All eyes will be on George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film this fall as it presents one the largest exhibitions in its history — The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the W.M. Hunt Collection. More than 500 photographs by the masters of the medium will be on view Oct. 1, 2011 through Feb. 19, 2012. The Eastman House is dedicating all of its primary gallery space to this exhibition.
Earlier this year The New Yorker referred to the collector as “the legendary” W.M. Hunt. He is a renowned curator and dealer who has been collecting photographs for 40 years. A self-described “champion of photography,” he is well-known for his “eye” and sense of humor. Hunt describes the collection as “magical, heart-stopping images of people in which the eyes cannot be seen.”
The photographs of The Unseen Eye have a common theme — the gaze of the subject is averted, the face obscured, or the eyes firmly closed. The images evoke a wide range of emotions and are characterized, by what, at first glance, the subject conceals rather than what the camera reveals.
Eastman House will present the first major U.S. exhibition of the collection, from which Aperture is simultaneously publishing a book titled The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious, to be released in October. Highlights from the collection have previously been seen in Europe at the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France; the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland; and Foam-Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
“This collection and exhibition represent a very personal journey for me,” Hunt said. “It is my conscious made manifest. These are all photos of me. But they’re all of you, too. They are evocative, whimsical, representational, many things. I love the mystery of it. You have to react, to come to the image, to make up your own story.”
The collector’s first purchase was an Imogen Cunningham photograph, in which the subject’s eyes are veiled and unseen by the camera. This now extensive collection of haunting photographs reflects Hunt’s surreal vision and includes Weegee's multi-imaged portrait of Andy Warhol in sunglasses, the breakthrough news photo of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair in 1928, and Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of artist Alice Neel shortly before her death. Vintage and contemporary black and white images join photographs in vibrant colors to create a picture of humanity from birth to death, from the banal to the transcendent.
The featured works range from daguerreotype to digital by photographers such as Berenice Abbot, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Joel-Peter Witkin, as well as 19th-century work from Nadar, Alinari, and Roger Fenton. The whole range of photographic processes, as well as different formats, is featured via the 500 photographs, selected from the 1,500 images in the collection. The most recent acquisition is a triptych of film stills from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le Petit Soldat.” The largest is a hand-colored self-portrait by Dutch artist Teun Hocks and the smallest is a photo-booth self-portrait by the Surrealist André Breton. The oldest object is a gravure of the Shroud of Turin by Secondo Pio.
The exhibition also includes work by contemporary photo-based artists — some of whom have not yet been shown at Eastman House — such as Mitch Epstein, Steven Klein, and Kiki Smith. Hunt is a long-time supporter of emerging talent. He selected a portrait by Carrie Levy as the cover image of his book’s U.S. version. As a dealer he introduced talents such as Elinor Carucci, Luc Delahaye, Michael Flomen, Bohnchang Koo, Luis Mallo, Erwin Olaf, and Paolo Ventura, and as a writer he has worked with Bill Armstrong, Mark Beard, Manuel Geerinck, and Jeff Sheng — all of whom are represented by work in the collection and exhibition.
The Unseen Eye exhibition features little wall text, but it does include video commentaries by Hunt, with personal responses to these images gathered over many years and his insights into the psychology of collecting.
Eastman House will feature a small accompanying exhibition of “unseen eyes” selected by Hunt from the museum’s unparalleled permanent collection. These range from Dorothea Lange’s 1933 photograph “White Angel Bread Line,” to an unattributed 1850 daguerreotype of a blind man holding a cat. A related online exhibition will include hundreds of vernacular photographs —snapshots — from Hunt’s collection.
Hunt has had a long relationship with Eastman House as well as with photography. “George Eastman House is excited about this special collaboration with this insightful collector,” said Dr. Alison Nordström, Eastman House curator of photographs and director of exhibitions. “We have always understood ourselves as a collection of collections, beginning with Kodak’s Eastman Historical Collection and the collections of Gabriel Cromer, Alden Scott Boyer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Edward Steichen. The idiosyncratic eye of an individual private collector offers a rich and varied complement to our institutional holdings.”