The collection of aesthetic photographs at the University of Notre Dame began in about 1975 when the photography professors in the art department acquired a few exemplary works. Among these were photographs by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans. The ubiquity of photography in twentieth-century American culture, and medium-scale prints that are ideal for in-class discussion, encouraged the Museum, and its successive directors and curators, to acquire a few fine photographs every year. Beginning in 1979, the famed cellist and distinguished collector Janos Scholz began gradually to donate works from his collection of photographs to the then Snite Museum of Art. Built over many years, this collection is particularly strong in nineteenth-century European photographs, including works by pioneering photographers like William Henry Fox Talbot, and Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). Scholz’s donation was celebrated in the exhibition A Gift of Light, organized in 2002 by Stephen R. Moriarty, Curator Emeritus. In 1997, the Museum received the extensive gift of the archive of Fritz Kaeser from his widow, Milly Kaeser. The archive includes prints produced by the artist as well as his archive of negatives, and photographs by other artists, many of whom were friends and colleagues.

Presently the collection consists of some 10,000 objects, including prints, negatives, and such photographic instruments as cameras and print viewers. The holdings are particularly strong in American and European photographs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are also photographs from Central and South America. A selection of the collection can be found in two volumes: A History of Photography at the University of Notre Dame: Nineteenth Century (2022) and A History of Photography at the University of Notre Dame: Twentieth Century (2019), published by the University of Notre Dame in association with D Giles Ltd.

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