“Most photographs, by their very nature, present us with a small illusion of reality. When we see only the photographic image—in books, in exhibitions, and on the web—it is easy to forget that, pre-digital age, photographs were physical objects made with metal, or glass, or paper, and chemicals. They were created using the technology of their time, and that technology informs what we see and how we interpret it. Over 40 years, I have learned to understand and appreciate not only the impact of an image, but also the physical object. I hope this exhibition will convey my love for both.”

– Denise Bethel

In 1974, Denise Bethel received a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship that enabled her to complete a Master of Arts degree at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. Five years after completing her degree, she moved to New York and started working in the auction business. “I was thrown headfirst into what was then the fledging market for rare photographs,” she recalls. “Photography was the bottom rung of the art world ladder in those days, and lack of experience didn’t count against me.” Bethel, who eventually rose to become chairman of Photographs America at Sotheby’s New York, notes that since she began her career, “the world of photography has exploded—in museums, in academia, in publishing, and in the marketplace.”

After leaving the auction world to start her own consulting business, Bethel was engaged by VMFA in 2016 to survey the museum’s photograph collection. “In the course of my examinations, I was thrilled to discover dozens of remarkable pictures in exceptional states of preservation,” she says. Bethel has selected 19 works from the collection for this exhibition. Many of these photographs by artists such as Eugène Atget, Imogen Cunningham, Louis Émile Durandelle, Timothy O’Sullivan, and August Sander have not been displayed in the museum before.