It all started in the 1970s with a serendipitous flea market find: over the past decades, Ruth and Peter Herzog have built one of the most important photography collections, which now encompasses no fewer than five hundred thousand artifacts. Ranging from the early days of the medium, which was invented in 1839, to the 1970s, the collection’s holdings span the complete history of analog photography, reflecting its manifold developments and physical materials, its plates, emulsions, chemical agents, papers, and devices. For the nineteenth century, in particular, the Herzogs’ research led them to important discoveries that have greatly enhanced our understanding of the eventful history of photography.
No visual medium is better at telling stories and relating history than photography. The innumerable masterworks by anonymous photographers in the Herzogs’ collection throw light on an overwhelming abundance of motifs and themes from around the globe. In addition to pieces by well-known pioneers of the medium such as Adolphe Disdéri, Gustave Le Gray, Eugène Atget, Fred Boissonnas, Charles Nègre, and Felice Beato as well as other prominent practitioners—Paul Martial, Hans Hinz—the collection is a treasure trove of shots by previously obscure amateur photographers. What Ruth and Peter Herzog have gathered is nothing less than a photographic encyclopedia of life in the industrial age.
The first comprehensive presentation in Switzerland showcases four hundred objects to illustrate the unconventional organization of this eminent collection and the novel perspective on the history of photography it articulates. The exhibition spotlights key themes of the collection and addresses questions around the photography collectors’ work and the relation between archive and museum. Not least importantly, it probes the interplay between photography and art well beyond the accepted canon of fine-art photography. The selection demonstrates that the medium of analog photography is alive and as relevant as ever and offers fascinating insights into our contemporary use of digital images.