The Value of a Collection in Photography

Emily Rothkopf

Photography as an art form was discredited as “middle-brow” by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, following the commercial success of portable cameras in the 1950’s and 60’s and subsequent adoption by middle-class families as a means to document domestic events (Bourdieu 1965).  In today’s digital world, perhaps Bourdieu would have gone even further to classify photography as “low-brow.”  With the advent of smart phones, society is consumed with the ritualization of ‘taking pictures’ and thus we have found ourselves in an over-saturation of “pics” and “selfies” that are posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (a medium solely devoted to the photographic image).  The notion of distinguishing photography from ‘taking pictures’ has become ever so critical in the art world (Irvine 2012).  Exploring works from famed photographers Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz, whose combined careers span almost a century, it is evident that the ability to produce a cohesive collection of photographs is what distinguishes its players, perhaps more so than any other art form.  A collection of photographs asserts a collective meaning and purpose, and can make the art form “high-brow” in the Bourdieu sense.

The National Parks by Ansel Adams (source for selected images below)

The idea and practice of ‘making a photograph’ comes from Ansel Adams, a pioneer in the ‘photography as an art form’ movement (Irvine 2012).  Adams combined his passions for taking pictures and conserving the wilderness, to develop a landscape photography collection of U.S. National Parks, which was completed over a ten-year span in the 1930’s – 40’s.  He aimed to capture the beauty of these national treasures that many may only get to see in pictures.  Adams’ opted to shoot in black-and-white, and also not to include people in these photographs, as to not distract from the natural aesthetic in nature (Wikipedia).  One photo alone does not serve his intended purpose; it is the collection as a whole that drives home his message and helps spread the idea that there is a vast world that needs to be preserved.  While an individual may be able to take a picture and replicate one of Adams’ photographs, it would take a more distinguished photographer to create a new collection, with new meaning.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Storm Troupers: Celebrating Hurricane Sandy’s First Responders by Annie Leibovitz (Vogue)

Annie Leibovitz is a well-known portrait photographer that has been commissioned to produce some of the most memorable photography collections.  Following the devastatingly destructive Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Leibovitz created a fashion pictorial for Vogue Magazine that honored the first responders in New York.  “We paid these stalwart souls a visit, dressed up in the best of the New York [fashion] collections. Call them New York’s other finest” (  What this collection shows us is the conceptualization that goes into photography.  It would be mundane to simply shoot another model, in another dress.  Leibovitz’s Hurricane Sandy collection creatively juxtaposes two genres within photography – the journalistic photography capturing the first responders in their environments, and the high-fashion magazine spread photography.  What results is something unexpected and grand, and reaffirming to the “high-brow” nature of photography at its best.

Hurricane Sandy Storm Troupers Annie Leibovitz

Coast Guard Station New York

The National Guard’s 69th Infantry

Con Ed’s East River Generating Station

Neonatal ICU at Bellevue

NYPD’s Special Operations Division

FDNY’s Far Rockaway House

At any given moment, someone is snapping and uploading a digital photo, displayed in isolation.  It is likely intended to document people together, in a place, or at an event.  It is created almost instantaneously without conceptual meaning and preparation behind it.  This is considered ‘taking a picture.’  Photographers on the other hand are conceptualizing and crafting a vision that can be captured best through the realism of photography.  Like other art forms, photography is created from an emotion, reaction, message, campaign, etc., and is best represented through multiple works, exhibited together.  And like a fashion collection shown on the runway, piece-by-piece, the whole is often greater than the parts and applause is held until the end, where all of the pieces are viewed cohesively.

Works Cited

“Ansel Adams.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Photography: A Middle-brow Art.” Polity Press, 1990. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “Key Issues in Modern Photography.” Georgetown University, 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

“Storm Troupers: Celebrating Hurricane Sandy’s First Responders.” Vogue Magazine, 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.