The Photography Department collects, conserves, exhibits, publishes, and promotes fine art photography. The department engages a spectrum of people in its activities; displays a broad historical, cultural, and aesthetic range of photography; acquires well-considered collections as well as the work of established and emerging artists worldwide; and educates the public when photographic images become worthy of serious attention. In addition, the department manages and refines the Museum’s photography collection, with the aim of ensuring excellence, relevance, and encyclopedic breadth.
The Museum’s photography collection begins in 1840—one year after photography was invented—and continues to the present day. More than 30,000 works represent every continent and approximately 4,000 artists, among whom are Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Man Ray, Richard Misrach, Irving Penn, and Alfred Stieglitz. The greatest strengths are American photography, civil rights photography, Texas photography, European photography between WWI and WWII, and photojournalism. Important bodies of work from Japan, Argentina, Mexico, and the former Czechoslovakia are also included.
Although the MFAH Photography Department was not established until 1976, photography was exhibited early in the Museum’s history. In May 1926, the Museum held its first photography exhibition, a juried exhibition of Texas photographers. Early one-person shows included those for Edward Weston (1930) and František Drtikol (1932). From then until 1953, annual juried exhibitions of regional photographers were held. Annual exhibitions of the Houston Camera Club were held at the MFAH from 1941 to 1954. Thereafter, until the founding of the Photography Department, there were infrequent but important exhibitions such as A Photographic Corpus of African Art: Walker Evans (1964); Geoff Winningham: Photographs (1974); and solo exhibitions for Diane Arbus, Edward Weston, and Roy DeCarava in 1975. In 1965, the first large collection of photographs was acquired, commissioned from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ezra Stoller for the project The Galveston That Was, and exhibited that year.
Target Stores, Inc., made its first donation in February 1976 to begin the Target Collection of American Photography, and the MFAH Photography Department was established that December when Anne Wilkes Tucker was hired as a consultant to act as curator of photography. In 1978 she was named curator and in 1984 she was named the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator. In 2001 TIME magazine honored Tucker as “America’s Best Curator.”
As of the end of 2011, the MFAH has mounted more than 250 exhibitions relating to photography. Of particular significance are Sidney Grossman: Photographs 1936–1955 (1981); Unknown Territory: Ray K. Metzker (1985); Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia (1986); Czech Modernism: 1900–1945 (1989); Money Matters: A Critical Look at Bank Architecture (1990); Tradition and the Unpredictable: The Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection (1994); Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach (1996); Brassaï: The Eye of Paris (1998); Louis Faurer Retrospective (2002); The History of Japanese Photography (2003); and The Great Wall of China: Photographs by Chen Changfen (2007).
Additionally, in the early 1980s the department acquired 284 Robert Frank photographs created in conjunction with The Americans as well as all of Frank’s films and videos; the original maquettes for The Americans and The Lines of My Hand; and an additional 50 photos by Frank.
In early 2002, the MFAH acquired nearly 4,000 photographs from the renowned collector Manfred Heiting. Assembled over 30 years, the collection includes a comprehensive selection of major photographers’ works as well as examples of photographic processes dating to photography’s invention in 1840.
In addition to the Target Collection of American Photography, the department has also acquired many substantial collections since its founding. Among these are the Anthony G. Cronin Memorial Collection (1978–97); the Willour Collection (1978–present); the Mundy Companies Collection and gifts of Joe, Marion E. and David Mundy (1979–present); the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection (1984–present); the Morgenstern Collection (1986–present); the Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection (1991–93); Songs of My People (1995); Robert Frank’s collection of photographs by other artists (2002) and here is new york (2005).
A History of Photography: Selections from the Museum's Collection
November 1, 2014–March 8, 2015
The first in a series of installations tracing the course of photography from its invention to the present day showcases important new acquisitions and treasured masterpieces. Featured artists include Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Thomas Ruff, and Edward Steichen.
In a Snap: The Art of Vernacular Photography
November 12, 2014–February 22, 2015
Snapshots given to the Museum by collector Peter J. Cohen, in dialogue with selections from the MFAH collection, explore the lasting impact of the amateur aesthetic.
For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979
March 7–July 12, 2015
This groundbreaking exhibition presents photographs, photo books, paintings, sculpture, and film-based installations in a demonstration of how 29 Japanese artists and photographers enlisted the camera to make experimental and conceptual shifts in their artistic practices during a time of radical societal change.
Photography: Past Exhibitions (1925–Present)
A chronological listing of photography exhibitions organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The Works on Paper Study Center is available to students, scholars, artists, and other individuals who wish to view works from the Museum’s collections of photography and prints and drawings. Open by appointment to groups of up to 20, the study center is located in the Beck Building.
The Hirsch Library contains a large collection of photography books and other reference materials. The library is open to Museum visitors and the general public.
The Photography Department has published numerous catalogues and books related to the collection and MFAH exhibitions. All departmental publications are available to the public through the museum's Hirsch Library, and many of these catalogues may be purchased through The MFAH Shop (713.639.7360).
Every year, the Museum offers grants of $5,000 each to two doctoral candidates working on dissertations that concentrate on photography. The Joan and Stanford Alexander Award recognizes scholarship of the highest caliber by supporting the completion of the recipients' dissertations. A university may nominate two students currently enrolled in its doctoral program. Applications are due in the spring.
2014–2015 Award Recipients
• Kara Fiedorek, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
Dissertation: "Priests of the Sun: Photography and Religious Thought, 1840–1910"
• Dengyan Zhou, Binghamton University
Dissertation: "The Language of 'Photography' in China: A Genealogy of Conceptual Frames from Sheying to Xinwen sheying and Jishi sheying"
One of the country's first art Museum archives, the MFAH Archives was established in 1984 with a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Since that time, the archival holdings have grown more than threefold to the present size of 2,900 linear feet.
Primary source material in the MFAH Archives chronicles not only the history of the MFAH, but also the artistic and cultural development of Houston and the larger art community. Included are the official archives for Robert Frank, the Manfred Heiting Collection, and Songs of My People, as well as many other photographic resources.
The MFAH Archives is open for scholarly research, by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, contact email@example.com or 713.639.7733.
MFAH members interested in photography as a fine art are invited to join Photo Forum. Programs such as private exhibition tours, talks by photographers and collectors, and previews of upcoming auctions are often followed by dinner and lively discussion. At the final meeting each year, Photo Forum members use their dues to acquire contemporary photographs for the MFAH collection.