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Dating to 1855, the collection tells the story of photography over two and a half centuries, helping us understand why and how pictures are made and the important role the medium has had in shaping visual culture across the world. Rightly celebrated for rich holdings in 19th-century Asian, Native American, maritime and early American photographs, it also includes modern and contemporary art and represents dozens of different techniques, from daguerreotypes to inkjet prints.

The earliest photograph in the collection is a daguerreotype of the Pont Neuf in Paris and is attributed to Vincent Chevalier. Made in or close to 1839, the year that photography was introduced to the public, it entered the collection in 1858. Since that time the photography holdings have grown to encompass a significant body of early works, including daguerreotypes by pioneering photographers Antoine Claudet and the Boston-based firm Southworth & Hawes, as well as a rich collection of portraits and landscapes made in New England. Several thousand 19th- and early 20th-century photographs made in China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, including rare prints by Lai Afong, Felice Beato, Kusakabe Kimbei, Milton Miller and John Thomson, among others, place PEM's Asian photographs collection among the finest in the world. The collection also includes major archives such as those of Edwin Hale Lincoln, Lala Deen Dayal and Samuel Chamberlain, more than 100 extraordinary exhibition prints by Edward S. Curtis, over 200 rare Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady, and extensive holdings of 19th- and 20th-century photographs made in Oceania. Recent acquisitions include vintage prints by Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Nicholas Nixon, Milton Rogovin and Edward Weston, as well as a choice group of chromogenic prints by celebrated Indian artist M.F. Husain. Contemporary works by artists Candice Breitz, Barbara Bosworth, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Peter Hutton, Marianne Mueller, Laura McPhee, Olivia Parker, Mark Ruwedel and Toshio Shibata round out the collection.

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