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Negotiations: Handling History

“The fossilized forms of photography will be studied just as assiduously as those of painting. However, the nagging thought remains that photography has finally attained canonization at a time when its accepted forms may no longer be viable and its younger talents are looking elsewhere, that it has achieved respectability when everyone else is no longer interested in being part of the establishment.”
Milton W. Brown, “The History of Photography as Art History,” Art Journal, Autumn 1971, based on a talk given at the 1969 College Art Association meeting in Boston

By the late 1960s, mainstream art institutions had accepted photography, or at least a certain canon of photography, as a form of modern art, and private collectors were building important collections of photography, sometimes broader in scope, which included contemporary work. Despite such interest, many observers felt that the younger generation of artists had already left still photography behind. This view resulted not only from the institutional bias—acknowledged in critical debates of the late 1970s and 80s—for a certain type of photography but also from the lack of public spaces where emerging photographers could show their work. Although by 1970 a handful of galleries in New York City exhibited photography, only two, Light and Witkin, along with Maggie Sherwood’s Floating Foundation of Photography and cooperatives like SoHo Photo, showed photographs on a regular basis.

The history of the Midtown Y Photography Gallery during its first decade illustrates the ways in which Larry Siegel, and later Sy Rubin, responded to this situation. The first two exhibitions, solo shows of Berenice Abbott and W. Eugene Smith, indicate that the gallery first sought to legitimate the new space by presenting more established photographers, whose work fit easily into the history established by museums. These shows, however, were closely followed by exhibitions of emerging photographers and, in 1974, the presentation of a private collection. Such collections, wrote Larry Siegel, would assist “photographers dedicated to making personal images with both the capacity to support themselves and to gain a sense of ‘place’ in the mainstream arts.” The same could be said for the Midtown Y Photography Gallery. The overall exhibition program, which emphasized new work with an occasional exhibition devoted to historical photographs, both acknowledged a conventional account of the medium and brought younger photographers, and an alternative history, to the public.

Berenice Abbott (1898–1991)
“Brooklyn Bridge, Pier 21, Pennsylvania Railroad,” 1937
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection

A copy photograph was originally exhibited in Berenice Abbott: New York, the Thirties, May 14–June 7, 1972. This is an original print.


Aaron Siskind (1903–1991)
“M.V. (Martha’s Vineyard) 1,” 1952

Two prints by Aaron Siskind were exhibited in A Collector’s Exhibit: Prominent Photographers from a Private Collection, May–June 1974. This image was donated by the collector to the Midtown Y Photography Gallery after the exhibition.

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