On a recent wintry afternoon, Jeff Rosenheim, the newly appointed head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photography department, stopped in at its special exhibition galleries. He was checking on the installation of a new acquisition: a 61-minute video called “Street,” by the British-born artist James Nares.
As brilliantly colored images splashed across a 16-foot-long screen, teams of art handlers and curators were placing photographs, drawings, sculptures and paintings in adjacent galleries. “This is exactly what we’re trying to do,” Mr. Rosenheim said, “to show photography in the context of many different kinds of art.”
Douglas Eklund, a photography curator who was also on hand for the installation that day, chimed in: “Photography has always been on a long road. But now it’s out of the ghetto.”
The Met exhibition, called “Street” like the video, opened on March 5 and includes a United Nations’ worth of art and objects dating from 3000 B.C. to 1987, chosen by Mr. Nares from the Met’s permanent collection.
Everything in some way illustrates the energy and dynamism of street life. There is a Mesopotamian sculpture of a walking figure and an ancient Egyptian limestone relief from the reign of Akhenaten, depicting the king and his courtiers. There are also paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists like Messerschmidt, Goya and Degas, as well as work by contemporary artists including Alberto Giacometti, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. Photography is central to the show too, with images by masters like Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.
“Street,” on view through May 27, crosses curatorial divides in new ways for an institution like the Met, having been organized by Mr. Eklund, the photography curator, and Ian Alteveer, associate curator in the department of modern and contemporary art.
It is just one of countless examples of the kinds of exhibitions being organized by museum photography departments across the country at a time when a large number of new photography curators have taken the helm at major museums.
This recently appointed crop is not a bunch of 20-somethings. They are all seasoned professionals, mostly in their 40s or early 50s, and they are approaching the medium differently than their predecessors. Where the curator of 20 or 30 years ago struggled to be recognized, this generation no longer has to fight to be heard. Museum directors are realizing that photography exhibitions attract crowds, particularly the young audiences they covet, so they are giving more attention and space to the medium than ever before.
In years past, the Met’s photography department would never have considered showing a video, let alone acquiring one as it did “Street.”
“We started collecting videos when they have an organic relationship to photography,” said Mr. Rosenheim, who was promoted to run the Met’s photography department in September. Explaining the connection of “Street” to the medium, he noted that unlike films with a traditional story line, the video — like a series of photographs — has no narrative to follow, allowing viewers to dip in and out at random.
The giant screen, at the entrance to the special exhibition galleries for prints, drawings and photographs, stops visitors with the video’s hypnotic street scenes around Manhattan. The high-definition colors make everything look more real than real. There are children of varying ages and street vendors; tourists and businessmen traversing different parts of the city; there’s a gritty shot of Broadway one moment and bustling Columbus Circle the next; the mash-up of crowds on the sidewalks of Lower Manhattan, the statuesque buildings along Park Avenue.
Over a week in September 2011, Mr. Nares shot 16 hours of video around the city. He then distilled his film into the 61-minute artwork, purposely slowing down the action.
“We can be far more experimental now,” Mr. Rosenheim said. “For so long we were fighting just to have a wall.”
In December his department was one of only two singled out for praise at the museum’s annual acquisitions dinner, for having recently added 36 dye transfer prints by William Eggleston, now on view in its photography galleries. The department is also responsible for “After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age,” on view through May 27, and next month it will open “Photography and the American Civil War,” a large exhibition featuring 200 photographs from the Met’s collection. There are also photographs in the museum’s current blockbuster, “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity.”
While the Met’s photography department is not the oldest in the country, Mr. Rosenheim said, its holdings are extensive and encyclopedic. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is reputed to have started collecting first, in 1924, when Alfred Stieglitz gave it 27 photographs. Over the years Stieglitz helped the Met establish its collection too. His first gift to the Met was in 1928, but surprisingly, it did not establish a separate photography department until 1992. (The Boston museum still groups photographs with prints and drawings.)
Other major museums have similarly embraced photography, some sooner than others. Although the Museum of Modern Art is younger than the Met, it started putting together its collection in 1930, a year after its founding — and a decade later the museum established a separate photography department. It now has a world-class collection of modern and contemporary works.
Some institutions, however, find themselves playing catch-up. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, whose photography department was founded in 1983, Britt Salvesen, the curator of photography, prints and drawings, said that 30 years ago its collection had fewer than 3,000 images; today it has some 15,000.
Now the museum is increasing both the amount of space it provides for photography and its acquisitions. Ms. Salvesen reports that from 2002 through 2006 it devoted about 37,000 square feet to the subject. With photo exhibitions increasing markedly since, the museum in 2012 alone had photo-based art on view in 46,000 square feet of gallery space.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art not only has a world-renowned photography collection built over the last 78 years, it also has a consistently robust exhibition schedule, like its current show, devoted to the street photographer Garry Winogrand, which opened this month.
Nearby, the de Young museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is trying to build a different kind of photo collection, concentrating on the work of local artists. While the museum is going through a difficult time — it has recently had many staff departures and is currently without a director — its chief curator, Julian Cox, happens to be a photography expert.
“There’s a hungry audience of people who want to see photography shows,” said Mr. Cox, who wears two hats; he is both the de Young’s chief curator and head of the photography department for the fine arts museums.
The reason for photography’s popularity, he said, is simple: “It’s accessible.”
The need for accessibility is not lost on officials at the Morgan Library and Museum, which hired its first photography curator last year. It has come especially late to the party, having mounted its first photography show only in 2008 — an exhibition of Irving Penn’s portraits.
“Photography relates to the history of books and of so much else here,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “We’re hoping this will be an opportunity to introduce a new audience to a whole range of what we do.”
Joel Smith, the new curator, who ran the photography department at the Princeton University Art Museum before coming to the Morgan, said his mission was to integrate photography with the rest of the museum’s collection. His first show, opening next January, called “A Collective Invention,” will explore “a wide range of the camera’s exploits including astronomy, sports, news, art, criminology and the documenting of everyday life,” he said.
Mr. Smith, along with his colleagues across the country, is keenly aware that photography has changed drastically over the years, becoming more and more ingrained in everyday life through the Internet and Photoshop, smartphones and devices like iPads.
“Now everyone’s a photographer,” he said. “It’s part of the language of what we do. All you have to do is walk down the street. And with Facebook or Tumblr there are infinite possibilities. But museums should be devoted to the original thing. That will continue to give the public a reason to see what’s here.”
Quentin Bajac, who recently arrived from the Pompidou Center in Paris to run the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, had a somewhat different take on the way the Internet has changed things.
“We’re in a time when there are too many photographs online,” he said. “We have to help people learn to swim in that new ocean of images.” He sees his mission as “educating the eye.”
Although Mr. Bajac has yet to curate his first show at MoMA, he signaled an approach different from the one seen in the exhibition currently on view: “Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light.” While such monographic exhibitions are important, Mr. Bajac said, “I’m thinking of photography within a far broader context — with film and painting, architecture and drawing — making connections that show it to be equal in status with all the arts.”
Ms. Salvesen of the Los Angeles museum says she believes this generation of curators approach the medium with a broader outlook in part as a response to the way artists are using photography. “You can’t draw boundaries anymore,” she said.
Katherine Bussard, an associate photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, who is taking over for Mr. Smith at Princeton in April, agrees. She has been at work on two exhibitions that she hopes push the envelope.
One, now at the Milwaukee Art Museum, is called “Color Rush: 75 Years of Color Photography in America” and uses images from magazines, advertisements and photojournalists to explore the history of color images from 1907 to 1981.
The second, opening at the Art Institute of Chicago in October 2014, is “The City Dynamic: Representing Crisis and Renewal in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles,” which explores the American city of the 1960s and ’70s through its political upheavals, shifting urban demographics, economics and culture. She is hoping it will travel to Princeton in February 2015.
“The exhibition focuses on how photography was used by architects, filmmakers, artists, urban planners and activists to project images of the future city to the public and to frame stakes of urban transformation in these three different cities for different artistic and political ends,” she said.
“It’s an interesting moment,” Ms. Bussard added. “Earlier generations were struggling to have photography taken seriously. We’re way past that now.”