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Building a Photography Collection

National Gallery curator focuses on key figures in the field. INTERVIEW

FOR Sarah Greenough, a photo in the hand is still worth 2,000 in the computer. "I have the feeling that people will always want to hold photos," she says, "and frame them, and put them on their walls."

As the first curator of photography for the National Gallery of Art, Ms. Greenough's professional sentiment is balanced by the obvious: the methods of taking, storing, and duplicating photographic images are undergoing a sea-change.

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From video discs storing photos, to photos stored on CDs, to photos scanned for storage and publication, technological changes may mean the very word "photography" will give way to an amalgam in the future.

"Photographers these days, are concerned about computer generated imagery," Greenough says, seated before a huge window with a view of the Capitol dome. "If the negative resides in the computer, and 8-by-10 prints, or slides, or a 30-by-40-inch print can be produced year after year, where is the hand, the eye, the artist in the process? This is not to say [computer imagemaking] is good or bad, but photographers know the change has to be dealt with."

No matter how the image is generated, Greenough contends that photography remains popular because it is common to nearly everyone. A National Gallery exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs drew 600,000 people in two months in 1985.

"When people come into a photo exhibition," she says, "they approach it so much more easily, and in a relaxed fashion than an exhibition of paintings. Everybody takes photos. It's not a process that is mysterious to people. So, they say [when coming to an exhibit], `How does this person see the world I know too?'"

Unlike most other major galleries around the United States, the National Gallery did not collect photographs after it opened in 1941. Then in 1949, artist Georgia O'Keeffe donated a key set of 1,600 prints from Alfred Stieglitz, her husband.

"When Stieglitz died," says Greenough, "he had almost a complete set of his work. O'Keeffe realized that if she kept it together, then students and the public would have a much better understanding if they could go to one institution and see his work from beginning to end." And not only the images, but also how Stieglitz cropped the same negatives differently down through the years.

In essence this criterion - in-depth rather than comprehensive collecting - defines Greenough's and the National Gallery's strategy for collecting. "By the mid-'80s it was clearly too late to begin to acquire a comprehensive collection of photography because many key pieces were already in other collections," Greenough says.

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After the success of the Ansel Adams exhibit in 1985, Mrs. Adams offered the gallery a collection of Adams photos, which the gallery accepted. Not long after that a large collection of Paul Strand photos and a collection of Walker Evans works were accepted. "Our approach now will focus on key figures and their work in-depth," says Greenough, "people whose photographs and ideals have significantly affected the course of photography." The next major exhibit will be the work of Robert Frank, scheduled to op en September 1994.

Greenough explains that the National Gallery does not collect work that is "on the cutting edge, but rather work by senior, living photographers. "Nor do we collect just the work of Americans. Yes, at the moment we have work only by white males, but we would very much like to have women photographers [in the collection]."

Greenough became the first photography curator at the National Gallery in 1989 after several years of research and curating work there. In 1983 she co-authored a book with Juan Hamilton titled, "Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings," which won an American Book Award.

While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Greenough recalls her first encounter with the emotional impact of photos. "I was sitting on the floor of the library," she says,"looking at photography books. I came across Robert Frank's book on Americans. I was utterly overwhelmed by what I saw; what he had done seemed to express my feeling about America and my childhood. One of his famous photos called `Canal Street' has a bewildered child being carried along by her father, and I remembered that feel ing as a child."

Greenough thinks the coming generation of photographers may have different characteristics then pre-computer generations. "Photographers in their 40s are used to working with negatives," she says, "and making a print of some kind because the whole process is fascinating. They still have that love of the technique, of getting the perfect expression on paper. And it may be that the generation in their teens now won't want to have that photo to hold. They will be more interested in having it stored in a com puter."

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