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By Elin Spring
This is a story with a very happy ending. Have you heard? The Howard Greenberg Collection was just acquired by the MFA, Boston with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. My initial reaction was one of shock and awe: that Howard Greenberg? Boston’s MFA? An ardent champion of fine art photography for over 40 years, Greenberg started his career as a freelance photojournalist, went on to found (and is currently Chair of the Board for) the non-profit gallery and educational Center for Photography in Woodstock, N.Y., has published more than 40 catalogs and books (most recently in partnership with Gerhard Steidl), and heads the Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC as one of the world’s foremost fine art photography authorities and dealers. It is impossible to overstate Greenberg’s passion for and influence on photography today. Imagine the access he has had to the world’s finest, most unusual and unique photographs. How did this lifelong New Yorker’s personal collection land in Boston?
Not surprisingly, Howard Greenberg has friendships that span the globe. In 2010, shortly after Parisian curator Sam Stourdzé was named director of Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, Greenberg and he were conversing casually about what photography exhibits he was planning there. Stourdzé declared an interest in exploring some private collections and Greenberg disclosed that he had one, something he ordinarily never mentioned to anyone. This revelation developed into the first formal exhibit of about 150 photographs from The Howard Greenberg Collection in 2012, a show that traveled from Musée de l’Elysée to the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris in 2013, the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest and onto the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where MFA, Boston curators Anne Havinga and Kristen Gresh first saw it in the fall of 2014.
It was no coincidence that MFA, Boston’s Anne Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Chair, Department of Photographs and Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs happened to visit Amsterdam during the exhibition “Masterpieces from the Howard Greenberg Collection.” Months earlier at a conference in Toronto, as Greenberg and Gresh were chatting over a meal, he told her how Stourdzé had surprised him by asking him if his collection was for sale. “I had known that one day I would have to think about placing the collection, so when he asked me, that’s when it became for sale”, Greenberg recalls. But Stourdzé’s museum couldn’t make the purchase. Gresh excitedly brought her discovery home to Havinga, who became equally enthusiastic about the idea of Boston acquiring such a significant collection. The MFA, Boston was in transition but soon after Matthew Teitelbaum assumed Directorship in 2015, the photography curators approached him, heartened that he immediately saw the value of such an acquisition for Boston.
The Howard Greenberg Collection comprises 447 photographs by 191 artists – more than 80 of which are new to the MFA’s holdings – including rare prints of modernist masterpieces and mid-20th Century classics. Greenberg told me that his approach to collecting was “not intellectual. I had no game plan when I started. I just fell in love with photography, then the history of photography and especially with photographic prints, because of my own work in the darkroom. My family life and financial ability influenced what I got, along with the serendipity of opportunity, availability and client desires. And over time, it became a collection. Although I occasionally brought prints to art fairs or placed a few into my gallery’s exhibitions (not for sale), no one knew, I didn’t talk about it.”
Despite his lack of a game plan, the vantage point of hindsight reveals Greenberg’s strong predilection for human engagement and his distinct interest in social history. What struck me immediately about Greenberg’s photographs are the compelling human stories they tell: iconic European prints from the 1920s and 1930s, like Cartier-Bresson’s “Madrid, Spain, 1932”; photographs commissioned by the US Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression, like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother, 1936”; humanistic photographs by members of the Photo League, like Sid Grossman’s “Coney Island, 1947”; and depictions of the Civil Rights movement and African American life, such as Roy DeCarava’s “Coltrane and Elvin, 1960”, are expressive examples.
Not only does each image tell a story, but many of the physical prints harbor stories of their own. In 2000, Greenberg made an agreement with Time Warner to handle their archive, which included a file of Robert Capa’s D-Day photographs on Normandy Beach. It was well-known that Capa’s negatives had been damaged but one of his most famous photographs (above) was in their file and it turned out to be the only print made from the original negative, sharper than any in existence. When Greenberg showed it to Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan, he literally screamed in disbelief. Finally, he could positively determine the contested identity of the soldier in the picture, who was still alive and whom he invited to the opening of the Capa show he curated at the ICA in NY. Now that historic print lives at the MFA, Boston.
The MFA, Boston was one of the first major museums to collect photography, with the 1924 gift of twenty-seven gelatin silver prints from Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia O’Keeffe gave 35 more of her husband’s prints to the MFA in 1950. Significant additions were gifted or bought over the years, totaling about 3,000 photographs in 2012, when the collection saw a major transformation with the gift of The Lane Collection, an addition of 6,000 photographs primarily by Charles Sheeler, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. The Howard Greenberg Collection fills an important gap in the Museum’s holdings with its impressive range of exquisite, unusual and unique masterworks across a wide range of European and American modernist photographers. It brings the photographic holdings of the MFA, Boston to another level.
For his part, Greenberg is delighted that his collection is staying together and in nearby Boston. “Keeping the collection intact advances my mission to educate. It might have gotten lost in an institution with larger collections, but the MFA, Boston has shown such enthusiasm and pride, I’m confident that my photographs will be featured and highlighted there. It was worth waiting four years for this.” Funding for The Howard Greenberg Collection was ultimately secured from the Chicago-based Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. One big achievement for the MFA, Boston, one giant leap for the Boston arts community.
For more details about the Howard Greenberg Collection, go to: https://www.mfa.org/collections/photography/howard-greenberg-collection?utm_source=press&utm_medium=press-materials
Feature Image: Coney Island (Couple Embracing), 1947 (Detail) Sid Grossman (American, 1913–1955) Photograph, gelatin silver print, The Howard Greenberg Collection—Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
An exhibition of works from the Howard Greenberg Collection opens at the MFA on August 11, 2019, and remains on view through December 16, 2019.