The Museum announced in September 2018 the acquisition of the Howard Greenberg Collection of Photographs, funded by a major gift from the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. Carefully assembled over more than three decades, the collection comprises 447 photographs by 191 artists, including rare prints of modernist masterpieces and mid-20th-century classics. Social history and the human experience form an important thread of the collection, presented through documentary photography and photojournalism.
The Howard Greenberg Collection includes iconic European masterpieces from the 1920s and 1930s as well as a wide range of socially conscious works—powerful visual testimonies of Depression-era America, politically engaged street photography, exceptional examples of wartime photojournalism, and poignant depictions of African American life from the 1930s through the Civil Rights movement. Integrating these photographs into the MFA’s collection allows the Museum to explore fresh narratives, bring new insights and perspectives to current issues, and celebrate photography as an art form as well as a social, cultural and political force.
Phillip Leonian (1927–2016) was an innovative photographer who specialized in advertising and editorial work in New York from the 1950s through the 1980s. Together, he and his wife Edith Rosenbaum Leonian (1938–2013) ran a photography studio in New York City for 30 years. In 2010, the Leonians created the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation to raise awareness of and appreciation for photography and photographers. The Phillip and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust, established in 2016 following Phillip Leonian’s death, carries on the vision of Phillip and Edith Leonian, with Jacques Aaron Preis serving as Trustee.
An exhibition of works from the Howard Greenberg Collection opens at the MFA on August 11, 2019, and remains on view through December 16, 2019. The display will feature highlights of the acquisition: classic black-and-white images demonstrating the breadth of photographs assembled by Greenberg. The accompanying publication will include illuminating essays by Anne Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Chair, Department of Photography, and Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs, along with an interview with the collector.
Among the strengths of the Howard Greenberg Collection is its depth of photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. Complementing the modernist images already in the MFA’s collection by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, iconic photographs such as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), Arthur Rothstein’s Dust Storm, Cimarron County (1936) and Walker Evans’s Negroes’ Church, South Carolina (1936) provide context into the social upheavals of the era. The collection features socially engaged photography by members of the Photo League—including Sid Grossman, Sol Libsohn and Jerome Liebling—who documented life in New York City. Their work captures scenes of everyday life beginning during the New Deal and extending into Postwar America—urban stories told from multiple perspectives through an important group of humanist photographs.
The Howard Greenberg Collection includes a number of original prints used for publication in Life magazine, which released its first issue in 1936 and quickly gained millions of subscribers. Among these are famous wartime photographs such as Robert Capa’s Death of a Militia Soldier, Cerro Muriano (1936) and Normandy Invasion on D-Day (1944) as well as Eddie Adams’s General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing Viet Cong Officer (1968), which present new opportunities for the MFA to tell stories that bear witness to human conflict. Notable examples of photojournalism in the Howard Greenberg Collection also include 20 images by Weegee, who became one of New York’s most prominent newspaper photographers in the 1930s and 1940s. Working mainly at night, he captured candid images of crime scenes and catastrophes around the city, tipped off by a short-wave police radio installed in his car.
Significant photographs depicting African American life in the Howard Greenberg Collection include evocative portraits of jazz musicians by W. Eugene Smith and Roy DeCarava as well as somber images of the Civil Rights movement by Charles Moore and James Karales. These works depicting civil unrest and resistance will resonate with today’s audiences. The collection also includes important images by renowned photographer Gordon Parks and a work by under-recognized photographer Consuelo Kanaga, which emphasizes her dedication to capturing black America and victims of virulent racism.
Other highlights of the Howard Greenberg Collection are a group of key photographs—including Madrid, Spain (1933)—by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who championed the concept of capturing the “decisive moment,” as well as works by Robert Frank, Leon Levinstein, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and James Van Der Zee. The collection also holds major works by master photographer Edward Steichen, including his striking 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson draped with a lace veil. In addition to classic works by prominent American photographers such as Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, and Margaret Bourke-White, the acquisition contains powerful photographs by Mexican, Czech, and Hungarian artists Manuel Álvarez Bravo, André Kertész, Josef Sudek, Jaromir Funke, and Imre Kinszki.
Of the 191 photographers represented in the acquisition, more than 80 are new to the MFA’s holdings, including renowned artists such as Leonard Freed, Sid Grossman, Frances Benjamin Johnston, James Karales, Charles Moore, Inge Morath, Ruth Orkin, Jacob Riis, Peter Sekaer, David “Chim” Seymour, Ben Shahn, and Roman Vishniac, among others.