The Museum of Photography: A Revision

June 28 to Novem­ber 16, 2014

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

With kind sup­port by:
Pro­ject part­n­er: