Originally published in DoubleTake Magazine,
Hugh Logan Edwards, who from 1959 until his retirement in 1970 was
the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, was
born in Kentucky in 1903. His great-grandfather came from Ireland.
His great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. Hugh’s
father was an engineer on a river steamboat and Hugh grew up in
Paducah, where the Ohio and Tennessee rivers meet. His grandfather
was shot in the head with a minie ball at the Battle of Shiloh,
and Hugh recalled that you could lay your little finger in the crease
in his grandfather’s skull. Hugh developed a bone infection
when he was eight months of age and until the age of six he had
to be wheeled around in a cart. He would walk on crutches for the
rest of his life. When he completed high school he took a job at
the Paducah public library, where he worked for six years. It was
in the books at the library that he saw his first pictures, reproductions
of photographs in the photographic history of the Civil War. When
I asked him if he cared about photography back then in Paducah,
he said, “I never thought of it as photography. It was the
only form of picture taking that I knew.” Photographs were
what they represented. “That is the kind of picture I like,”
he said. “I want it to represent something, some kind of spring
In 1927, after six years of working at the library, he came to Chicago
to study music but he was, in his own words, “tone deaf.”
On Sundays he had a part-time job at the Art Institute and when
the Depression began he was very grateful to have any kind of job
at all. He ended up working in the Department of Prints and Drawings
and it was there in 1938 that he ordered a copy of Walker Evan’s
American Photographs. The contents astonished him and further justified
his belief that photography was the way to make pictures. In the
1940s the Art Institute began to show photographs, and Peter Pollack
held a regular program of exhibitions there from 1950 until he left
in 1957. Photography was then made part of the Department of Prints
and Drawings. By then Hugh Edwards had been made an associate curator
of prints and drawings, and in 1959 he took charge of the photography
program as curator of photography. Between then and 1970, when he
retired, he gave a series of eighty-one mostly one-person shows
that would change the nature of American photography. After his
retirement, he continued to teach a course in the history of photography
until 1974. He died in 1986 at the age of eighty-three.
The first time I saw him I was an eighteen-year-old student at the
University of Chicago. The university was holding its Annual Festival
of the Arts and the entries in the photography collection were on
display in Ida Noyes Hall. Outside the hall it was pouring, the
rain falling across the Midway in sheets. The judge for the show
was the associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute,
Hugh Edwards. He swept into the hall, escorted by a small entourage
of young men, dapper in his Brooks Brother suit and vest, and his
Konger Cap, quickly propelling himself up the stairs on two wooden
crutches. In time he would become both a friend and an intellectual
father. I would know him for another twenty-five years and when
he died I would give his eulogy, along with David Travis, at a small
ceremony at the Art Institute.
Chicago streets must have been laid out for motorcycle riders. I
remember kicking over my Triumph, a 650cc machine with a single
carburetor that students had put together for me out of parts in
coffee cans, the explosion of noise that came out from the straight
pipes, and then laying the heavy bike low as I rounded the curves
around the big co-op apartments that had been built in the center
of 53rd street in Hyde Park. Roaring onto the street, laying the
bike down low to the pavement, rounding the curve, then bringing
it up for the straight couple hundred yards pas the apartments,
then dropping it down again for the second curve, this time on the
opposite side. I was twenty years old, four hundred pounds of machine
underneath me, noisy and happy, riding north on the Outer Drive,
the lake on my right, pulling up to the loading-dock of the Chicago
Art Institute, where I was allowed to park my Triumph up inside
This was a singular honor: I was going to see Mr. Edwards, and I
would walk inside with a small box of eight-by-ten prints. He would
look through the prints and hardly say a word, stopping occasionally
to say, “Hmmmm” or “Oh my.” Then finally
he would speak, only he would talk about music, or a film he had
seen, or a book he was reading. He would talk about everything but
the pictures. Three months of work, six months’ work, whenever
I had enough new things to show him, I would. In a real way I was
living to show the pictures to him, and when he was gone there was
no one else to show them to.
No one loved photography as much as he. Few did more for it. He
was, despite himself, a curator, a teacher, a critic, and a philosopher.
He was also very serious about not leaving and memory of himself.
He had published almost nothing, saying he hated to write. He always
refused to be interviewed and consequently left hardly a single
interview behind. There are very few photographs of him. He said
he respected photographers that he never saw carrying a camera.
Once during a visit to him with Nancy Lyon, who is my sound recordist,
we asked to film him and he refused, saying he didn’t want
what he said left “etched in concrete.” When I wrote
that down on a pad, he asked me what I had just written down and
I said “etched in concrete.” He answered, “That’s
absurd. Nothing is etched in concrete.” But he did leave some
things behind etched in concrete. During his time as curator of
photography he wrote to photographers on his manual typewriter at
his desk at the Art Institute. He wrote to many of the most significant
photographers of the 1960s, and of each letter he made a single
yellow carbon copy.
Hugh Edwards never left Chicago. What he knew he learned mostly
from music, the theatre, and books, which he read in four languages,
all self-taught. He said photography “was a contradiction
of everything” and that he “loved contradictions.”
These are some of the letters he left.
- Danny Lyon
May 23, 1960
Mr. Robert Frank,
34 Third Avenue,
New York City, New York.
Dear Mr. Frank: It seems so long since I was in New York and talked
with you on the telephone that I am afraid you have forgotten the
conversations we had in regard to an exhibition. Since I came back
to Chicago, I have been very busy and knew you had little time to
be bothered with correspondence. However, I have not forgotten that
you said you might be interested in a show and my experience with
The Americans have been so many since my return that I am writing
you at last, still with the hope that we may have an exhibition
In the last week I have completed an exhibition schedule so that
I am able to give you, if you are still interested, some idea of
when the show would take place. How would the period of April 28
through June 11 of next year suit you? I remember you said you would
like to have some delay and although these dates-almost a year in
the future-may seem distant, the time will pass much faster than
I have had the museum store stock the American edition of your book.
They have sold a number of copies and there is steady demand for
it. We have both the French and American editions in the print room
and they have been enthusiastically received by many young photographers
who come here to look at the prints in our collection. This pleases
me a great deal because no other book, except Walker Evans’
American Photographs, has given me so much stimulation and reassurance
as to what I feel the camera was created for. I hope this does not
have too pompous a sound for I feel your work is the most sincere
and truthful attention paid to the American people for a long time.
Although so different and not stemming from them, it may be kept
in the company of Frank Norris, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Jon
Dos Passos and Walker Evans and these are the best in American expression
in the time I can remember. It is a real privilege to have known
your pictures in their first freshness and newness. Someday they
will spread to everyone and even the most sterile and analytical
of intellectuals will except them at last.
I should greatly appreciate hearing from you as soon as possible
in regard to what you think about the exhibition so that I may put
it definitely in the schedule of exhibitions.
I hope to be in New York again, at least in the early fall, and
talk with you again. As typewriters and telephones are instruments
of inhibition for me, I regret I could not arrange a meeting during
those days I was there this spring.
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.
May 10, 1962
Mrs. James Ward Thorne,
232 East Walton Place,
Dear Mrs. Thorne:
Your gift was received and soon after that the Walker Evans photographs
arrived, so I have a great deal for which I want to thank you.
Mr. Evans made a beautiful and carefully considered selection
of thirty prints (I had not expected more than twenty-five), so
that now we have the finest representation of his work outside
his own collection.
I owe all of my taste and predilection for photography to my first
experience of his pictures in 1939. It has been one of my greatest
satisfactions to see these masterpieces of photography become
classics. And if he is uncompromising in regard to his work and
almost fanatical in preserving his integrity, I feel we are more
than rewarded because these characteristics undoubtedly give it
some of that singleness and decidedly American strength which
he has never allowed to become vulgarized or cheapened. I have
never seen such beautiful, unpretentious quality of craftsmanship
as is demonstrated in the photographs you have made it possible
for us to own. I look forward to your seeing them. We are having
special mats made for them and I shall be happy to see them included
in our survey show (the next exhibition). Then, when we are in
our new galleries, there will be a special showing of the entire
The Committee on Prints and Drawings met day before yesterday
and now the addition of these photographs to the collection is
the most important event in its short history. Again I must mention
how much this means to me, not only as a personal matter, but
also as an incentive and inspiration for better photography in
I hope you will find time to visit us before long. With every
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.
May 8, 1963.
Mr. Danny Lyon,
5430 University Avenue,
I have had a long look at the photographs you brought today and
anticipate going back to them many times before you take them away.
Seeing them has been the most stimulating event for many days. They
are better than anything I have looked at for some time and they
are the best you have done. Of course the subject [motorcyclists]
is fresh and great and is something I have long wanted attended
to, but even this does not gratify me more than the step ahead in
your own development which is shown in these pictures. How I wish
I had some influence in the world so that there might be a book
of them, with a glorifying text by someone like Burroughs, James
Jones or John Dos Passos, the reproductions done by a great firm
like Conzett and Huber in Zurich or Pizzi in Milan.
This time you have gone farther on and present the exciting subject
without getting between it and the camera. Thank you and God for
no too often served social messages in these pictures. In them you
evoke and provoke emotions and are modest about your own self-expression.
This is always good. And one of the most difficult things there
is to convey to photographers in discussing their work. I like photography
best when it is a medium of presentation and does not impose interpretation.
When I say your pictures this time do all these things I like, I
am not implying you are not felt or recognized in them, because
I feel these are yours probably more than any of your others.
I hope you will come in a see me so that we may talk more about
these prints and yourself. If you have any time Sunday or Monday,
call me at Fairfax-4-8000, as I expect to be home those days and
we might have a talk then. Pardon this inadequate letter today-
I wanted to be sure to congratulate you before tomorrow.
July 20, 1963.
Mr. David Heath,
485 Columbus Avenue,
New York City, 24, New York.
…Because I have always felt pessimism is a healthier state
of mind than optimism, I have hopes that new ideas and beliefs-and
more consistent, honest ones-will be derived from what is called
our “philosophy of despair”. Maybe this is a kind
of inverted optimism. Montaigne’s statement that the reason
for living is to be alive means more to me than our later elaborate
constructions (Freud, Marx, Sartre) which are all suspicious in
that they seem directed towards the perpetuation of the old absurd
and accepted morality against which we should die fighting. I
did not infer we are to come to reaffirmed beliefs, but new ones.
About all we can have faith in is contradiction and it is the
work of a lifetime to accept that. Questioning and searching should
be the objects of life and not satisfaction for if you ever find
satisfaction, you will have no decent reason for making photographs.
Also, the greatest value of any work is not in its being the personal
expression of the one who does it, but what it arouses in others.
All this need not advocate indifference and passivity-far from
it. The best thing about any desire is the desire itself, not
its extinction in consummation. Italian writers, all the way from
Leopardi through Moravia, Pratolini and Calvino realize this unflinchingly;
the French (Camus, Sartre-but not Genet) have adopted such ideas,
cultivating and shaping them to what would end in the old, dishonest
brand of ethics. We have junked the past and are either ashamed
of what we have done or unwilling to admit this new condition
in which we find ourselves. As someone wrote of Antonioni, we
are living in the post-Marx, post-Sartre, post-Freud age and have
barely started to define it. So you are right when you say “it
is a searching and a questioning without end” –there
you have the belief of which I am speaking…
All good wishes now. I hope to be in New York the last part of
October and trust you will be there.
February 14, 1964.
Mr. Brett Weston,
Dear Brett Weston:
The twelve portraits of members of the Weston family have arrived
and I want to thank you for sending them. It has been a stimulating
experience to see these fine and handsome Americans (like which
it seems there are no more in prospect) reflected on sensitive
paper surfaces by one of the greatest American artists. May we
keep them until the next meeting of the Committee of Prints and
Drawings, when I shall do my best to have as many purchased as
possible? You will receive a receipt from the museum registrar
in a few days and should you need any of the portraits before
the approval of the committee has been obtained, please let me
know and they will be sent to you at once.
Portraits by great photographers are usually neglected (this is
as true for of Cartier-Bresson as it is of Edward Weston) and
yet many of them have produced some of the best portraiture in
the whole of pictorial art. I have had a fondness for Edward Weston’s
portraits for a long time and there are two of the ones you sent
which I should like to purchase and have near me when I am away
from this place. They are (1) Neil Weston standing by a boat in
a landscape (P045-N-2) and (2) Neil Weston standing by a shed
through which a rock wall is seen (P043-N-1). Of course, these
pictures are great rarities, but in the event I am able to obtain
them, could other prints possibly be acquired by the museum? If
not, I may have to give up my hopes for having them. It would
satisfy an old desire to have two of Edward Weston’s original
prints hanging on the walls of my room.
Also, there is another of Edward Weston’s portraits of which
I wonder if a print could be found. It is Neil Asleep. 1925 and
is reproduced as Plate 25 in the Daybooks of Edward Weston, Vol.
1: Mexico. I should like very much to have it in the collection
I regret all the trouble I am causing you and wish to thank you
for what a privilege it is to have these pictures here and believe
that someday before long at least part of them will be part of
the permanent collection here.
Best wishes and regards to you,
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.
February 1, 1964.
Mr. Henri Cartier-Bresson,
c/o MAGNUM Photos Inc.,
15 West 47th Street,
New York City, 36,
Dear Mr. Cartier-Bresson:
After you have heard from so many others about the matter with
which this letter is concerned, I hope you will forgive my writing
it so late.
When I was in New York early in November, you were away in Mexico
and it was during a conversation with Inge Morath regarding her
exhibition that I mentioned a hope I have long indulged and enjoyed
that someday we might show a selection of your portraits in our
gallery of photography. She believed you might be interested and
offered to mention it to you. Soon after this, Barbara Riboud was
in Chicago (a show by Marc Riboud in October is another of my plans)
and she told me she would also speak to you of this matter. Now-after
a telephone conversation with Inge Bondi-I am told you have expressed
I hope the circuitous route by which news of this reaches you does
not cause you to withdraw your decision. The dates for the exhibition
would be January 9th through February 14th, 1965 which-as time moves
now-it is not so far away as it seems. This is an excellent period
for attendance and if we are fortunate enough to have your work
then, it will be a memorable occasion. We would need about seventy-five
prints to work with and we would assume any expenses of printing,
announcements to be sent, etc. All these details may be arranged
with you later or with Inge Bondi.
It would make me very happy to exhibit the portraits for it would
be a pleasure to introduce Leautaud, Elsa Triolet, Genet, Mauriac
and many others to this large public here, just as you have recorded
their faces and instantaneously captured their characters. It would
be dishonest for me to say I prefer one aspect of your work for
another, but I believe these portraits of yours to be among the
greatest made with a camera and certainly your conception of the
single human being as a subject is unique and has no equal.
I expect to be in New York in March and will visit Magnum. Inge
Morath’s show opened this morning and there are crowds of
people enjoying it this afternoon. There is a fine quality of felicity
which runs through all the pictures and it is a long time since
the gallery has had so much light and life in it.
About a month ago Algimantas Kezys, a young priest who came here
from Lithuania, visited me at the museum and invited me to the Lithuanian
Youth Center where an exhibition of his photographs was shown. I
went to see it and liked his work. He talked so much of you and
what your work meant to him that I am taking the liberty to send,
under separate cover, a brochure which was published at the time
of his show.
With best regards and the hope that you are still favorable to showing
your work here,
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography;
Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings.
August 3, 1965.
Mr. Sergio Larrain,
Huerfanos 725, entre piso,
Santiago de Chile.
Dear Sergio Larrain:
I have intended to write you since the exhibition opened, but
most of my time has been taken up by looking at portfolios of
work which people have brought in. There seems to have been more
productivity this summer. However none of it is able to throw
even the most transparent shadow over your own work which is very
handsome on the walls and takes on new values and perspectives
when seen in an exhibition.
It seems I have known these pictures so long now and yet it is hardly
more than a year. I shall always be grateful to Shirley Hicks for
sending El Rectangulo en la Mano, nor shall I forget the first night
I spent in looking at it again and again. Your personal nearness
to the subjects had at last made insignificant the great flood of
“social” photographs by which we have been overcome
during the last few years. You are always behind the picture, and
not before it , and it is easy to see clearly, without interruption,
the world you reveal. You offer no college-patented remedies with
sociological labels for the human existence: and your people have
begun with Montaigne’s realization that the reason for living
is to live. There is hope for them, whereas the so-called “underprivileged”
of other places seem beyond meeting the vicissitudes of their lives
because they expect to fill the void within them from outside. There
has been nothing like the sympathy your people touch upon, except-perhaps-the
children who are found in the pages of Genet’s early book,
Le Miracle de la Rose. I want to write you again before long and
say more to you about them…
My only disappointment is that you are not here to see the show.
I have wanted to know you and talk to you ever since the first time
I opened El Rectangulo en la Mano. I am sorry I am so dilatory about
writing letters and that I am such a poor hand at writing. I give
up too much to the experiencing of my own responses to the things
In your letter, there was the question of the publication of a book
of your photographs. I am at a loss as to answering this, knowing
practically nothing of these matters except that all the details
of them are difficult. It is a time in which “picture editors”
are tyrants [who] underestimate the possibilities of their public
and discard everything which throws new light on neglected values.
Any number of books will be published of excellent reproductions
of so-called “non-objective” photographs (that sterile
paradox), all of which look alike. Have you ever thought of a publication
in Japan (Dennis Stock’s James Dean book appeared there) which
might be circulated in this country by a firm like Tuttle in Vermont?
And you have never had a portfolio in the Swiss DU or CAMERA INTERNATIONAL.
I will give all this more thought and write about it later. It seems
that even when books of photographs are printed, the publishers
make use of such poor distribution media that there is no wonder
they sell so poorly.
I am sorry not to send a letter today that expresses more about
your work. You are very much in my mind and perhaps this is the
reason why [I] can say so little of what I want to say. You will
hear from me again and I am sure we will meet before long. I do
want to mail this to you at once and let you know how grateful I
am for your having accomplished a work which is already so rich
and which promises even more. Added to this gratitude for having
given us the opportunity to show it here.
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.
September 20, 1966.
Mr. Walker Evans,
Your book [Message from the Interior] arrived several days ago and
I telephoned Miss Kokanson at once to send copies to Marjorie Kovler
and Kenneth Anger. Also, I have made sure that Kroch’s and
Brentano’s and the museum store will stock as many copies
as possible. I have been so stimulated by the surprise and quality
of this book that I have thought of little else since it came. There
is nothing that can be said of it since it lies here before me and
is its own testimonial to everyone. For some time now I have been
certain you are the only photographer whoever lived and now I find
this is the most beautiful book of photographs that has been published.
I have wanted to say so much to you. How can I thank you for this
gift which is one of the few treasures I have and with it is your
inscription which I value more than I would a Ph.D. It is privilege
enough to have you in the world and be in it at the same time. Forgive
what must seem an effusion to you—anything it may be is not
sufficient to thank you.
I shall write again soon. This week I am harassed more than usual
by photographic youth and all its dull blunders. It is frustrating
to realize this waste of time has prevented letting you hear from
me before today. All good wishes to you and to Isabelle and there
will be more after a few days.
February 18th, 1969.
Miss Margaret F. Harker, Head
The Polytechnic School of Photography
309 Regent Street
London, W. 1
Dear Miss Harker:
I am delighted to hear you will visit Chicago on April 1. If you
are here at noon, perhaps we could have lunch at the museum. I do
want to talk with you, undisturbed by telephones and browsing visitors.
I hope our small collection will not be too disappointing. Exhibitions
were held here in the department of prints and drawings during
the 1940s and although they were few, we did introduce some important
photographers ( Andre Kertesz, Alvarez Bravo, Peterhans, etc.)
who had not been shown before in America…
We have had continuous exhibitions for ten years. Although our
efforts have been small and modest, I prefer them to be this way
and believe they have had some influence. I am most interested
in gifted young photographers who would not have their first exhibition
elsewhere and we have initiated the careers of several very talented
ones. The “realistic” photograph raised to a higher
plane than the documentary is what I prefer, but I am proud my
tastes have not “run away with me”.
On Thursday evenings, in the Art Institute’s school, I teach
a class in the history of photography. This has gone on for three
years and the results have been most interesting, the response enthusiastic.
There is much I want to talk with you about (Peter Henry Emerson,
John Thompson, The Royal Photographic Society, etc.) and I look
forward to your arrival here.
Hugh Edwards, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings; Curator
March 31, 1969.
Mr. Bill Endres
Dear Bill Endres:
Your letter has come and I am very glad to have heard from you.
Naturally I am pleased to know of what Danny has said of me and
to hear that the class I have in the history of Photography at
The Art Institute has been heard of as far away as you are. Your
questions prompt me to write pages, but I hate writing and shall
try to answer them as briefly as possible.
It is a class in the history of photographs only and I believe
it is available only to students who have already had two art
history courses. In the beginning, two years ago, when I was persuaded
to undertake it, I didn’t think we would have any students,
but-somehow-it has turned out to be so popular that the authorities
have had to make all kinds of restrictions-the last semester they
wanted to keep it down to an enrollment of ten and restrict it
to American photography. It has nothing to do with the making
of photographs except that for assignments I have allowed students
to make photographs. The results of this have been interesting,
and often the best work has been done by people who had no previous
experience with cameras. I suppose this is one of the mysteries
of the camera-photography, to me, is after all more of mystery
and magic than it is art…They are given on Thursdays from
6:00 to 9:00 in the evenings and keep me constantly concerned.
For me, there is an irony in their popularity as my academic qualifications
consist only in having graduated from the Paducah (Kentucky) high
school; but I have always had a great enthusiasm for photography
and believe that it is the only picture medium left that matters…
I’ll add your name to our mailing list to receive announcements
of shows and am mailing you the notices of the last two. My tastes
are hard to define: what effects me is usually what I could never
intellectualize about, nor do I feel they should be questioned.
I am very self-centered, I suppose, and what I like-no matter
what-is anything that makes me feel right and glad that I am alive.
This would make the photography “authorities” laugh:
it may be old-fashioned and corny, but I believe I may say it
to you and you will know what I mean.
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.