Like many people who fell in love with photography as children, Sarah Greenough followed the lead of an amateur photographer parent. Her father built a darkroom in the family’s home outside of Boston, which Greenough wound up using more often than he did. He also passed his old cameras on to his daughter. “The first camera he gave me was a 2 ¼-inch Yashica with a separate light meter that he showed me how to use,” she says, “and I became entranced with photography.”
She remained entranced when she went off to college, but there were no photography courses at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an undergraduate. She studied history and art history instead and took classes in studio photography taught by Michael Smith off campus. Photographers such as George Tice, W. Eugene Smith, and Diane Arbus came to speak to the students. “I vividly remember Arbus talking about Lisette Model, and thinking: who in the world is Lisette Model?” says Greenough.
Today, of course, Greenough is one of the foremost experts in the field. Senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., she began working there in 1978. She is probably best known for her extensive work on Alfred Stieglitz, including important exhibitions in 1983 and 2001, as well as Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, a two-volume, systematic catalogue, published in 2002, of the 1,642 prints that Stieglitz considered the best examples of his work from the 1880s through the 1930s. Georgia O’Keeffe donated them to the National Gallery in 1949.
Stieglitz was the subject of Greenough’s master’s thesis, which evolved out of a seminar with Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico, where she was a graduate student: her colleagues included Joel-Peter Witkin, Nicholas Nixon, Joe Deal, and Keith Davis. “All of the forces aligned and I just happened to be there at the right time,” she says.
Despite its holdings of work by Stieglitz, the National Gallery was slow to build a photography collection. But after the 1989 show On the Art of Fixing a Shadow, the museum was offered a large group of Walker Evans photographs, and then a gift of 75 Paul Strand photographs. Subsequently, she says, “Robert Frank offered us an unparalleled collection of 620 photographs and all of the negatives, contact sheets, and work prints related to The Americans.” The museum continues to acquire work by key photographers in depth, which Greenough calls “one of the hallmarks of our collections.”
Viewers can get an overview of those collections with In Light of the Past: Twenty-Five Years of Photography at the National Gallery of Art, on view through July 26. The show includes work from the 19th century up to the 1970s. The Memory of Time, on the other hand, through September 13, highlights contemporary work, acquired with the Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund (Schad’s first husband was Tennyson Schad, founder of Light Gallery). “We have spent the last 25 years building the collection,” she says, “in order to show the richness and diversity of the history of photography.”