he purchased the print, Greenberg did not think it was made in 1933 when the picture was taken: “But I didn’t care, it was very special, unusual print … so I bought it for myself.” In a visit to his gallery years later, Cartier-Bresson’s wife Martine Franck remarked she had the feeling that it was the first print of the picture he ever made, which she managed to confirm later.

Featured image: Henri Cartier-Bresson – Madrid, Spain, 1932. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph, gelatin silver print. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Walker Evans - Couple at Coney Island, 1928, from the New York gallery, on view at MFA

Walker Evans - Couple at Coney Island, 1928

Documenting and distilling the essence of life in America, Walker Evans was a photographer whose influence on the evolution of ambitious photography during the second half of the 20th century was perhaps greatest than that of any other figure. Although he is best known for the photographs produced for the FSA, he was interested in street photography all his life, recognizing that the camera could reveal the very values of a society in the people’s conscious and unconscious moments.

In the 1920s, Coney Island became a getaway synonymous with freedom and escape from the societal restrictions of early twentieth-century life, especially for young lovers. The artist photographed a young couple from behind, combining the animated geometry of the city with tender human interaction. Greenberg was drawn to the picture as it differed from his later, formalist photographs, works of wonderful precision and balance.

For many years I had this hanging at home next to the front door. Every day I would look at this picture—a couple delightfully dressed for a day in the park. I like pictures of people who like each other. I’m a romantic.

Featured image: Walker Evans – Couple at Coney Island, 1928. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • André Kertész - Chez Mondrian, Paris, 1926, from Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York on view at MFA

André Kertész - Chez Mondrian, Paris, 1926

André Kertész’s distinctive body of work reflected his commitment to poetic and geometric forms which reared on the languages of rational and irrational modernism. In 1925, Kertész moved from his native Hungary to Paris, where he found a community of like-minded artists and writers. Among them was the painter Piet Mondrian, who invited the young photographer to his studio in early 1926. As Kertész recalled years later, he instinctively tried to capture in his photographs the spirit of his paintings.

The studio with its symmetry dictated the composition. He had a vase with a flower, but the flower was artificial. It was colored by him with the right color to match the studio.

Despite the rigid geometric order imposed on everything in Mondrian’s apartment, the artist managed to found deviations in the curves of the staircase, vase, and the round boater hat hanging on the rack. For Greenberg, Chez Mondrian, Paris is “the perfect expression of the perfect photograph.” The corners are slightly rounded because Kertész is said to have carried it around in his shirt pocket while trying to sell it.

Featured image: André Kertész – Chez Mondrian, Paris, 1926. Photograph, gelatin silver print on carte postale. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. © 2019 Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Aleksandr Rodchenko - Pioneer with a Bugle, 1930, from the New York gallery on view at MFA

Aleksandr Rodchenko - Pioneer with a Bugle, 1930

A renowned Russian artist, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer, Aleksandr Rodchenko is one of the founders of Constructivism. One of the early Leica photography pioneers, he also played major role in the Russian avant-garde. In 1928, Rodchenko said:

We must revolutionise our visual perception. We must tear the veil from our eyes. The most interesting visual angles of our times are those from top to bottom and from bottom to top, and their diagonals.

He went on to develop his signature visual aesthetic that broke with conventional viewing habits. The photograph Pioneer with a Bugle from 1930, shot at a pioneer camp near Moscow, is a classic example of his visual maxima. Showing a close-up of the young pioneer from a daring bottom view, the photograph did not conform with the official Soviet visual language, sparking much controversy. Displaying the artist’s bold, graphic sensibility, this contact print made by the artist mounted on a card adds to its history and uniqueness.

Featured image: Aleksandr Rodchenko – Pioneer with a Bugle, 1930. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Howard Greenberg Collection-Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. © Estate of Alexander Rodchenko / RAO Moscow / VAGA at ARS, NY. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.