The Social Museum Collection

Framing Social Photographs

Arthur D. Trottenberg with Davis W. Pratt, 1966

Harvard University Archives, UAV 605.270.5p, Box 8

“The Social Question: A Photographic Record 1895-1910”

Barbara Norfleet Cohn and William S. Johnson

Harvard University, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 1973

John Szarkowski, the influential director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibited fifty-three Progressive-era documentary photographs from Harvard’s Social Museum collection during the summer of 1974. Szarkowski’s interest in the Social Museum’s reform imagery was twofold. He sought to use the early twentieth-century photographs, made to represent objective “truths” about the world, as counterpoints to the self-consciously subjective expression of the contemporary New Documents photographic practice (Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand) that he was then championing. At the same time Szarkowski underscored what he viewed as the evidentiary vocabulary the Social Museum photographs shared with later documentary camera work. In this way, Szarkowski positioned Harvard’s Social Museum photographs as typological relatives within the specific history of the documentary tradition that he was extolling at America’s citadel of high modern culture.

The particular frame Szarkowski placed around the Social Museum photographs in 1974 is all the more striking because he had selected them from a much larger exhibition that viewed the collection through a sociological lens. Organized by Barbara Norfleet and William S. Johnson for Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, The Social Question: A Photographic Record 1895-1910 opened in the fall of 1973. For Norfleet and Johnson, the Social Museum images functioned as an implicit call to service and emphasized the need for social activism to address the pressing social issues of their own day. Having languished for more than four decades, and nearly discarded on at least one occasion to the dustbin of history, the Social Museum’s photographs were suddenly made doubly relevant in the mid-1970s by powerful institutions and their curators, who recognized in them deeply resonant aesthetic qualities and social content.

Peabody’s enthusiasm for photography as an essential primary source for the Social Museum reflected the medium’s vital role in the larger progressive movement, which affected every aspect of the social program and raised issues about society’s obligation to the individual that are still a concern today. Social reformers used photographs as if they were incorruptible specimens of social problems and solutions, exploiting the power of the image to persuade, especially in connection with text and statistics. The photographs in this collection encompass a broad range of styles and formats, from modest snapshots to carefully composed large-format pictures and from crude halftone reproductions to luscious platinum prints. The diversity of technique and inconsistency of approach expose the expansive use of photography as a social document decades before the codification of a documentary style and collide with the institution’s obsessive system of classification and display. This disjuncture also evidences the uncanny capability of the Social Museum photographs to simultaneously index and elude their framing contexts.