(2010) The International Center of Photography yesterday announced the acquisition of the Barbara Levine Collection of seventy-nine early vernacular photograph albums dating from 1887 to 1938. Focusing on home and family life in the United States as well as travel abroad, it complements the museum’s rich holdings of vernacular photographs, especially its collection of African American family photo albums from the early twentieth-century. As a result of acquiring the Barbara Levine Collection, ICP will have the largest and most comprehensive array of photo albums in the country. This purchase was made by the ICP Acquisitions Committee in honor of Willis E. Hartshorn, the center’s director.

The extensive collection was assembled over the last thirty years by Barbara Levine, a curator, collector, and artist currently living in Mexico. She was formerly the Director of Exhibitions at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Deputy Director of The Contemporary Jewish Museum. She has organized numerous exhibitions and her artwork has been exhibited in the United States and abroad.

Ms. Levine's own work as a photographer and collage and assemblage artist informed her selection of albums. The collection makes the argument that early albums are works of art, carefully edited, compiled, and designed to express the creativity of their mostly female creators. They also trace the transformation of photography in its early years from studio portraiture to pictorialism and modernism. Unlike other collectors who were confined by self-imposed limits of geography or subject matter, Ms. Levine sought out the finest examples of the album genre. Some albums rely on visual conventions while others explode them: images are presented as checkerboards or silhouettes, texts found in magazines are used as witty and unlikely captions, school portraits are arranged to form the date of the graduating class, and snapshots of award-winning chickens are decorated with their feathers. While all the albums tell stories, some are personal (documenting births, weddings, and deaths) and some are historical (portraying, for instance, the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire).

Selections from Levine’s collection were highlighted in two recent publications: Around the World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) and Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Covers and numerous page spreads from each album will soon be featured on eMuseum, ICP’s online presentation of its Permanent Collection.

Pictured above: Unidentified Photographer, Album Documenting Experiences at College,
the Military, and in a Logging Camp, ca. 1900 (detail).
Photo: International Center of Photography, Barbara Levine Collection.