In episode 66 of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, we discuss the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and its recent acquisition of the Fitz archive
In this episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, we discuss the world class photography collection held in a place you probably wouldn’t think of — the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. We will also discuss the amazing Fitz archive, which includes some of North America’s oldest photographs, and was discovered in a wooden shed in New York this year. The Fitz archive was just acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Full episode transcript
In this episode: the world class photography collection held in a place you probably wouldn’t think of — Kansas City.
Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast.
I’m not a guy who believes in categorical imperatives, but if you love photography, you should see photo exhibitions in person.
I realize with the pandemic dragging on and depending on where you live, it’s not always easy. But if you see a window of opportunity — Go!
But where would you find great photography to view?
It’s true that art galleries that feature substantial photo exhibitions are few and far between in many places. If you live near a major city like New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, or Atlanta, then you have easy access to great photography. There are plenty of museums and art galleries featuring photography in those cities.
Smaller cities can be hit or miss. The Nashville metro area, where I live, has no museums or art galleries dedicated to the art of photography, but we do have a local University with a nice photo gallery space — so Universities can be a viable option. Otherwise photo exhibitions come and go here.
A few months ago I published a podcast about my visit to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. That’s a legacy of Kodak in the city. Well worth a visit.
But here’s an option you’ve probably never considered … The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
As it turns out – this museum in the middle of the American Heartland owns a word-class collection of photographs. I’ve never been to this museum but it’s on my bucket list and I’m hoping to even find a window of time to visit this year.
But how does a museum in Kansas City come to be such a major center for photography?
One word — Hallmark.
KC-based Hallmark is a major greeting card company of course, but it’s also a media company with a television channel, movies, holiday ornaments, and branded retail stores. For artists, the company has long been a force. When I graduated from art school in the early 80s, Hallmark was a destination for illustrators. The company has given work to hundreds or maybe even thousands of staff and freelance artists over the years.
In 2005, Hallmark donated its entire photography collection — 6,500 photographs — to the Nelson-Atkins museum, establishing a world-class photography department in one fell swoop.
In 2017, Nelson-Atkins announced that it had added 800 more photographs to its collection, representing more than 150 artists covering a time span of 190 years. Those acquisitions were funded under the guidance of noted curator Keith Davis, with a $10-million donation from the Hall Family Foundation — again that’s Hallmark-related money. Davis had developed the original 6.500 piece collection while working at Hallmark, and came along to the museum as curator when it was donated.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art made headlines recently for its acquisition of the Fitz daguerreotypes.
Did you hear about the Fitz daguerreotypes and how they were discovered? It’s so interesting I almost posted an episode about it, but ultimately decided not to do that — so here I am now circling back around to talk about it.
Let me give you a very quick outline of what happened with the Fitz archive:
Early in 2021, the press was all abuzz about the discovery of an important collection of very old daguerreotypes found in an unheated wooden shed in Peconic, New York — and I apologize if I’m pronouncing Peconic wrong — I probably am — I always botch the city names. Anyways, this discovery turned out to be the rest of the Fitz Archive, which included some of the earliest known daguerreotypes ever made in the United States. One profile view of Henry Fitz, Jr. dates to 1840 — that’s extremely early in the history of photography.
I said this is the “rest” of the Fitz archive — this discovery is one half of a larger collection that had been known. In fact, the rest of the archive had been donated to the National Museum of American History in the 1930s — I’ll explain that more in a minute.
What makes this archive notable is the fact that it’s all documented with verifiable dates or at least a date range. There are many one-off old images out there, but those are often without documentation.
The Fitz Archive was auctioned by Hindman Auctions in November — that’s when it was acquired by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for $300,000.
Hindman Auctions published a remarkable auction catalog with a detailed history of the collection and all the photographs — it also gives extra information about the daguerreotype process, and describes the condition of all the items in the auction. It also shows photos of the inside of the old workshop shed where the artifacts were found. I’ll include a link to that catalog in the episode write-up and also on my blog at i catch shadows dot com.
Henry Fitz Junior hailed from Peconic, New York. He was a locksmith by trade but had also been serious about making high quality telescopes, which meant he had skills at grinding and polishing excellent mirrors.
This was very early in the development of daguerreotypes and the process was still difficult and problematic. The aspiring daguerreotype team of Johnson and Wolcott had developed a scheme for an improved camera using a mirror, which is where Henry Fitz Jr. comes into the story. They couldn’t make a proper mirror, but Fitz could.
After working with Johnson and Wolcott, Fitz decided he wanted to learn the daguerreotype process. There was a sense that there was big money to be made selling portraits and early photographers were racing to make it viable.
Fitz moved to Baltimore where he established Maryland’s first photography studio and created some of the daguerreotype portraits found in the archive. Some of the daguerreotypes are housed behind brass mats stamped with the words Fecit Balt — that’s f-e-c-i-t b-a-l-t — which means “Made in Baltimore.”
But in Baltimore, Fitz charged more for his portraits than most people could afford, so ultimately the business wasn’t successful. Fitz returned with his large family to New York where he resumed the manufacture of high quality telescopes and optics — these were really great devices and were in demand.
Henry Fitz Junior died in 1863 when a chandelier in his Manhattan house fell on his head — that’s called being a victim of your own success. After his death, Mrs. Fitz with her six kids returned back to Peconic, New York where she still had family connections.
Son Harry Fitz took over management of the telescope business.
Another son George became a successful doctor and later helped establish key medical departments at Harvard University in the 1890s.
Harry and George outlived their other siblings, so they each inherited half of the photo archive, camera gear, and telescopes and other items that are part of the archive.
Harry donated his part of the photo archive to the National Museum of American History in the 1930s and in the course of communications, he mentioned also that his brother George owned the rest of the collection. The Museum attempted to contact George to acquire the remaining photographs, but he never answered their queries
After retiring, Dr. George Fitz returned to Peconic where he died in 1934, never having donated the photographic archive to the Smithsonian or anyone else. and that’s where the daguerreotype collection was discovered in his wooden workshop in the backyard.
Now, those most rare of photographic artifacts are in Kansas City.
But what other photographers are represented in the museum’s collections?
Their website shows a few examples — the work of Gustave Le Gray, Charles Sheeler, Gregory Crewdson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Harry Callahan, Southworth and Hawes, who I discussed at length in a previous episode here, Carleton Watkins – who I have also talked about on this podcast, and others — across a wide spectrum of styles and generations.
A terrific video on their photography page describes the recent acquisitions, and shows work by Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, The Bechers, and others. The new work also includes images by Thomas Struth, Cindy Sherman, Dorothea Lange, Ellsworth Kelly, W. Eugene Smith and Carrie Mae Weems. Just an astounding cast of talent represented there.
As you can see, this museum should be a destination for anyone wanting to see great photographs in person.
But not everything is on display all the time. They rotate shows every five months to protect the prints from the ill effects of light exposure.
At the time of recording this episode, the museum was presenting a photo exhibition under the title “Art of Illusion: Photography and Perceptual Play.” with the works of 25 artists. If you want to plan a visit to the museum, you can see their exhibition schedule on their website.
That’s all I’ve got for this episode, Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.
Sources and Links
The Art Newspaper. “Nelson-Atkins Museum acquires one of the earliest daguerreotype portraits made in the US.” Benjamin Sutton. December 20, 2021.
The East Hampton Star. “Early Photographs Found in Peconic Auctioned.” Jennifer Landes. November 18, 2021.Hindman Auction Catalog via Issuu. “Sale 955 | The Henry Fitz Jr. Archive of Photographic History.“
Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Photography Collection.
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