I’m interrupting the thread of recent newsletters to comment on news I just received on my inbox. As these Be-hold newsletters deal with issues of collecting photographs, I just had to write about this.
The heading was ”A grandmother’s trove of Civil War photos goes to Library of Congress.” The email just preceding this announced the acquisition of the great Lincoln and Civil War collection of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation by Yale University.
Both of these are national treasures. I’m just struck by the different ways they are presented in the articles that are linked to the emails.
I will omit commenting on the sexist and related age-ist differences, because I’m confident they will be obvious. [Is Kunhardt a grandpa?]
The issue here is that Kunhardt has made use of his collection in many ways through publications and other means. While much of the collection was inherited, Kunhardt added to it and organized it, and so has earned serious scholarly credentials.
Robin Stanford, on the other hand, had no such credentials [although she generously lent her images to some publications.] As the articles make clear, she discovered stereo views early in her life, and began collecting them, focussing her collecting on the Civil War. Fortunately she had the means and time to devote to her collecting in a major way. Many stereo view dealers and collectors knew her and she was and is universally respected for the passion and intelligence of her collecting.
An implied theme of the articles about her collection is that a “mere civilian” who collected these photographs out of love could have amassed a collection of such significance. “Grandma” gives the story a wry “human interest” [what a term!] aspect that takes it away from the cultural significance.
There is a vague and ultimately meaningless distinction between a “professional” photographer and a photographic artist. “Professional” photographers are often thought of as somewhat low-level practitioners of, say, wedding photography. But many of the photographers in the canon made their living with fashion or news or portrait assignments, and somehow the quality of their work became recognized and accepted into the sacred realm of art.
Similarly there is a blurred line separating what we think of as “master” [is there an issue of wealth and power here?] collectors and amateur (“loving”) collectors.
I’m wondering what the difference is between a collection put together by someone out of love, fascination, compulsive acquisition, and one acquired with the conscious aim of contributing to cultural knowledge or other motives, including financial.
Many collections are formed out of passion, but also with the hope and knowledge that their monetary value will be considerably more than their cost. Almost every auction season sees a private collection coming on the market, with great honors heaped on the collector, as well, usually, with great profit.
Many of these collections have been assembled at a far greater cost than Stanford’s, a much greater cost than most who read these newsletters can manage, even if they stretch their resources. Many collectors become more knowledgeable as their collection grows, and their collections can add to the cultural heritage of society.
It is fortunate that Stanford’s collection was significant enough to attract the interest of Carol Johnson, formerly of the Library of Congress, who helped arrange for its acquisition, as well as its public availability on the Library’s website.
Stanford had planned to leave the collection to her son, who passed away. Many collectors, as they age, discover that their families have little interest or understanding of the collection. Sadly many of these collections get dispersed and the knowledge and conceptual thought that went into them gets lost.
As usual, many more issues come tumbling forth than what I started with, so it seems best to leave this open-ended for the time being