The Growing Collection: A Year-End Gift of Photography from Robert Flynn Johnson

Since we announced the development of the Postal Plaza as a new, state-of-the-art venue for exhibitions and storage of OSU’s art, we’ve been lucky enough to work with a wide variety of alumni and friends to expand our collection. In my first post of the new year, I promised we’d introduce some of the most recent additions to the collection. This week, I’d like to start making good on that promise with a look at three photographs given to OSU by former Curator-in-Charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Robert Flynn Johnson.

Full disclosure: Robert Flynn Johnson is my former department head, a mentor to me, and a friend. After I left the Fine Arts Museums to return to teaching, Johnson encouraged me to continue to take on independent curatorial projects, and when I began working with the OSU Art Collection and the development of the OSU Museum of Art, he promised that he would support our project. As 2011 came to a close, Johnson made good on that promise by giving us a group of over 20 artworks, focusing on his twin passions of printmaking and photography.

Robert Flynn Johnson, with his two published collections of anonymous photography. Photograph courtesy of artbusiness.com.

Johnson knows that OSU has the beginning of a photography collection; we’ve featured Imogen Cunningham’s 1925 photograph, Tower of Jewels (Magnolia Blossom) here on the blog, for example. In time, I hope that we will be able to use the photography collection to teach students about the history of the medium, including its changing uses, aesthetics, and technologies. Johnson’s year-end gift to the collection begins to take us in that direction, and today I’d like to illustrate that with three photographs.

Félix Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) (French, 1820-1910). "Untitled (portrait of George Sand)," ca. 1864. Albumen print carte-de-visite, gift of Robert Flynn Johnson.

This carte-de-visite photograph is by Nadar, the most prominent portrait photography of nineteenth-century France (and also a political cartoonist, journalist, and novelist). Early photographic media such as daguerreotype and ambrotype resulted in unique images. As techniques for creating multiple images using negatives and photosensitive coated papers, such as albumen prints, were developed, photographs became available for new and sometimes ephemeral purposes. Carte-de-visite photographs—postcard-sized portraits produced by commercial studios—were commonly used as calling cards when visiting friends. Nadar created cartes-de-visite for many of the artistic and literary luminaries of Paris. This portrait of author George Sand is no exception.

Edwin Hale Lincoln (American, 1848-1938). “Untitled,” ca. 1900. Platinum print, gift of Robert Flynn Johnson.

Photography’s appeal for scientists was unsurprising: for the first time, it was possible to make precise images in an instant. At the same time, photographic images of scientific specimens had a clarity and abstractness that struck many early twentieth-century viewers as particularly modern. Edwin Hale Lincoln was a Massachusetts photographer who was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. In the 1890s he began documenting the wildflowers and other flora of the Berkshire mountains in images such as this one. Lincoln used an 8×10 view camera, producing large negatives for high-resolution contact prints. He printed his photographs using platinum, which offers the potential for a rich tonal range and soft, matte finish. Although Lincoln’s images were intended to be documentary, they also exhibit a careful attention to composition that reveals the photographer’s aesthetic priorities.

Leni Riefenstahl (German, 1902-2003). “Runners,” from “Olympia,” 1938. Gelatin silver print, gift of Robert Flynn Johnson.

By the early twentieth century, photography’s value as a tool for journalism, social work, and political propaganda was becoming increasingly clear. Audiences were convinced of the truth of photographic images, which seemed more authentic than other visual media. Leni Riefenstahl is most famous as the director of Adolf Hitler’s filmic propaganda machine, and this image, a still from the 1938 film Olympia, is part of that work. Olympia was the first documentary feature film of the Olympic Games ever made. Like much of Riefenstahl’s work for the Third Reich, Olympia combines innovative cinematographic techniques with a message that, in historical context, is devastatingly racist and xenophobically nationalistic. This still is a gelatin silver print—a medium that became the black-and-white standard throughout the twentieth century.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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