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VMFA’s collection of approximately 2,000 photographs represents both important moments in the history of the medium and key 20th- and 21st-century photographers, including Edward Weston, André Kertész, Gordon Parks, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, and Hank Willis Thomas.

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Though VMFA’s photography collection began in its opening year with a gift from the Carnegie Corporation of 160 photographs by Francis Benjamin Johnston, the museum did not begin to strategically build the collection until 1973. Over the past several years, VMFA has placed special emphasis on Civil Rights photography and works by African American photographers while also acquiring works by contemporary photographers from Virginia and around the world.

Civil Rights Photography

In 2010, VMFA began acquiring photographs representing key moments in the Civil Rights era ranging from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s. The VMFA’s collection includes works by such notable artists as James Karales, Gordon Parks, Louis Draper, and Steven Shames, among others. Featured icons depicted in these acquired photographs include Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael.

American Photography: The First 100 Years

Photography was first introduced to the United States in the early 1840s. Daguerreian photography made portraiture available to an increasing number of Americans. Later, intrepid photographers explored the American West with large format cameras, producing sweeping landscape vistas. At the turn of the twentieth century, the affordability of materials and a greater simplicity of process allowed even more artists to experiment with both aestheticized and sharply focused, straight photography.

Contemporary Photography

Since the 1980s, many contemporary artists have used photography to explore issues of gender, race, identity, and power. Some artists have also combined and manipulated traditional and modern techniques to investigate concepts of time and perception, further pushing the boundaries of photographic representation.


Matt and Jo, 1993, Catherine Opie (American, born 1961), chromogenic print, printed 2022. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift from the Estate of Mrs. Alfred I. duPont, by exchange
Face and Figure: Recent Acquisitions in Photography

Face and Figure brings together a selection of portrait-based photographs acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since 2020. The installation includes formal and vernacular studio works, powerful documentary projects, intimate studies of loved ones, and conceptual projects that stretch the de­finition of the genre.  

Since the advent of the medium in the 1830s, photography has been dominated by pictures of people. Photographic portraits, whether made by a professional, a family member, an automated photo booth, or the cell phone in your pocket, reveal both how people present themselves to the world and how they see and understand themselves and others. Far more than a simple record of physiognomy, photographic portraits can memorialize loved ones, celebrate individual achievement, probe personal psychology, explore the social context of being, or interrogate how identity, history, and culture shape the self.

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