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PEM’s photography collection encourages different ways of seeing the world.
What compels us to take photographs and share them? Photography, in all its forms, embodies a desire to communicate, to transmit ideas and messages across time and space. PEM’s photography collection reflects the global activities and spirit of the museum’s earliest supporters, voyagers who sought to explore and share the world with their community.
The collection dates to 1855 and tells the story of photography across three centuries, helping us understand why and how pictures are made and the important role the medium has played in shaping visual cultures across the world. The earliest photograph in the collection is a daguerreotype of the Pont Neuf in Paris attributed to Vincent Chevalier. It is one of the few surviving examples of photography made shortly after the medium was introduced to the public in 1839. Since then, photography has been collected by each of the institutions that came together to form PEM. The collection has grown to encompass works representing dozens of different photographic techniques, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and albumen, gelatin silver, and inkjet prints.
Explore some highlights from the collection
PEM’s collection is internationally recognized for its holdings of 19th-century photography. Merchants and supercargoes traversed the world and brought several thousand photographs made in East, South, and Southeast Asia, and Oceania to Salem, including striking daguerreotypes of Hawai‘i and the Philippines and prints by Felice Beato, Kusakabe Kimbei, Milton Miller, and the Bourne & Shepherd studio.
In 2008, with the formation of the photography department and the appointment of its first curator dedicated to the medium, PEM began to focus on building its holdings of 20th-century and contemporary photography. Recent acquisitions include bodies of work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harold Eugene Edgerton, Walker Evans, Tony Gleaton, Danny Lyon, Sally Mann, and prominent New England-based photographers Nicholas Nixon and Olivia Parker, as well as a remarkable group of chromogenic prints by celebrated Indian artist Maqbool Fida (M.F.) Husain.
In 2019, the museum accepted a transformational gift of more than 1,600 works of photography from the Joy of Giving Something, Inc., a nonprofit foundation formed by the financier and collector Howard Stein. This gift features the work of 123 artists, primarily of East Asian descent or working in East Asia, from the 1930s to the present day. By exploring issues of identity, community, and the environment, these works resonate with PEM’s historic photography collection and open up entirely new opportunities for dialogue between the past and present.
We invite you to search our collection database to explore thousands of outstanding works of art and culture that engage the mind and the spirit.
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Learn more about the nation’s oldest collecting museum in the Peabody Essex Museum Guide. Available for purchase in the PEM Shop.