The Photographer’s Curator
Hugh Edwards seemed to embody numerous contradictions: although he only had a high school education, he was by all accounts a true intellectual, an avid reader who taught himself French and Italian so he could read Jean Genet and Alberto Moravia in their original tongues; he was knowledgeable about classical music, opera, the ballet, and Renaissance painting, but he also was a voracious consumer of the music of Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers as well as the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Grand Prix. A sensitive photographer himself, Edwards documented the real people who frequented a local roller-rink, until he decided to stop taking pictures because, as he put it, “other people take them for me.” During his brief but significant tenure as the Art Institute’s curator of photography, he preferred to keep out of the spotlight as he championed the work of artists; despite the fierceness of his opinions, demonstrated through his voluminous correspondence, he only rarely published his thoughts about photography. And in a career that has been largely overlooked, Edwards had an enormous and permanent impact on the museum, on the city of Chicago, and on the public’s understanding of photography in twentieth-century America.
Edwards had already been at the museum for several decades before he was asked to lead the Art Institute’s photography program. He began working part-time in the museum’s library in 1929, and soon transferred to the Department of Prints and Drawings, where he eventually became the assistant to the curator Carl O. Schniewind and a curator in the department himself. This was fortuitous timing, for Schniewind initiated a series of ambitious, if intermittent, photography exhibitions in the 1940s, presenting the work of Lisette Model, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, André Kertész, and Walker Evans, the photographer whom Edwards credited with opening his eyes to the camera’s possibilities. Beginning in 1951, Peter Pollack organized exhibitions of photographs out of the museum’s publicity office—showing work by Harry Callahan, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston, among others—often acquiring prints from such shows. In 1957 Schniewind died and Pollack left the museum. Harold Joachim was named the head of the Department of Prints and Drawings, and he charged Edwards with spearheading a new program of exhibitions and acquisitions. (Edwards would later confess to Pollack that he was “frightened to heartburn by this new responsibility.”) The several hundred Pollack acquisitions now joined the 244 photographs by Stieglitz and his circle gifted to the museum from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1949, forming the core of the nascent photography collection.
A version of this account of Edwards’s predecessors appears in a 1963 article, the only published text in which the curator explained his positions on photography. In the piece Edwards demonstrates how photographs quietly and almost effortlessly entered the permanent collection of a large survey museum while avoiding a pitched battle for the soul of art. “It is remarkable and commendable,” he wrote, “how this took place with no opposition and without trying to bait the public with the paradisiacal rewards of some restricted philosophy of the camera’s purisms.” It may have been a seamless transition, but the attention given to photography differentiated the Art Institute of Chicago from American art museums in the 1950s and 1960s. As Edwards himself explained in a letter, “Other than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago is the only major museum in the United States which has continuous shows of photography.” Comparisons to the Museum of Modern Art were inevitable, due to its prominence and well-known dedication to photography. But Edwards subtly employed the example of MoMA as a foil to clarify his own intentions at the Art Institute. When explaining his goals for exhibitions, for example, he underscored his desire to mount single-artist shows of smaller prints rather than “huge ‘expositions'” comprising “gadgety installations” of mural-sized enlargements—a marked contrast to displays like The Family of Man, organized for MoMA by Edward Steichen. Edwards was, in fact, offered the chance to lead the photography department at MoMA, perhaps as an antidote to that approach. When he declined, the position went to John Szarkowski, a photographer whose work Edwards had exhibited in 1960; Szarkowski, a close colleague, would go on to collaborate with Edwards on exhibitions during his influential thirty-year run at MoMA.
At the Art Institute, Edwards aimed to collect and present a historical survey of photography, with particular focus on nineteenth-century artists (still little known at the time) and new talents who had not yet had the opportunity to display their work in a museum. He added three thousand works to the collection, ranging from nineteenth-century travel and expedition albums to groups of photographs by modern masters like Edward Weston and Lewis Hine to the latest images from emerging photographers, with a special focus on Chicago. Edwards organized some seventy-five exhibitions, not including rotations of recent acquisitions; these were almost entirely monographic shows in which he tried “to represent an individual’s use of the camera and a summary of his discoveries.” With only rare exceptions, in the case of a handful of traveling shows or when desired material was otherwise inaccessible, Edwards originated most of the shows himself. In modest-sized galleries—not much more than a hallway until he was granted a larger exhibition space—he presented clean, typically single-hung displays of small prints, letting the artist take center stage.
“Looking at photographs,” Edwards told the photography writer Jacob Deschin in 1965, “enlarges one’s awareness of the world, makes one increasingly more conscious of many things in life one did not know before, inspires fresh perspectives.” For Edwards, photographs existed for the public, and his exhibitions were intended to reach as many people as possible. His philosophy on this point was simple but open: “In Chicago, we knew the public meant everybody, and our hope was to cause them to want to look at photographs.” His accessibility extended beyond the gallery walls and into the Print Study Room, which he kept open five afternoons a week and staffed himself. Many former students and photographers have reflected fondly how this generous gesture allowed them to view photographs from the collection in private contemplation or in the company of the curator. Edwards was equally receptive to viewing new work; a report he drafted on his activities for the year 1967 states that he had examined an astonishing 357 portfolios brought in by aspiring photographers. This exchange was not merely an aesthetic exercise, and it certainly wasn’t academic: Edwards felt that viewing photographs could change one’s outlook on humanity. He articulated this most forcefully in the exhibition text for the 1961 exhibition of Robert Frank’s work: “To the visitor it is hoped that [the photographs] will be an experience the reward of which will be that, after viewing them and returning to the usual sights of the streets and public places, he will have a somewhat increased vision and sympathy for everyday ordinary life and what he may have regarded as commonplace and insignificant.”
Feeling that photography should be reward enough without verbal embellishment, Edwards was skeptical when it came to writing about photographs, believing it “superfluous.” With the exception of a few key texts, the curator found literature on photography to be bombastic and insipid. He wrote to photographer Lyle Bongé before his 1965 exhibition at the Art Institute, warning him against “complex thoughts for the exhibition”: “There is nothing so awful, futile, and hate-provoking as the credo of some photographer-poet, photographer-philosopher, photographer-sociologist-humanity-lover. I am grateful you are not one of those.” When Edwards did write down his opinions about photography—primarily in the form of letters and exhibition-related texts—he filled his prose with literary and art historical allusions. He compared the panoramic Midwest landscapes of Art Sinsabaugh to the format of works by Titian and Rembrandt; Rudolph Janu’s scenes of Chicago to the atmosphere of Albert Camus’s The Stranger; the fluid gestures in Robert Riger’s sports photographs to the paintings of Géricault, Pollaiuolo, and Uccello; the lonely humanity found in Dave Heath’s pictures to the writings of James Baldwin, Jean Genet, and John Rechy.
Edwards’s acquisitions and exhibitions, not surprisingly, followed his personal tastes. He attempted to sum up his preferences in a 1969 letter, “My tastes are hard to define: what affects me is usually what I could never intellectualize about, nor do I feel they should be questioned. I am very self-centered, I suppose, and what I like—no matter what—is anything that makes me feel right and glad I am alive.” Edwards disliked obvious symbolism, didacticism, clichés, propaganda, and overt sociological explanations; he was drawn to empathy, realism, and what he referred to as actuality—in short, ordinary people observed and documented in ordinary moments. He seems to have been attracted by depictions of motion (for example, Danny Lyon’s motorcycle riders and Robert Riger’s athletes) and felt particular affinity for the photographers of Magnum, the photojournalist collective. He championed color work as much as black and white. In a magazine essay accompanying a portfolio of Illinois photographers, Edwards explained that photography needed to be understood on its own terms: “The reminder is always constant that the camera is not an instrument of painting, drawing, or conventional printmaking, but the auxiliary of a medium which has virtues, handicaps, and difficulties peculiarly its own.”
Above all, Edwards prized a certain strain of American realism in photography whose roots he traced to the unvarnished vision of nineteenth-century daguerreotypists. This tradition continued, he felt, in Lewis Hine’s empathetic photographs of immigrants and workers at the turn of the century and in Walker Evans’s poetic documents of Depression-era America. Subsequent inheritors included W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Simpson Kalisher, and later Danny Lyon, “recorder-interpreters who transcend their time and subject matter so that their work is characterized by an enduring contemporaneity.” Indeed, Edwards’s first exposure to this kind of approach was when he encountered Walker Evans’s book American Photographs, a moment he later called one of those “red letter events in life” that “made the world about me entirely new once more and filled it with marvels.” He maintained a lengthy correspondence with Evans, exhibiting his work in 1964 and adding a group of thirty significant works to the Art Institute’s collection. Edwards had a similar experience of profound discovery when he stumbled upon Robert Frank’s The Americans in a Greenwich Village bookshop in 1959. He wrote the photographer in May of 1960 to offer him an exhibition, telling him, “I feel your work is the most sincere and truthful attention paid the American people for a long time.” The 1961 exhibition, the photographer’s first solo museum show, provided early support when Frank’s book faced scathing criticism; soon, of course, it would be acknowledged as a classic. And among the many young photographers whom Edwards nurtured was Danny Lyon, whose photographs of the Chicago Outlaws, working-class residents of the Uptown neighborhood, and Texas prisoners represented to Edwards a further continuation of this vaunted American documentary tradition.
Edwards’s place in photographic history could be cemented by his prescient recognition of talent alone: besides offering the first museum exhibitions to Frank and Lyon, he also mounted the first one-person museum shows of Dave Heath, Ray K. Metzker, Dennis Stock, and many others. The permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago certainly benefited from his exceptional interest in nineteenth-century photography and in select twentieth-century masters. But what truly set Edwards apart as a curator was his remarkable openness to and enthusiasm for a wide range of photographic work—by a Lithuanian priest, a sports illustrator, or a Chilean photojournalist, for example—that still accorded with his ideals of what a camera ought to be used for. Edwards did not set out to establish a canon of photography, although through his insight and his position as one of the few photography curators at an art museum in America in the 1960s he certainly contributed to its formation; many of his choices have withstood the tests of time and shifting tastes, while others now occupy more marginal positions in photography’s history. Rather, he later said, his aims were simple enough: “I wanted people to look at as many kinds of photographs as possible and become able to identify the unique and excellent in any guise in which they might appear.”
Elizabeth Siegel is Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.
 Quoted in Danny Lyon, interview with the author, Aug. 2016. Edwards often explained that he relinquished his own camera work after first seeing the photographs of Robert Frank. See Edwards to Roland Gelatt, Mar. 23, 1961, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
 He contributed articles during those years to the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago on Max Weber, Odilon Redon, Jean-François Millet, and Umberto Boccioni, among many others.
 Edwards wrote that he “had a large part in the organization of” Schniewind’s exhibitions from 1943 to 1951. Edwards to David Vestal, Sept. 8, 1969, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago. He was certainly involved with Walker Evans’s 1947–48 exhibition, and acquired a photograph for his own collection; see Edwards to Walker Evans, Feb. 13, 1948, Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 Edwards to Peter Pollack, Mar. 31, 1959; Getty Research Institute, Peter Pollack Papers; thanks to Philip Brookman for sending this along.
 Edwards, “Some Experiences with Photography,” Contemporary Photographer 4, 4 (Fall 1963), p. 5.
 Edwards to Mrs. Carl E. Salze, Febr. 12, 1969, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago. Other museums with a focus on photography at the time included the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.
 Edwards, “Some Experiences with Photography,” p. 6.
 This offer was not something Edwards discussed publicly, but conversations (between the author and those who knew Edwards) and original correspondence confirm it; see, for example, Howard Dearstyne to Edwards, June 12, 1961, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
 See the thematic essays as well as the complete list of acquisitions on this site for greater detail.
 Edwards, “Some Experiences with Photography,” p. 6.
 Jacob Deschin, “Hugh Edwards: Aim for the Realistic Image,” Popular Photography 57, 1 (July 1965), p. 28.
 Edwards, “Some Experiences with Photography,” p. 6.
 See, for example, the interviews recorded on this website with Joel Snyder, Charles Swedlund, and Kenneth Josephson.
 Edwards, Typewritten Report for the Year 1967, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
 Edwards, exh. label for Photographs by Robert Frank, 1961, Hugh Edwards Archive, collection of David and Leslie Travis, copy on file in the Photography Department, the Art Institute of Chicago.
 Edwards, introduction to Enrico Natali: New American People (Morgan &
Morgan, Inc., 1972), n.p.
 Among the few such texts that Edwards deemed deserving of praise were Lincoln Kirstein’s essay in Walker Evans’s American Photographs, Jack Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, and Jonathan Williams’s introduction to Simpson Kalisher’s Railroad Men.
 Edwards to Lyle Bongé, Jan. 12, 1965, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
 See the exhibition labels and press releases for these photographers on this site (originals on file in the Photography Department, the Art Institute of Chicago).
 Edwards to Bill Endres, Mar. 31, 1969, Institutional Archives, Art Institute of Chicago.
 Edwards, “A Photography Portfolio,” Art Scene 1, 4 (Jan. 1968), p. 23.
 Edwards, review of Railroad Men, by Simpson Kalisher, Infinity: American Society of Magazine Photographers 11, 3 (Mar. 1962), p 19.
 Edwards, “Some Experiences with Photography,” p. 5.
 Edwards to Robert Frank, May 23, 1960, Hugh Edwards Archive, collection of David and Leslie Travis, copy on file in the Photography Department, the Art Institute of Chicago.
 Quoted in Charles Leroux, “Hugh Edwards: An Unheralded Mentor to Great Photographers,” American Photographer 2, 4 (Apr. 1979), p. 69.
Citation: Elizabeth Siegel, “The Photographer’s Curator,” in Hugh Edwards at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1959–1970 (Art Institute of Chicago, 2017), http://media.artic.edu/edwards.