From the first roll-film Leica in the 1920s to the familiar disposable cardboard Kodak, the handheld 35mm camera became a ubiquitous and indispensable photographic tool in the twentieth century. Its compact design permitted nearly effortless transport, easy concealment, and fast shutter speeds, and its roll film allowed for rapid advancement from one frame to the next. First called the miniature camera because it could be tucked into a pocket and discreetly operated without a tripod or other bulky equipment, the 35mm camera afforded photographers the ability to easily capture their subjects unawares. The technical limitations of 35mm photography also fostered a distinctive aesthetic: it had limited depth of field, and when enlarged, prints betrayed the grain of the film and lost detail. But the pros outweighed the cons, and throughout the twentieth century, the medium opened up countless new possibilities for candid picture-making that transformed the practices of amateurs, photojournalists, and artists alike.
This exhibition presents a survey of 35mm photography from the Museum’s collection and offers an examination of its specific look, so commonplace in the twentieth century but now nearly obsolete in the age of digital photography, which nonetheless evolved directly out of the aesthetic and easy portability of the roll-film camera. Included are photographs by European and American photographers working in the 1930s and 1940s—the decades in which the 35mm camera rose to prominence—as well as black-and-white and color work by more than thirty photographers from the 1950s through the present. Highlights include work by early 35mm practitioners Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, images by photojournalists Robert Capa and Mary Ellen Mark and street photographers Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, journalistic series by Eric Avery and Edward Quinn, and work by Danny Lyon.