Here is a list of some of the most famous images of the 20th century. You may not recognize the titles, or even the names of the photographers. Your awareness of photography may pretty much end with what’s on your smartphone. Doesn’t matter: You know these images. They’re simply part of our collective visual consciousness.
Lewis Hine’s “Powerhouse Mechanic,” 1924.
Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” 1936.
Robert Capa’s “Death of a Militia Soldier,” 1936.
Arthur Rothstein, “Dust Storm, Cimarron County,” 1936.
Diane Arbus’s “Identical twins,” 1966.
Eddie Adams’s 1968 newsphoto of the execution a Viet Cong infiltrator in the middle of a Saigon street.
What they have in common, beside indelibility and excellence, is that they’re all in “Viewpoints: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection,” which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Dec. 15.
There are 150 photographs in the show, drawn from 446 recently acquired by the MFA from Greenberg’s holdings. For nearly 40 years, he’s run one of the world’s foremost photography galleries. So he’s been in a rare position, from his Midtown Manhattan perch, to see and select. More important, he has a fine eye and distinct — though by no means narrow — sensibility. The show includes a 14-minute video interview with Greenberg, and it’s well worth watching. Speaking about individual photographs in the show, he’s at once bracingly passionate and no less bracingly articulate.
Those six photographs give an idea of Greenberg’s sensibility. He has a clear preference for documentary images, though the show includes examples of abstraction and near-abstraction. He’s no snob, prizing photojournalism as well as high art. He gravitates toward the middle third of the 20th century, even if works in the show range from 1888 (one of Jacob Riis’s exposes of social conditions in New York) to Ray K. Metzker’s gridded “Passants I,” which dates from 1966-2006.
The remarkable thing about this quite-remarkable show is that the familiarity extends well beyond those six shake-the-superflux images. There are also photographs nearly as famous: André Kertész’s “Chez Mondrian (1926), Walker Evans’s “Couple at Coney Island” (1928), Brassaï’s “Lovers in Cafe” (1932), Weegee’s “The Critic” (1943) — two versions, one cropped, one not — Dennis Stock’s portrait of James Dean in Times Square (1955), James Karales’s thunderhead-topped view of the march from Selma to Montgomery (1965), Marc Riboud’s “Peace March, Washington, D.C.” (1967).
The Kertész is postcard-sized: “the perfect expression of the perfect photograph,” Greenberg says. Scale transforms beauty into wonder. Next to it is another postcard-sized print of a masterpiece, Aleksandr Rodchenko’s “Pioneer With a Bugle.” The reduction raises the impact. Compacted, the bugler’s notes explode rather than just sound.
Himself a former photographer, Greenberg appreciates that photographic images are inherently mutable. One form mutability takes is print size, as with the Kertész and Rodchenko. Another is a darkroom’s capacity to produce variation in gradations of texture and tonality. The subtlety of the print of Roy DeCarava’s “Coltrane and Elvin” (1960) owes as much to Renaissance sfumato as to the chemistry of silver halides. Elvin Jones, God’s own drummer, seems to float behind the gleam of John Coltrane’s tenor: part ghost, part fever dream. DeCarava’s use of low contrast in the print of “Hallway, New York” (1953) is, if anything, even more daring.
There are many lesser-known photographers in the show. Among Greenberg’s passions are Czech photography between the two world wars and their close contemporaries, the Photo League photographers in New York. Inevitably, though, it’s the starry names — the many, many starry names — viewers will be drawn to. The A’s alone include Atget, Abbott, Alvarez Bravo, Avedon (as well as Arbus and Adams).
But like any true collector, Greenberg is fond of balancing expectation with surprise. Some of the least-familiar images were taken by photographers with very familiar names. In Irving Penn’s 1951 photograph of a baseball umpire brushing off home plate, the bulbousness of his slideslung chest protector is like a negative version of one of Penn’s fleshy nudes from the same period. Arnold Newman, not yet the celebrated portraitist he’d become, has a surpassingly elegant view of a display case full of violins, from 1941. Two years before Robert Frank set off on the journey that would produce “The Americans,” he took “Pablo in Times Square” (1953). His young son could be scouting the location for James Dean.
The chiming between Frank’s photograph and Stock’s is an example of the care the MFA’s Kristen Gresh has taken with the show. Here’s another example. Both a Helen Levitt, from about 1945, and a Saul Leiter, from 1950, show people in masks — a motif associated with neither photographer. The photographer most famous for posing people in masks, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, has two images in the show. In neither does anyone wear a mask. But wait: One of them, a striking near-abstraction, is called “Fog,” from around 1955. Isn’t fog a kind of meteorological mask — or at least a veil, simultaneously obscuring what is seen and making it more arresting? As it happens two of the “nearly as famous” photographs are Edward Steichen’s portrait of a veiled Gloria Swanson (1924) and William Klein’s “Smoke and Veil, Paris” (1958). And veils, like fog, are to visual texture as notes are to a melody. Throughout “Viewpoints,” you all but see Greenberg hearing just such music.
Visitors to the show should note that not all of the photographs are in the Torf Gallery. Another 20 are in an adjacent corridor, leading to the Islamic galleries. They include the Klein, the Stock, “Coltrane and Elvin,” Avedon’s 1965 Bob Dylan portrait, Milton Rogovin’s marvelous (and marvelously uncharacteristic) view of a pianist working her instrument’s pedals (1960), and Barbara Morgan’s study in angle and curve, “Martha Graham — Letter to the World” (1940). In other words, like the show they’re part of, they should not be missed.
VIEWPOINTS: Photographs from the Howard Greenberg Collection
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 15. 617-267-9300, www.mfa. org