Photo-Mania: The Levine Ramey Collection of Vernacular Photography August 6, 2020

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is home to the Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey Photography Collection, an extensive and spectacularly diverse group of vernacular photographs.

“Vernacular” generally refers to photographs not strictly made as fine art, and can include anything from personal snapshots to mass-produced souvenirs; mourning jewelry to mugshots; and everything in between. Even though formal, stiffly posed portraits might come to mind when you think of photographs made before the time of Snapchat filters, photography has been joyfully shared and manipulated by professionals and amateurs alike ever since it was invented.

Artists and archivists Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey diligently curated this collection over the course of 30 years, and they affectionately refer to it as “Photo-Mania”—an appropriate nickname for the joy, wonder, obsession, and empathy found in the material.

Collection Overview
Major themes of the collection include African American Studio Portraits; LGBTQ Life; Mexico and the Border; Altered and Manipulated Images; Gun Culture; Science and Industry; and Sideshow Stars and Superheroes. Although many items in the collection were originally mass-produced for the public, they have become extremely scarce over time and cannot be found in any other private or public collection. Without vernacular photography and diligent collectors like Levine and Ramey, the story of the history of photography would be incomplete.

Works from the Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey Photography Collection will be on view at the Museum soon. Until then, take a look through the slideshow above to see a small selection of photographs, including a studio cowboy, a French postcard, smoking suffragettes, a Mexican photo sculpture, and a sideshow performer.

Learn more about the MFAH photography collection