Issue #18  8/1/2000
Vernacular: Now An Important Show At The Met

Let me recommend a photography show that is currently at the New York Metropolitan Museum (the one that ISN’T on strike) and will continue through September 3rd.  World-class collector Thomas Walther has tapped his inventory of snap shots to put together an exhibit and a book that is both quirky and striking.  He was nice enough to have me invited to the opening, which was held just two days after I got back from my last trip to France in June.  And while my impressions were somewhat impacted by jet lag, I still found the exhibit rather fascinating.

Given that most of these images are probably the least expensive photographs in Walther’s vast collection, it was indeed a strange setting for them.  But Thomas, more than a lot of collectors, has always had the courage of his own convictions, rather than depending on big names or high auction prices to validate his choices.  Not to say that he hasn’t bought heavily at auction, or to say that his collection is not littered with top masters.  But for him, the image has always come first.

What makes it interesting is that $50 prints (in some cases, perhaps even less, and in some, a bit more) are now on the walls of the prestigious (and often--in the past at least--overly prestige-conscious) Met and have been reviewed favorably in the New York Times.

Several dealers who had supplied some of the images were at the opening party (undoubtedly their first major museum opening), drinking a bit too much and mumbling about how they now felt themselves validated by the show.  I am not sure that was the case, but perhaps now collectors and institutions will feel more comfortable making decisions based on image, instead of pedigree or just on the photographer’s name.  Great photographers indeed take great photographs, but so do lesser lights on occasion.  The only difference is that a great photographer has a strong BODY of work.  Even great photographers take and make bad prints.

Buying by name alone is the worse form of naiveté, because it indicates a lack of education about photography (or any art, for that matter).   And education is cheap to get.  It just requires your time and disposition.  You can start that education by visiting the Met and the Walther’s vernacular show.  

By the way, I noticed that the Met’s able curator, Maria Morris Hambourg, took the selection process even one more step beyond Walther’s already fine eye, when she picked out the images which were clearly the most intriguing and complete for those "gifted" by Walther to the Met.

Having these images at this fine institution will help to unsettle a lot of people (a very positive outcome in my way of thinking), which should make for the best gift of all.