Hugh Edwards Letters

The Letters of Hugh Edwards
(1903 – 1986)

Originally published in DoubleTake Magazine, Summer 1996

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 from reality.”

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 the building.

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 here.

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 we think.

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.

Yours sincerely,
Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.

May 10, 1962
Mrs. James Ward Thorne,
232 East Walton Place,
Chicago, Illinois.

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 group.

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 Chicago.

I hope you will find time to visit us before long. With every good wish,

Hugh Edwards, Curator of Photography.

May 8, 1963.
Mr. Danny Lyon,
5430 University Avenue,
Chicago, Illinois.

Dear Danny:

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.

Hugh Edwards.

July 20, 1963.
Mr. David Heath,
485 Columbus Avenue,
New York City, 24, New York.

Dear Dave:

…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.

Hugh Edwards.

February 14, 1964.
Mr. Brett Weston,
Route 1,
Box 585,
Carmel, California.

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 here.

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,
New York.

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 an interest.

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,

Yours sincerely,
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 I admire…

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,
Old Lyme,

Dear Walker:

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.

Hugh Edwards.
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.

Yours Sincerely
Hugh Edwards, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings; Curator of Photography.

March 31, 1969.
Mr. Bill Endres
Route 2
Box 486G
West Virginia

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.


Hugh Edwards

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