More than two years have passed since the J. Paul Getty Museum stunned the art world with its clandestine purchase of about 18,000 photographs. Working through tight-lipped agents who revealed neither their client's name nor the international scope of their search, the Getty swept up nine stellar private collections of photographs into one amazing cache.
Since the startling announcement was leaked to the press, the Getty's silence about its new collection has been almost as deafening as the commotion over the news. Not a single exhibition has been mounted to give the public a squint at the mass of photographs. No new purchases have been trumpeted and only a few scholars and assorted visitors have glimpsed the materials that caused all the fuss.
But the Getty can't be accused of sitting on its riches. The photography collection has already grown from 18,000 to 40,000 items--all of which require individual expert attention. The task of sorting, cataloguing and storing the photographs--as well as setting up a working department--isn't finished, but sufficient progress has been made to open a window to the public.
Current exhibitions of Julia Margaret Cameron's romantic 19th-Century photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu and at Loyola Marymount University (complimented by another Cameron show at UCLA) are the first to be staged from the Getty's collection. At the same time, the department is carefully increasing public access to its study room, temporarily located in a Santa Monica high-rise with the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities.
The facilities have been available on a prearranged basis to serious scholars, curators and history of photography classes. Museum spokesmen say that such use will expand as guests can be accommodated. In addition, laymen now may be admitted.
Weston J. Naef, who in 1984 resigned as curator of prints and photographs at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to head the Getty's photography department, explained the rules: "We're open by appointment only, but anyone with a legitimate request can use the facility, even without academic credentials. If you call and say, 'I have a Cameron photograph on my wall and I'd like to see what you have,' that's a legitimate request. Or if you say, 'I fell in love with a photograph by Gustave Le Gray and want to see other examples of his work,' you would be welcome."
A high school student writing a paper on Daguerre may pursue that project at the center, but one who tackles the more amorphous territory of early French photographs may not, he said. "Our criterion is that you have to know enough to be specific. Declaring an interest in old photographs isn't enough. You have to have gotten beyond first base. We respect autodidactic learning, but we're not the first line of education. We don't want browsers."
With much of the collection in order, the department can be less selective in admitting graduate scholars working on photography articles, but college students need recommendations from their professors. Classes are welcome, provided an instructor takes charge. With a staff of only nine, the department is not prepared to take full responsibility for lecturing.
As the photographs have settled into their new home, their number also has become more stable. "The collection will grow by adding to strengths rather than by filling gaps," Naef said. "We add pictures that improve the quality of our strongest suits. When we do fill gaps it must be with the finest, and those are slow in coming." For example, he said, "We must acquire every Julia Margaret Cameron that is equal to or superior to what we have." But in two years not a single one of that quality has been offered.
Foremost among the Getty's other strengths, according to Naef, is the world's best collection of 1,000 works by August Sander. The Getty also could mount important solo shows from its holdings of works by about 50 other artists.
But the collection is not encyclopedic and, if the present philosophy continues, it never will be. Twenty-one Man Ray works have been added to the original purchase of 200, but a void of Margaret Bourke-White's work has been filled by just two pictures. In other cases, Naef is looking for one perfect image to represent a photographer's entire oeuvre.
"We will pay as much as anyone would pay for a superlative work. Otherwise we are very judicious," he said of the Getty's purchasing policy. He said he believes the Getty is in a position to "strike stern bargains" because sellers "know the work will be cared for and shown."