Art & Design Magazine

A Democracy of Images

By Americanart

William Christenberry

William Christenberry's China Grove Church--Hale County, Alabama

At the museum's McEvoy Auditorium the other evening, guest curator Merry Foresta set out to talk about how she put together the new exhibition, A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. During her hour at the podium she combined personal recollection with history, (or as she remarked, "a little bit country, a little bit rock-n-roll"), Foresta illuminated not only the exhibition, but the museum's history of collecting photographs, the history of the medium in America (from daguerrotype to digital), as well as photography's prominence in American museums from the 1970s onward.

Foresta became the museum's first curator of photography in 1983; she left in 1999 to spearhead the Smithsonian's pan-institutional photography initiative. In 1981, Foresta received a call from a colleague at the National Endowment of the Arts. He had a supply room full of boxes of photos from photographers who had received NEA grants, and the photos needed a new home. She immediately arranged for the transfer of over 1,800 photographs from the NEA to the Museum. Inside the boxes were works by photographers such as Bruce Davidson, Harry Callahan, and William Christenberry (who had sent the NEA color snapshots taken with his Kodak Brownie camera that were processed at a local drugstore), among other photographers.

It is from this base, that over the next sixteen years Foresta built a substantial photography collection at the museum of over 7,000 photos, and curated important exhibitions. For A Democracy of Images, she culled through the museum's immense catalog to produce a show of 113 images. What makes the exhibition so strong is that it really is a democracy. Yes, you'll find Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and Weegee in the lineup, but not always the familiar image. You'll also come across names and images that you may not have heard of before.

Walt Whitman, known as "the poet of democracy," thought photography was the perfect artistic medium for the United States, an art form for one and all, rooted in everyday people and ordinary things. Check the archive of your personal photos on your cell phone and you'll know that he was right.

If I could coin a word for Foresta it would be "raconteurator," though it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Formed from the words raconteur and curator, she combines the best of storytelling, scholarship, and curation. So enough from me. It's Merry Foresta you really want to hear.

Check out the exhibition website here.

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