A ghost has been haunting podiums, periodicals, and arts pages for decades: the ghost of the photography museum. “We need one,” say advocates; “really?” counter opponents. Chemist Erich Stenger (1878–1957), a passionate collector of photographs, viewed them not as art, but as technological evidence. Yet the way he envisaged presenting them was in a museum.
At an early date he called for the establishment of a (technology-based) museum of photography, accumulating items for it and drawing up a display plan. Today, his extensive collection is part of the Agfa Collection and thus an important part of the Photographic Collection of the Museum Ludwig—in other words, of an art museum.
Among the first collectors of photography, he amassed holdings of nineteenth-century landscapes, portraits, photographs taken by airmen in World War I, portraits framed as decorative items, prizewinning pictures of animals from the first half of the twentieth century, caricatures about photography, and much else besides. As a scientist, Stenger collected data and represented it in the form of tables and diagrams. That is also how he ordered everything relating to photography that he could lay his hands on. He distinguished some one hundred categories, from architecture photography to trick photography. His museum was to resemble an encyclopedia of photography, and in that sense he was very much a man of the nineteenth century. He showed his collection at most major photography exhibitions held during his lifetime, including Pressa in Cologne in 1928.
Stenger’s collection is now integrated into the Agfa collection, which in turn forms an important part of the photography holdings at the Museum Ludwig. The items amassed by Stenger now therefore constitute a museum within a museum—within an art museum, in fact. How is an art museum to deal with a collection of this kind? Individual items and sections from it have been exhibited since the early years of the twentieth century. At the Museum Ludwig it has been represented in Facts (2006), Silber und Salz (Silver and Salt; 1988), An den süssen Ufern Asiens (On the Sweet Shores of Asia; 1989), and many other shows. Stenger’s ideas about his collection are now being spotlighted and presented under one roof. This seems appropriate at a time when museums and archives are the subject of heated debates and intensive self-examination. As institutions, they shape and regulate cultural memory; and photography in museums, in particular, influences our view of the past and the present. This function of the Stenger collection acquired semi-official status in 2005, when it was named a national cultural treasure. That is reason enough to subject it to a reappraisal, re-examining its contents, the criteria governing its accumulation, and the ways in which an art museum might want to approach it today.
The exhibition comprises approximately 250 photographs and objects. A catalogue of the exhibition, Photographien führen wir nicht…: Lebenserinnerungen des Sammlers Erich Stenger (1878–1957), is published in German by Kehrer Verlag.
Curator: Miriam Halwani