The flat coastal plain of Houston, where Maria Morris Hambourg ’71 spent her 1950s childhood, appeared to sprout tall buildings overnight “like mushrooms,” she says. Her architect father, S.I. Morris, was responsible for many of those buildings: His firm designed such iconic structures as the Houston Astrodome.
“To me, Houston felt barren,” she says. “I didn’t realize that it had its own culture, its own flavor. I was looking for a culture that integrated a deeper history.” Through trips with her parents to France, with her mother reading and translating the Michelin guidebooks, she yearned for a different culture than Houston could provide.
When it came time for college, she chose Wellesley in part because her mother, Suzanne Kibler Morris ’44 , was an alumna and also because of its proximity to Boston museums and the city’s 18th-century heritage. She took a class on 19th-century French art with then Professor of Art Eugenia Parry, whom she calls an “extraordinary live wire.” Hambourg was captivated. “I went running to the library after class to learn more, to see more,” she says.
Parry, whose bond with Hambourg has remained strong over a more than 40-year friendship, recalls that Hambourg would often come up after class and critique the lectures, telling Parry what she had left out. “She wanted to be part of the dialogue right away,” Parry says with a laugh. “The energy was huge.”
Hambourg went on to take Parry’s seminar on the history of photography, which was where she first saw images by early French photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927) . “They electrified me,” Hambourg says. “They were like nothing I had ever seen before.”
Atget captured scenes of a Paris that was quickly vanishing under the pressures of modernization. Using a large-format wooden bellows camera with glass plate negatives, he roamed the urban landscape, photographing everything from architecture and gardens to shopkeepers and prostitutes. His images have a painterly quality, a tender sweetness, as Hambourg describes them. “He was interested in how everything [in the scene] ended up on that single plane of his camera,” she says.
Hambourg decided to write a paper on Atget. The year was 1969, and the College was erupting in protest over the bombing of Cambodia. Classes came to a standstill at Wellesley and across the country. Fellow students were making speeches and staging sit-ins. So deep was Hambourg’s desire to pursue her studies and complete the work she had begun on Atget, that she crossed the lines of picketing students at Harvard to do research at the Fogg Museum. “It was a conscious commitment to a different cause, one that seemed hardly relevant in that moment, but which resonated for me,” she says.
After graduating, Hambourg’s prodigious energy propelled her into graduate school at Columbia University, an internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and eventually a Ph.D. dissertation on Atget. Her mentor was John Szarkowski, who served as MoMA’s curator of photographs from 1962 to 1991. The museum had acquired a collection of Atget pictures from photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), but no one understood Atget’s numbering system, and so it was impossible to establish a chronology of his work. Hambourg spent her after hours deciphering the numbering system—an act of scholarly audacity that not only informed her dissertation but also established her reputation. She was awarded a Ph.D. in 1980, and collaborated with Szarkowski on a four-volume examination of Atget’s oeuvre, published in the early 1980s. During these years, she was married to French photographer Serge Hambourg.
“MoMA was the mecca, and Szarkowski was one of the great minds,” she says. Still, seeking further opportunities, she moved over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985, working as an associate curator in the Department of Prints and Photographs. “Print people were the first to understand photography,” she says. “It’s a natural progression from prints to photographs.”
The Met’s photography collection was, charitably speaking, spotty. Highlights included 19th-century photographs by Mathew Brady (1822–1896) and early- to mid-20th-century photographs by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and his compatriots in the Photo-Secession movement (1902–1917).
Hambourg set about enlarging the collection with what Parry calls “Texas grit.” She launched exhibitions and garnered such attention for photography that the Met’s director created a separate Department of Photographs in 1992, with Hambourg at the helm. She developed close collaborations with photographers, artists, and collectors, gathered support from Met trustees, and wrote catalogs and essays. Later, when her name was floated as a possible candidate to take over for Szarkowski at the MoMA, she stayed at the Met. “I thought, ‘It’s more fun to build the collection, more fun to do it yourself and make your own mistakes,’” she says. “The pleasure of building—it’s my father in me.”
To say that her efforts paid off is an understatement. “She … put the Metropolitan Museum on the map,” says Peter Bunnell, Professor of the History of Photography Emeritus at Princeton University. He points to Hambourg as one of the very few top women curators of photography in a major American art museum.
“She had the strategic vision and fund-raising talent to identify and acquire the signal private collections that would propel the Met’s photography holdings to the forefront,” says John Waddell, whose unparalleled photography collection was acquired by the Met in 1987 through Hambourg’s efforts. She convinced the Ford Motor Company to underwrite part of the purchase of Waddell’s collection (consisting of 500 European and American photographs made between the two world wars) for an amount that was at the time “the largest corporate gift made to a museum for an acquisition,” according to Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Met.
Hambourg also spearheaded the acquisition in 2005 of another coveted trove of photographs, the Gilman Paper Company Collection, which comprises 8,500 pictures from early French, British, and American photographers, as well as masterpieces from the turn of the century and modernist periods.
Beyond the acquisitions, which were huge, Hambourg brought a sense of connoisseurship to the Met’s photography collection. She recognized the poetry of the images entrusted to her, and she wrote poetically about them. She looked beyond the image to everything that had gone into the making of the picture: the photographer’s eye and intention, the artistic milieu and social climate, the choice of subject, technique, equipment, paper, exposure, emulsion. She exhibited photographs like paintings, in specially chosen frames and carefully hung galleries.
“If there was something we did at the Met that was different, it was to go back to the original prints, to be seriously engaged with the object, and not to feel ruled by any a priori idea of what photography is,” she says. This meant that she was open to considering “all comers”—from little-known practitioners of the medium’s earliest days to contemporary video artists.
Hambourg was especially fortunate in the timing of her career. During her tenure, photography was beginning to claim higher prices and larger notice from museums and collectors around the world. Rare photographs by the medium’s earliest practitioners, such as William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) could still be found, but they were going fast. She was always ready to make the case for why a particular picture should be purchased, and she judged the value of a photograph less in monetary terms and more by its status in the culture. Her arguments, say those who know her, were always compelling.
In 2004, Hambourg resigned as curator in charge. She had largely fulfilled her ambition to create a world-class collection at the Met, and she was ready to shift out of her highly visible role and spend more time with her husband, Witt Barlow, and their children—twins who were adopted from Vietnam.
Her curatorial staff at the Met was well prepared for the transition.
“Maria recruited to the Met a group of young curators who have since joined the ranks of the most distinguished curators in photography,” says Waddell, the collector, who sees this legacy as among her most important.
Malcolm Daniel, who succeeded her at the Met and then became curator in charge of the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, says Hambourg provided “what I only half jokingly refer to as my post-graduate vocational training.” He adds, “To this day, I find myself asking WWMD—what would Maria do?’”
Jeff Rosenheim, the present Met photography curator, says she was generous to every member of her staff. “She taught us all how to be better interpreters of pictures, better researchers and scholars, better writers. She allowed even the youngest people in the department to express their opinions.”
The changes that have come over the years, especially the decision to move to Providence, R.I., have given Hambourg space to recalibrate her energies and her focus. “My writing has benefitted from being a mother,” she says. “I’m more respectful of the work; I don’t presume to know too much. I’m looking to elicit a feeling from the audience. I want to identify what’s in the work, a quality of feeling, not just intellectualization or fact finding.”
She continues to collaborate on exhibitions and catalogs as an independent scholar, working with her colleagues at the Met and also for other museums, including MoMA. She’s currently working with Rosenheim on an exhibition of Irving Penn’s work that will open next summer.
Sitting in her beautiful, light- and art-filled home, surrounded by a bright, boisterous mix of her teenage children and their friends and assorted dogs and cats, with her husband nearby, Hambourg appears at ease. She has constructed a rich professional and personal life, a life with deep cultural engagement at its center.