Once Upon a Day: Philadelphia’s American Museum of Photography

As workers cleaned debris from the old Victorian brownstone at 338 South 15th Street, a framed set of photographs caught the eye of Marc Mostovoy, the building’s new owner. Mostovoy, a conductor of classical music with no knowledge of vintage photography, kept the curiosity from being tossed into the dumpster. That was 1970.

Sixteen years later, F. Holland Day’s The Seven Words, the Boston photographer’s depiction of Christ on the cross, portrayed by himself, sold at Sotheby’s auction in New York, setting a new record for a photographic work of art: $93,500. Day went to great lengths creating the series, which was, according to The New York Times, inspired by the religious ideas of Day’s friend, the poet William Butler Yeats. “Day imported a cross from Syria, created a crown of thorns, grew a beard and long hair and fasted to achieve an emaciated look.”

The Seven Words, F. Holland Day, photographer, 1898. Seven platinum prints, each 5 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches in the original frame. (Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York)

Day had sent the piece to Philadelphia for exhibition in the first photographic salon at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the Fall of 1898. After the salon, Philadelphia archaeologist, collector and photographer Clarence Bloomfield Moore, added the piece to his art collection. The fact that Day’s work had found its way to 338 South 15th street actually made a lot of sense. The building’s previous owner, Louis Walton Sipley, an energetic writer, inventor, lantern slide and educational film maker, had established a museum of photography. Sipley operated the museum on the building’s lower floors. He and his wife occupied the upper stories.

In 1939, while working on an article about photography’s centennial year for Arts and Sciences, a magazine he edited, Sipley came to realize the quantity of important photographs lost or on the brink of oblivion. On a mission, he went from museum to museum in Philadelphia trying to convince someone, anyone, to make photography a collecting priority. No one would. Meanwhile, Sipley learned that institutions and individuals wanted to turn over valuable photographic material to him, if he would take it. So Sipley adopted photography—literally—he founded the nation’s first museum devoted exclusively to it.

The American Museum of Photography opened December 10, 1940. Through exhibitions and articles on the early history of the medium, Sipley expanded upon his magazine article telling the story of Philadelphia’s substantial contributions to its development.

The museum’s holdings grew to more than 50,000 prints representing all kinds of photographic and photo-mechanical processes. It developed a library of 5,000 books and periodicals. Hundreds of pieces of early equipment found their way to 338 South 15th Street. Sipley began to imagine that his American Museum of Photography might someday occupy a building on the city’s cultural boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

South 15th Street, Pine to Spruce, 1964 (PhillyHistory.org). The American Museum of Photography (1940-1968) was in 338 South 15th, the seventh building from the left.

When Sipley died in 1968, his museum was not only leaderless, it lacking any kind of an endowment to sustain operations. At the very least, Sipley had hoped to somehow keep the collection intact and in Philadelphia. But none of the Philadelphia institutions wanted the American Museum of Photography without funds to support it. One prominent curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art reportedly visited the shuttered museum on 15th street, stepped into a room with tables and shelves piled high with prints, books and equipment, and quickly turned on his heel.

That may have been the death knell for the American Museum of Photography.

In short order, the contents of the museum were sold to the 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. Executives there were thinking about establishing their own museum of photography. But their plans faltered and the Sipley collection languished in a St. Paul warehouse for the better part of the decade.

In the 1970s, the museum world grew more accepting of photography. Dim recollections of the defunct museum finally found resolution. There would be no museum, came the announcement from St. Paul. The Sipley/3M Collection would be turned over to the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum) in Rochester, New York.

Somehow, F. Holland Day’s The Seven Words failed to make it into the museum’s inventory, or into any of the crates shipped to St. Paul.

Day’s work from 1898 is considered a highlight in the history of the medium. There are only two other sets of The Seven Words known, one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Alfred Stieglitz’s copy) and another at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After its acquisition in 2013, curators lavished praise, calling the “monumental self portrait . . . one of the masterpieces of photographic history.” And more. “The Seven Last Words,” they swooned, is nothing short of being “one of the most significant images in the history of the photography, a work that reverberates with iconic importance and one that influenced subsequent artists significantly.”

If and when Sipley’s Day, which is now at a New York gallery, were to be sold again, it would certainly break auction records once more, records that currently stand in excess of $4 million.

Once upon a time, Philadelphia had this gem in hand. And that was the least of it. Back then, Philadelphia had an entire museum devoted to the medium of photography. What are we left with now? A tale of disappointment, the story of a cultural treasure that somehow slipped away.

[Adapted from: Kenneth Finkel, editor, Legacy in Light: Photographic Treasures from Philadelphia Area Public Collections (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1990). Additional Sources: Lita Solis-Cohen, “The Trash Yields a Record-Setting Photo Treasure,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 14,1986; [Obituary] “Dr. Louis Sipley of Photo Museum: Head of Private Institution in Philadelphia Is Dead,” The New York Times, October 19, 1968; and Rita Reif, “Auctions,” The New York Times, October 31, 1968.]

 

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One Comment

  1. carmen D. Valentino
    Posted January 14, 2019 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Hah,hah ! A VERY TYPICAL Philadelphia story. Philadelphia curators and institutions with no guts or creativity.
    The Atwater Kent and now,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,HSP and what else ???????????????????????????????

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