Over the past two decades collector Martin Z. Margulies has focussed on photography, curating an extensive collection that represents the various changes in contemporary American culture over the last hundred years. Opening on 2 November at NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, American Scene Photography: Martin Z. Margulies Collection will showcase over 190 photographs from his archive, dating from the early 1900s to today, by 74 photographers. We spoke with chief curator Bonnie Clearwater to find out what makes this collection, which features work by Ed Ruscha and Alec Soth Charles, so particularly special.


Through photography this show surveys the economic and social changes America has witnessed over the last hundred years — how did you begin curating the exhibition?

I have known Margulies for over 20 years and watched his photography collection grow. The scope of his choices and the high level of works in his collection have always fascinated me.

How did you work alongside the collector of this vast photographic archive?

I worked independently. His long time curator Katherine Hinds provided me with the printed list of works in his collection from which I made a preliminary selection. Katherine arranged for her staff to bring out all the works for me to study. I then made my selection from viewing these works and researching the photographers. I also observed a pattern in Marty's selection, which focused on work that raised awareness to social issues, starting with Lewis Hine's photos documenting child labor and the iconic photographs of Dorothea Lange and other photographers of the Farm Service Administration (FSA) documenting the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. I also conducted an extensive interview with Marty about how he shaped his collection, and how the photographs of social situations that he collected have raised and influenced his sensitivity to the human condition.

Have you focused on artist photography or candid photography from unknown sources?

These photographs are all by artist photographers. I’m particularly interested in the contemporary works in the show.


How do you feel the portrayal of American through photography has changed in the last twenty years?

There are a several types of contemporary photographs in the exhibition, works that follow in the tradition of pioneering photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt that capture the variety of life in America, others are objective typologies such as Ed Ruscha's early 1960s photos of gas stations along the famous U.S. Route 66, and artists such as Gregory Crewdson who created movie-set scenes of suburban life, that capture the sense of the uncanny.

Which photographs do you feel represent contemporary life in America now?

American life is so varied that it would be hard to identify a single image that sums up today. The exhibition elegantly reveals that the early photographers that raised social awareness shaped our image of America, but by raising social awareness that brought about progressive social change they shaped America itself. 


American Scene Photography: Martin Z. Margulies Collection is at NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale from 2 November 2014 - 22 March 2015.