Sigismund Gerothwohl - Portrait of a Man, c. 1845
Photo: Städel Museum
There's no doubt about it: I do love the history of photography. There are so many great personalities, stories, discoveries and, above all, images! It's really hard to know where to start on this topic because there are so many choices. However, the notion of starting at the beginning is both simple and intriguing, because beginnings sometimes tell us a lot about what follows.
Since I write about the intersections between photography and philanthropy, I get questions from time to time about the earliest efforts in this field. I've already written some posts about the history of how these subjects have intertwined, but today I'm going to concentrate on a very specific question: which public art museum first exhibited photography?
Fortunately a lot is already known about the earliest history of photography. There are dozens of books and hundreds of articles, dissertations, theses, research papers, films and podcasts on every aspect of that critical period in our history. It gets a bit trickier, however, when you delve into some of the lesser known details of the time. For me, that's where the fun starts, so here are some fun facts about the earliest known exhibitions of photography.
According to all of the records that are now available, the earliest known exhibition of any kind of photograph in a public museum occurred in Scotland in 1841. The records of the Royal Scottish Academy show that a photographer known only as D. Montreal exhibited four Daguerreotypes at the Academy's annual exhibition that year. This was an exhibition of the best painters, sculptors and other artists of the time, so it's fascinating that they even accepted Daguerreotypes in the first place.
However, other than the catalog entry that said the photographer was from Paris, nothing else is known about D. Montreal. There are no records of any photographers by that name in Paris at that time, and there are no known surviving photographs of any kind by anyone of that or a similar name. Efforts to find any other information about D. Montreal and the first four photographs ever exhibited have proven fruitless so far. It's a mystery waiting to be solved, and hopefully someone will make a discovery that sheds light on it in the years to come. If you'd like to read more on this subject, I recommend the well-researched book Scottish Photography: The First Thirty Years by Sara Stevenson and Alison Morrison-Low.
Fortunately, more information is known about the first museum exhibition devoted solely to photography. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London has published an article about an exhibition they held in 1858 of images from the Photographic Society of London. In the article they claim "It was in fact the first exhibition of photographs to be held in any museum."
However, Frankfurt's Städel Museum has posted a rival claim, saying they held the first exhibition of photography in 1845. Their exhibition displayed portraits by a photographer named Sigismund Gerothwohl, who has since disappeared from any historical recognition. They further say that they held another exhibition in 1852 devoted to photography from the museum's own collection.
Unless the Victoria and Albert decides to dispute it , the Städel Museum's claim seems solid. Let's see if anyone comes up with a previously unknown bit of history that says otherwise.