Reopening the Book on “New Documents,” 50 Years Later

Opening of the exhibition “New Documents,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 27, 1967. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

On February 27, 1967, MoMA opened New Documents, a three-person exhibition organized by John Szarkowski, then director of the Department of Photography. It featured work by three young photographers — Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand — and, as A. D. Coleman put it, “the collective statement that emerged from their work in aggregate fell like a bombshell on the world of photography.”[1]

“Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967.” By Sarah Hermanson Meister, with an essay by Max Kozloff. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017

Much of that exhibition has since become legend, and separating the fact from the myth is part of the rationale behind Sarah Hermanson Meister’s new publication, Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. As she explains in her essay, “Newer Documents,” the exhibition was not accompanied by a catalogue, and so over the years some inaccuracies about New Documents have taken root.

On February 27, 50 years to the day since the exhibition’s opening, artists, scholars, and curators gathered to celebrate the release of the book and reflect on the exhibition, both its impact in 1967 and its legacy since. Panelists Max Kozloff, Tod Papageorge, and Martha Rosler all saw the original installation, and have since critically engaged with the exhibition and its artists.

In May of 1966, when he first proposed an exhibition called “The New Document,” Szarkowski did plan a 64-page exhibition catalogue, featuring 50 plates. It would seem that he didn’t expect the book to be comprehensive, since in the same proposal he estimated 80 works would be included in the exhibition. On a MoMA publication schedule from c. 1965, the book was scheduled to be published in November of 1966, when the exhibition was originally anticipated to open, but the lack of an asterisk next to it signaled that it wasn’t yet in production. Many of the planned catalogues of the time weren’t completed: of the nine from the Department of Photography scheduled for 1966 and 1967 only four — The Hampton Album (1966), Dorothea Lange (1966), The Photographer’s Eye (1966), and Photography as Printmaking (1968) — were published.

John Szarkowski, exhibition proposal, May 9, 1966, Department of Photography files. Photo: Kristen Gaylord

Two weeks before the exhibition opening, Szarkowski wrote to all three photographers, explaining that for “a great thick sheaf of reasons we have been forced to postpone indefinitely our hope of doing a book on the New Documents show.”[2] And although not every one of those reasons is recorded in archival material, many of them seem to do with securing permission from the artists or their subjects. In the same letter he wrote, “By the time that we do do it, we may have also worked out some system of recompense for photographers on whom we do books, that you will find satisfactory. I am aware of the fact that this is a real issue, but it’s not an easy one to solve.” This seems to refer to previous conversations and correspondence, including a letter written to Szarkowski from Friedlander in December of 1966. In it Friedlander describes his concerns about the distribution of a MoMA publication and how it would impact his own “publishing plans within the commercial publishing environment,” reflecting the importance of publications for photographers, and the possibility that even a three-person catalogue could compromise other anticipated book projects.[3]

Letter from John Szarkowski to Lee Friedlander, February 9, 1967. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records, 821.1. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Photo: Gianna Furia

Arbus had previously obtained releases for many of her images, but did so now with a deadline, and with the Museum’s involvement.[4] MoMA and Arbus had sought and obtained exhibition and publication permission from subjects including the mother of the girls in Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey; the parents of the girls in Triplets, New Jersey (reproduced below); the family in Family, Evening, Nudist Camp, Pennsylvania; the father of the girl in Young Girl, Nudist Camp, Pennsylvania; the parents of the girl in Nude Waitress with Apron (included only in the circulating exhibition); the woman in Widow, Bedroom 55th St., N.Y.C.; and Gerard Malanga for Young Man on Sofa, East 10th Street.

Letter from John Szarkowski to Mr. and Mrs. Slota, January 31, 1967, signed February 7, 1967. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records, 821.8. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Photo: Gianna Furia

At any rate, the New Documents exhibition catalogue (which in his letter Szarkowski promised to “keep working on”) never materialized. But there is a silver lining: in her essay Meister points out that, had a book been made in 1967, it couldn’t have included the wealth of archival materials detailing the iconic exhibition’s planning, opening, and critical response that Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967 has assembled at last.

[1] A. D. Coleman, “Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand at Century’s End,” in The Social Scene: The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, ed. Max Kozloff (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2000), 32.

[2] John Szarkowski to Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, February 9, 1967. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Files, 821.8 and 821.1. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

[3] Lee Friedlander to John Szarkowski, December 23, 1966. MoMA Exhs., 821.1. MoMA Archives, NY. Three years later Friedlander published Self Portrait (New City, NY: Haywire Press, 1970), which included four images from the selection included in New Documents.

[4] See Diane Arbus: Revelations, edited by Doon Arbus, Sandra S. Phillips, Elisabeth Sussman, et al. (New York: Random House, 2003), especially pages 181–184.

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