The Museum’s photography collection comprises more than 30,000 items spanning the full history of the medium, from invention to present day. More than 4,000 photographers are represented in the photography collection. The department displays highlights of the collection on a rotating basis in A History of Photography: Selections from the Museum’s Collection as well as in temporary installations and special exhibitions. Visitors may also view photographs from the collection by appointment in the Works on Paper Study Center.
While focused on fine-art photography, the collection acknowledges the wide embrace of photography and the many roles it plays in modern culture, and it therefore includes exceptional examples of documentary, scientific, fashion, advertising, and vernacular photography, as well as works intended solely as art.
The collection includes virtually every photographic process, from daguerreotypes, albumen prints, and salt prints in the 19th century; to platinum and gum-bichromate prints at the turn of the 20th century; and gelatin silver prints and all manner of color photography in the modern era. Among the collection's great strengths are American photography, with extensive holdings of civil-rights photography, Texas photography, and the Photo League; avant-garde photography between the two World Wars; photojournalism; 19th-century European photography; and Japanese photography. Examples from every continent are represented, including important bodies of work from Argentina, Mexico, Russia, and the former Czechoslovakia.
Well known for its holdings of work by Robert Frank, the Museum’s collection features more than 400 of his photographs and the original maquettes for his seminal books The Americans and The Lines of My Hand. The Museum also houses and distributes all of Frank’s films and videos.
The Target Collection of American Photography
Begun with a visionary corporate gift in 1976, the Target Collection of American Photography comprises more than 400 works of art, with significant images by artists whose works are considered the basis of the American photographic tradition, such as Imogen Cunningham, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, Joel Sternfeld, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, James Van Der Zee, William Wegman, and Edward Weston. In addition to documenting important moments in American history, the collection demonstrates a variety of approaches to the medium by artists whose perspectives have affected contemporary photographic practice. View all works in the Target Collection.
The Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection
In 1991, New York–based collector Allan Chasanoff donated to the Museum nearly 1,000 20th-century photographs by Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Lee Friedlander, Jan Groover, André Kertész, William Klein, Aaron Siskind, Josef Sudek, Garry Winogrand, Joel-Peter Witkin, and many other well- and lesser-known artists. Chasanoff relishes pictures that puzzle him, and he built his collection by questioning what occurs when the camera “captures” the real world but the resulting image creates confusion rather than clarity, challenging photography’s reputation as a dependable document. View all works in the Chasanoff Collection.
The Manfred Heiting Collection
Amsterdam-based collector Manfred Heiting set out to obtain the finest examples available of every major photographer’s work. Over a period of 30 years, he amassed an encyclopedic collection of more than 4,000 images, creating one of the top collections in the world. The MFAH acquired the holdings in 2002 and 2004, providing the public with a vivid visual record of the people, places, and events that have defined the Western world since the invention of photography. Julia Margaret Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Heinrich Kühn, Gustave Le Gray, Man Ray, Nadar, Alfred Stieglitz, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Edward Weston are some of the famous figures whose work is included. View all works in the Heiting Collection.
The Marvins Family Collections
In 1985, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Houston’s Kaye Marvins Photography portrait studio, Kaye and Sonia Marvins donated a collection of portraits assembled by their son Michael and MFAH curator Anne Wilkes Tucker. Expanded in honor of the studio’s 50th anniversary, the Sonia and Kaye Marvins Portrait Collection features work by artists as diverse as Edward Weston and Clarence White, Lotte Jacobi and Heinrich Kühn, and Edward Curtis and Irving Penn, to name but a few. Sonia had long been a collector of cased daguerreotype, ambrotype, and tintype portraits from the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s; in 2003 and 2004 she donated some 200 examples that remain the core of the Museum’s holdings in this area. Michael and his wife, Michele (Mike and Mickey), are donating their own collection, which is rich in fine prints of classic photographs from the 19th century to the present, as well as in less-familiar images that caught Mike’s eye and imagination.
- A History of Photography: Selections from the Museum’s Collection (October 3, 2019–May 3, 2020)
Through an African Lens: Sub-Saharan Photography from the Museum’s Collection (February 27–July 5, 2020)
For information about past MFAH exhibitions, search the exhibitions archive database.
- Amy Blakemore: Photographs 1988–2008
- Brassaï: The Eye of Paris
- Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography
- Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach
- First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise
- For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979
- The Great Wall of China: Photographs by Chen Changfen
- The History of Japanese Photography
- Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture
- Louis Faurer
- A Photographer’s Collection: Gifts from Michael and Michele Marvins
- RED HOT—Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection
- Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage
- WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath
Photo Forum, a patron group that supports the photography department, was founded in 1988 and since then has made possible the acquisition of more than 400 Modern and contemporary photographs. Photo Forum is designed to bring photography collectors and devotees into closer contact with the Museum’s gifted curators and renowned collection through behind-the-scenes seminars led by the curatorial staff on a variety of topics related to the collection, special tours and opening receptions of the Museum’s photography exhibitions, talks by visiting artists and scholars, and visits to prominent private collections. Photo Forum members at all levels are entitled to cast ballots on works proposed for acquisition at the annual “Vote Night,” the celebratory climax of each year’s calendar. This ongoing program of activities has proven to be a stimulating and enriching experience for photograph collectors and enthusiasts, and the Photo Forum has become a vital source of support for photography at the MFAH, helping the Museum meet its mission of bringing the very best of the art of photography to a broad public.
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Works on Paper Study Center
Students, scholars, artists, and others who wish to view works from the Museum’s collections of prints, drawings, and photographs are welcome to visit the Works on Paper Study Center. The study center is open by appointment to individuals and groups of up to 20.
Joan and Stanford Alexander Award
Every year, the Museum offers grants of $5,000 each to two doctoral candidates who are 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. Past award winners have worked on a wide range of topics. Applications are due annually on February 15. See application guidelines.
The MFAH Collections
To explore all of the Museum’s works of art, search the collection.