In the eye of the collector

Philadelphia Museum of Art presents House of Photographs

5 minute read
Black & white photo shows the white family described in the article. There’s a high wall behind them with bushes at its base.

The way art is chosen and displayed reveals not only artists, but collectors and curators. That’s the idea behind House of Photographs: The Kasakoff-Adams Collection at Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

Anthropologists Alice Kasakoff Adams and the late John W. Adams met and began collecting photography as Harvard graduate students in the late 1960s. Kasakoff Adams’s recent gift to PMA of almost 300 works is called a “treasure house” by Peter Barberie, the museum’s curator of photographs.

“What’s really exciting about the Kasakoff-Adams collection is its amazing breadth and diversity,” Barberie explained in a talk about collecting with Louis Marchesano, PMA senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. The exhibit is organized along three themes: social groups and individual portraits, human-touched landscapes, and experimental or abstract images.

A rare find

The couple didn’t necessarily spend a lot on their selections, Barberie said, nor did they rely on art dealers or search in the usual collector haunts. Kasakoff Adams found one of the most remarkable images in the collection, a vintage signed print by Diane Arbus, wrapped in plastic in a gallery’s bargain bin. She bought it for $199.

In A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. (1966), Arbus photographed parents on a sidewalk with their children. They’re in position for the shot, but seem to be waiting for instructions. They don’t look ready for the shutter to close. The mother’s black beehive, dramatic makeup, and leopard coat indicate the era. She holds her baby facing front as the father restrains their small son, who wants to run off.

A signed print is extremely rare because Arbus died in 1971 at age 48. “I can tell you we could never afford to buy this photograph today here at PMA,” Barberie said, “and we are over the moon to have it.”

When photographs became art

The Adamses began collecting just as photography was becoming recognized as art, a process slowed by the medium’s accessibility: then, as now, there were lots of amateurs making mundane pictures. The photographs most of us shoot and share are known as vernacular photography, and the exhibit takes its name from a stellar 1915 example, set in a frame shaped like a multi-story Victorian home.

In House of Photographs, members of the Russell family gaze out of windows cut into the dark wood, immortalized on tin and paper at a time when having one’s portrait done meant dressing up, visiting a studio, and holding very still. Your family probably has a serious-looking group like this squirreled away: men in dark suits and white beards, women in long dresses, buttoned from throat to waist, the newly-married, and girls with enormous bows in their hair. Someone wrote captions, now well-faded, informing us that the frame was “partly made in 1913 by A. S. Russell in his 90th year,” and that it was “badly smashed in 1915,” then repaired and is “now compleat.” The care taken by the Russells of their ancestors shames those of us with shoeboxes full of faces like these.

The curatorial eye

In addition to absorbing the collecting couple’s sensibility, visitors will gain the perspective of PMA curator and exhibit organizer Molly Kalkstein, whose placements open the eye to unexpected comparisons.

For instance, both Paul B. Haviland’s Untitled (c. 1912) and Nicholas Nixon’s Emma Street, Lakeland, Florida (1982) depict families. Haviland’s is white, well-dressed, with unreadable expressions. A mother reads to her son, who sits on the arm of her chair. The father, wearing a bowler, sits five feet away. Other children are artfully distributed across the shaded portico: a boy on a Grecian balustrade, and two girls, marginalized, at either edge of the frame.

Nixon’s Black subjects are on top of the lens and one another. They sit on the porch of a clapboard house. A woman and two girls are on a bench. An older woman in a plaid dress is on a porch swing, with a boy at her knee. They don’t interact, they don’t look at the camera. They’re lost in thought.

Shelby Lee Adams’s Leddie with Children (1990) is displayed near Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Près de Juvisy, France (1955). Each photograph is bisected, and could be read as two separate images. In Leddie, a timber post divides a woman and nine children into two groups, one posed on the porch and the other lingering on its edge, eyeing the photographer suspiciously.

In Cartier-Bresson’s sunlit garden, a paved walkway divides the scene. At left, a woman and small children appear to be organizing a recital. At right, a group has walked down to the water’s edge as boys play in the foreground. You’d like to turn the lens and really see what’s happening here.

Centuries of human presence

Landscapes on view show or imply the presence of humans, and reflect the Adamses’ anthropological bent, their interest in genealogy and relationships, and in migration and history.

Black and white photo of a large rock face with about 5 human hands silhouetted on it in white.
‘Hands, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona’ (1982), Linda Connor. (Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Handprints painted on rock walls by Diné (Navajo) people are the subject of Linda Connor’s Hands, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona (1982). The tracings summon a mental image of ancient inhabitants placing their palms flat on the stone, leaving their mark. In George Tice’s serene rural images, The Amish Portfolio (1968) shows a world and a community very different from the conflict and unrest associated with the late 1960s. And to create Odes (2013), Taca Sui spent four years traversing northern China to find stone-stitched fields, shaggy arbors, and other evocative images to capture the mood of 2,600-year-old poetry.

From the microscope to the sky

As researchers, the couple was drawn to photographs considered experimental when they were made, works that challenged the concept of a photograph, or altered visual interpretations of the world. For example, in 1871, Joseph Janvier Woodward gazed into a microscope and discovered that a single scale from a mosquito’s abdomen resembled a delicately veined fan.

Trevor Paglen trains his lens on the night sky to document classified American satellites, as in USA 193 Near Alioth Next-Generation Reconnaissance Satellite Shot Down by Navy in February 2008 (2007). Absent that context, you could imagine the white trail slicing through an inky sky to be a comet moving through the universe, minding its own business.

Barberie explained that the Kasakoff-Adams gift enhances PMA photographic holdings, but it does more: “At the end of the day, it’s not just a bunch of great stuff we’re getting. It’s John and Alice’s sensibility.”

What, When, Where

House of Photographs: The Kasakoff-Adams Collection. Through June 11, 2023, at Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100 or


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