A Curator Hunts Down the American Photography Collection of Her Dreams

A curator hunts down the American photography collection of her dreams

Eadweard Muybridge, Boys Playing Leapfrog
Eadweard Muybridge, Boys Playing Leapfrog Wikimedia Commons

Merry Foresta is nothing if not persuasive, which helps if you're a museum curator with a very good eye and you know what you want. In this case, what she wanted for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (NMAA) was a photography collection that she knew might not even exist. It had to be strong in 19th-century images that would not only stand up as works of art but would also contribute to an understanding of the paintings, sculptures and other artworks at the NMAA.

And so it was that, a few years ago, Foresta visited Philadelphia collector and dealer Charles Isaacs. She was looking for American daguerreotypes to be included in a major show; Isaacs, she knew, specialized in daguerreotypes, as well as in European photography. By the way, she asked, did he know of a great collection of early American photography? One that included images of the Western landscape, everyday life, turn-of-the-century modernism, the gilded age. . . ?"

"You mean, like this?" Isaacs said, opening a drawer and bringing out a gorgeous Eadweard Muybridge print. "Yes, like that!" Foresta exclaimed. "No, I don't really know anybody who's put together a collection like that," Isaacs said with a smile, as he shut the drawer.

"After several visits and several drawers opening," laughs Foresta today, "I said to him, 'Chuck, you've got the great American photography collection!' And he said, 'Yeah, I guess I do.'"

Not that Isaacs had actually set out to build this collection at all. He had intended to be a doctor but discovered in college that he loved taking pictures and hated the sight of blood. Ten years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, as a photographer and later as picture editor, honed his eye. "Around 1985, I realized that the pictures I cared about the most were American," says Isaacs, "so it made sense to start concentrating on building the collection and filling in some areas."

Once Foresta and NMAA director Elizabeth Broun knew of Isaacs' secret collection, events took on an air of inevitability. "Merry was very persuasive, as was Betsy," says Isaacs; and soon the Smithsonian had the seminal collection it had sought, most of it by purchase and some by gift. This November, 175 images from the Isaacs Collection will go on view at the NMAA. The exhibition and accompanying book will be the first occasion for the public to enjoy the benefits of a five-year partnership in American art recently established with the museum by the Consolidated Natural Gas Company Foundation and dedicated to preserving the American heritage through photography.

And Charles Isaacs will come by to tip his hat to his old friends. "It was unexpectedly difficult to part with them," reflects Isaacs; "and I'm used to parting with pictures on a regular basis. But I'm especially happy that they are at the National Museum of American Art. I was born in D.C., and I love the NMAA... It was always the friendly museum, the familiar one."

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