Malcolm Daniel, the new curator in charge of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, appears so enamored with Houston that he’s already planning our future together and has arranged a romantic summer trip to France for us. While technically, our getaway is to a 19th century Paris of street demolition, building rubble and public urinals, seen though the lens of the pioneering photographer Charles Marville, the haunting skyscapes and elegance of those public urinals makes this journey quite a lovely getting-to-know-us gift.
Daniel is the coordinating curator for the Houston stop of Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, which was organized by National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C and will be on view at the MFAH until Sept 14. In a recent preview walk through the exhibition, Daniel took his audience down the streets of a 19th century Paris going through immense change, so it was perhaps appropriate that he later took some time out to speak to me about the future changes he would like to bring to how museum goers see and think about the MFAH’s renowned photography collection.
The Parisian Past
Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris gives viewers a fascinating set of portraits of both the city of Paris and the technology and art medium of photography as both evolve in the mid to later 19th century. Marville, the official City of Paris photographer was commissioned to document the transformations of a Paris going through destruction and construction as it expands to become the modern city of lights we hold in our imaginations.
Marville is a definitive example of how 19th century photography could document the world while “striving for art.”
There’s even one wall in the exhibition devoted to just a few examples of the 20,000 gas lamps that became, as Daniel describes them, “proud sentinels of the modern city.”
Though Marville is documenting the daily life in the Paris of his present as it moved closer to the 20th century, Daniel believes “We have to not think of documentary and artistic as being antithetical of one another. They were roles that photography could play at the same time,” and Marville is a definitive example of how 19th century photography could document the world while “striving for art.”
The MFAH’s Photography Future
Along with coordinating this Marville exhibition, Daniel has been busy working to solve a MFAH conundrum. Before her retirement, the founding Curator of the Department of Photography, Anne Wilkes Tucker spent over three decades building the museum’s preeminent photography collection, but there has never been one space in the museum dedicated solely to displaying pieces from that collection. In the fall, and with the support of director Gary Tinterow, Daniel will set out to change this.
“I want people to know that they can come here and this is where they can see the treasures from the photography collection.”
“I wanted there to be place that’s always photographs and not a special exhibition, the same way you go upstairs and see the great old master paintings,” Daniels explained. “I want people to know that they can come here and this is where they can see the treasures from the photography collection.”
The space set aside for selections from the collection might not seem too illustrious at first. The hallway in the lower level of the Beck Building between the parking garage and escalator to the first floor has been used in the past to display a hodgepodge of works, including photography, but it was certainly never a space that museum patrons thought to look for great art treasures. With some renovation, a new flexible lighting system and a warm, grey color for the walls, Daniel hopes that the constant foot traffic to and from the garage will soon help Houstonian photography lovers realize that this is the place to pause, stop, and begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of the MFAH’s collection.
On one wall he envisions displaying glimpses of the whole history of world photography as reflected by the collection, mixing pieces from the very beginning of photography with 21st century photos, European Modernism, photo journalism, landscapes and abstractions and even the unexpected “oddball picture.” The other wall will reflect the collection’s depth, pictures from key figure photographers that the museum holds in great quantity.
The photos displayed will rotate approximately every four months, so “wherever somebody comes here, they’ll know they will see some of the great treasures.”
While the museum will always bring in new exhibitions that celebrate photographic art, like Photographer of Paris, in our future there will be at least one, constant space to explore the MFAH's own vast collection.