In 1959—after 30 years at the Art Institute—Hugh Edwards became the museum’s curator of photography, a position he held until his retirement in 1970. Edwards worked presciently to build the collection and to expand the museum’s long-standing yet fitful exhibitions program in photography, acquiring approximately 3,000 works and organizing nearly 80 exhibitions in just 12 years. As one of only a handful of American curators specializing in photography at that time, Edwards helped shape the field in Chicago and across the country.
Edwards focused on monographic presentations, juxtaposing “canonized” pictures with those by new practitioners. As he later put it, “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.” He was among the first to champion 19th-century photography, acquiring works by Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Alexander Gardner, William Henry Fox Talbot, and others. He also showcased accomplished 20th-century photographers such as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, and W. Eugene Smith. But he especially delighted in nurturing emerging artists and giving a forum to new work. Demonstrating discerning early support, Edwards granted the first major museum exhibitions to Robert Frank, Danny Lyon, and Ray K. Metzker, acquiring their work and that of many others.
The Photographer’s Curator tracks Edwards’s impact on the field, bringing together nearly 200 photographs by more than 70 artists whose works are held in the permanent collection. An accompanying website allows visitors to explore the museum’s history through never-before-seen archival materials and links to every one of Edwards’s exhibitions and acquisitions, his correspondence with artists and collectors, and excerpts from newly produced oral histories with prominent photographers. Together, the exhibition and online component demonstrate Edwards’s range and ability to position the Art Institute at the forefront of American art museums advocating for photography.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website