The Shape of Things – Photographs from Robert B. Menschel at MoMA


The exhibition The Shape of Things: Photographs from Robert B. Menschel presents a compact history of photography, from its inception to the early 21st century, in 100 images. On view from October 29, 2016, through May 7, 2017, the exhibition is drawn entirely from the 504 photographs that have entered The Museum of Modern Art’s collection over the past 40 years with the support of longtime Museum trustee Robert B. Menschel. It includes a notable selection of works from his personal collection that were given in 2016 and are being shown here for the first time. The Shape of Things is organized by Quentin Bajac, the Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, with Katerina Stathopoulou, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, MoMA.

Borrowing its title from the eponymous work by Carrie Mae Weems (American, b. 1953), the exhibition presents the history of the medium in three parts, emphasizing the strengths of Menschel’s collection and mirroring his equal interest in historical, modern, and contemporary photography. Each section focuses on a moment in photography’s history and the conceptions of the medium that were dominant then: informational and documentary in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more formal and subjective in the immediate postwar era, and questioning and self- referential from the 1970s onward. The installation occasionally diverges from a strict chronological progression, fueled by the conviction that works from different periods, rather than being antagonistic, correspond with and enrich each other.

© John Coplans (British, 1920–2003) Self-Portrait (Back with Arms Above) 1984 Gelatin silver print 19 13/16 × 15" (50.4 × 38.1 cm) Promised gift of Robert B. Menschel


From 1840 to 1900, in photography’s infancy as a medium, artists principally sought to depict truthful representations of their surrounding environments. This primal stage is distinguished by a debate on the artistic-versus-scientific nature of the invention. Photographers engaged with the aesthetic and technical qualities of the medium, experimenting with tone, texture, and printing processes.

The exhibition begins with seminal photographs such as William Henry Talbot Fox’s (British, 1800–1877) 1843 picture Rue Basse des Remparts, Paris, taken from the windows of the Hôtel de Douvres. Also on view is the astronomer Jules Janssen’s (French, 1824–1907) masterpiece L’ Atlas de photographies solaires (Atlas of solar photographs), published in 1903. Summing up a quarter-century of daily photography at Janssen’s observatory in Meudon, France, the volume on view contains 30 images of the photosphere, demonstrating photography’s instrumental role in advancing the study of science. Other artists included in this section are Louis-August and Auguste-Rosalie Bisson (Bisson brothers), Eugène Cuvelier, Roger Fenton, Hugh W. Diamond, Charles Marville, and Henri Le Secq.


As photographers grappled with war and its aftermath, they began to turn their focus away from documenting the world around them and toward capturing their own personal experiences in a more formal, subjective way. A selection of works from 1940 to 1960 explores this theme, including works by two artists whose images Menschel collected extensively: Harry Callahan (American, 1912–1999) and Aaron Siskind (American, 1903–1991).

A selection from Callahan’s quintessential photographs of urban environments — from Chicago and New York to Aix-en Provence and Cuzco, Peru — double exposures of city views, and portraits of his wife Eleanor and daughter Barbara, underscore the breadth of his oeuvre. In the summer of 1951, while teaching alongside Callahan at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Siskind began the series of pictures of the surfaces of walls for which he is best known. One of the early works in the series on view, North Carolina 30 (1951), shows the bare legs of a woman framed by the words “IN” and “AND” amid layers of peeling layers of posters. In their planarity and graphic quality, these pictures also have a kinship with paintings by the Abstract Expressionists, alongside whom Siskind began exhibiting in the late 1940s. Other artists in this section include Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, John Gossage, André Kertész, Clarence John Laughlin, and Dora Maar.


From the 1970s onward, photographers began working in what A. D. Coleman defined as “The Directorial Mode,” wherein the photographer consciously creates events for the sole purpose of making images. John Coplans (British, 1920–2003) took his own body, naked and with the head invisible, as the subject of his work — both carrying on and contradicting the tradition of the self- portrait centered on the face — as seen in Self-Portrait (Back with Arms Above) (1984).

Joan Fontcuberta’s (Spanish, b. 1955) series Herbarium appears at first glance to be a collection of botanical studies, depicting plants with new and distinctive contours and rigorously scientific names. However, as revealed by his fictional character Dr. Hortensio Verdeprado (“green pasture” in Spanish), the “plants” are actually carefully composed by the photographer using scrap picked up in industrial areas around Barcelona. Made of bits of paper and plastic, small animal bones, and other detritus, these forms are not only non-vegetal—there is almost nothing natural about them at all. Fontcuberta is interested in the way data assumes meaning through its presentation and in the acceptance of the photographic image as evidence of truth. Other artists in this section include Jan Groover, David Levinthal, An-My Le, Michael Spano, JoAnn Verburg, and William Wegman.


About Robert B. Menschel

Robert B. Menschel started collecting photographs in the 1970s, acquiring over the years hundreds of prints ranging from early to contemporary photography. He joined The Museum of Modern Art’s Committee on Photography in 1977, immersing himself not only in photography, its history, and its present, but also in the Museum’s culture. In 1989, he was elected to the Board of Trustees, becoming its President in 2002 and Chairman of the Board in 2005. In 2007, he was elected Chairman Emeritus and a Life Trustee of the Museum. From 1998 to 2002 he was Chair of the Committee on Photography.

The Shape of Things – Photographs from Robert B. Menschel
MoMA, New York
October 29, 2016 – May 7, 2017