Murray Duitz (American, 1917–2010). A.S. Beck “Executive” Shoe, 1957. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 8 in. (27.94 x 20.32 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of the artist, 1975 (1975.601.2.1)

The Real Thing: Unpackaging Product Photography 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 852, The Howard Gilman Gallery 
March 11-August 4, 2024 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting The Real Thing: Unpackaging Product Photography” an exhibition that explores how commercial camera work contributed to the visual language of modernism. The photographs depict the familiar trappings of everyday life, from toothpaste to tombstones to hats. At times these subjects will be unrecognizable, “altered by the camera to constitute an entirely new view”, as stated in the press release. 

Spanning the first century of photographic advertising, the museum states that The Real Thing unites more than 60 works from across the commercial sector. In these photographs, artists – some famous, some forgotten – transform common objects into covetable commodities. Corporate commissions by celebrated innovators, such as Paul Outerbridge, August Sander, and Piet Zwart, appear alongside obscure catalogs and trade publications. As stated in the press release, “Bringing these photographs together, the exhibition reveals links between the promotional strategies of vernacular studios and the radical tactics of the interwar avant-garde.”

This exhibit will highlight the first advertising photographs that were published in albums and used to peddle products door to door. As explained by the Met, for early retailers and ad agencies, photography offered unprecedented realism and, better still, an aura of truth; the medium’s perceived objectivity bolstered consumer confidence. When discussing the historical elements of the exhibit, the museum states, “Historically framed as avant-garde experimentation, this work is rarely acknowledged in its original context of commercial enterprise. This exhibition resituates such innovation within the realm of advertising and investigates its unlikely origins.”


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“This dynamic exhibition looks anew at the commercial history of photographs in the Museum’s collection,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and Chief Executive Officer. “By embracing this discerning lens, we gain a renewed appreciation of the intricacies and aesthetics of our everyday surroundings.”

“Not many of the photographers in this exhibition would have identified as fine artists, but their inventive commercial work harnesses the artistic potential of the camera to persuade and enchant.” Virginia McBride, Research Associate in the Department of Photographs, also added, “Now that photography’s place in museums no longer needs defending, The Real Thing considers how working photographers, in corporate studios and industrial storerooms, advanced modern art’s visual revolution.”

Drawn entirely from The Met collection and featuring many photographs from The Ford Motor Company Collection of modernist European and American photography, this exhibition includes a wide range of photographic media, like proof prints and tear sheets. This exhibition will consist of masterworks such as André Kertész’s elegant study of a fork, Grete Stern,  Ellen Auerbach’s surrealist-inflected advertisements for hair dye and gloves, and much more. The Met will also debut dozens of objects from the Department of Photographs that have never been shown before, as well as introducing timely new acquisitions. 

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