The Cornell University Library and the Johnson Museum are partnering on a four-year initiative to create jointly developed exhibitions, teach, and develop systems to use our enormously rich photography collections more broadly. The Library holds more than one million photographs, and the Museum has about nine thousand fine art photographs. Thanks to a $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—to be matched by $250,000 in new funds raised by the Johnson—a new era for exploring photography at Cornell has begun.

One of the most innovative undertakings is sharing new staff positions between the two units, including Cornell’s first dedicated curator of photography. Kate Addleman-Frankel, the Gary and Ellen Davis Curator of Photography, joined the Museum and Library staffs in October 2017. Kate is completing her PhD in art history at the University of Toronto, where she has taught introductory and advanced undergraduate courses on the history and theory of photography. She received her MA from Ryerson University’s Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program. Kate previously worked as a curatorial assistant in the Department of Photographs at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and as a curatorial intern in the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. 

Since her arrival Kate has been collaborating with faculty, librarians, and curators to develop thematic teaching sets of images to help instructors integrate visual materials more deeply into their curricula. The first teaching set, built around an introduction to photography, will be followed by additional sets in Asian studies, landscape and the environment, inequality and discrimination, and labor and work—four themes chosen to engage a wide range of faculty partners. While fostering more extensive and coordinated use of the photography collections, these sets will also be used in campus-wide First-Year Writing Seminars to encourage visual literacy and to show students how to use visual objects in their writing and research.

An example of the interconnectedness of the Museum’s and Library’s collections involves Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program (SEAP). A new Museum acquisition by artist Leang Seckon (Cambodian, born ca. 1970), Independence Monument and S21 Prisoners (2016), includes portraits of prisoners executed at Pol Pot’s notorious S-21 secret prison, located in a former high school in Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The Library’s Echols Collection includes an archive of confessions and photographs of five thousand prisoners taken at S-21 between 1975 and 1979. SEAP was instrumental in providing financial support for the acquisition and cataloguing of this archive for the Library, and SEAP faculty and graduate students have worked closely with Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art, to build the Museum’s holdings in contemporary Cambodian and Vietnamese art. The purpose of the Mellon grant is to encourage greater pedagogical use of such intersections across the Museum and Library’s collections.

In addition to the shared curator of photography, the Mellon grant provides support to hire a visual materials cataloguer for an upcoming two-year period. An important aspect of the project is to develop an integrated way for people to search Cornell’s photography collections thematically and to create unified online systems for accessing digital records of both collections, starting with the teaching sets. 

The Library and Museum have also hired Andy Grundberg ’69, a former photography critic for the New York Times, to help communicate the importance of this project beyond Cornell. Andy’s expertise has been invaluable for the overall guidance of our collaboration as well as for planning symposia and other programs about the university’s photographic collections
and archives. 

The Mellon grant is helping to advance a critical part of the missions of both the Library and the Museum: to ensure that everything we invest in—from temporary exhibitions and acquisitions to teaching and research—aims to deepen our connections with the university curriculum and attract new audiences.