By Ramona du Houx
In January, 2021 Colby College Museum of Art announced that it has received a collection of more than 500 photographs, including works by Ansel Adams, James Van Der Zee, Dorothea Lange, Edward Steichen, and Lissette Solórzano. The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection, gift of Colby alumni Dr. William Tsiaras and Nancy Meyer Tsiaras, further solidifies Colby’s Museum as a leading destination for American art
A transformative gift to the Colby College Museum of Art of more than 500 photographs from the private collection of Dr. William Tsiaras ’68, P’03 and Nancy Meyer Tsiaras ’68, P’03 will significantly expand and deepen the Museum’s photography holdings. This collection, inspired by the gift of a camera to William (“Bill”) as a young émigré and shaped by his photographer patients, expands the Museum’s holdings in ways that advance its ability to tell alternate narratives of American art, enhancing its position as the nation’s leading college art museum. Highlights from this collection are the focus of a major publication, Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection ($50), released by the Colby Museum in fall 2020. A selection of photographs will be represented in a 2022 exhibition of the same name.
“This remarkable gift from Bill and Nancy Tsiaras allows the Colby Museum and its audiences to fully engage with photography, which has been critical to the development of art, and American culture in particular, since its inception in the 19th century,” said Jacqueline Terrassa, Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. “The range and exceptional quality of this collection is in itself invaluable within the interdisciplinary environment of Colby. The story of how it grew over time—largely through direct interaction with some of the medium’s leading and lesser-known practitioners—is also a wonderful testament to the power of curiosity and the belief that close looking is a valuable means to learn.”
Built over decades, the collection is wide-ranging and includes works by Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, artists who were both patients of Bill Tsiaras, a renowned Providence-based ophthalmologist and medical professor. David Vestal, Joe Deal, and Lucas Samaras, as well as Tsiaras’s brothers, accomplished artists Philip and Alexander, are represented in the collection.
The collection also features prints by many of the medium’s greatest 20th-century practitioners, including Berenice Abbott, Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham, James Van Der Zee, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, and Roy DeCarava, as well as lesser-known artists who have made the most of the expressive power, artistic range, and social responsiveness of the medium. Among others, the latter includes a group of works by Cuban photographers, including Pedro Abascal, Arien Chang, Alejandro González, and Lissette Solórzano, most represented with multiple works.
“This collection is a very personal journey through American photography,” said Bill Tsiaras. “The Museum was a formative and influential part of our experiences at Colby, where art is such a critical component of a true liberal arts education. We hope the collection inspires, stimulates, intrigues, challenges, and provides material for discussion, debate, understanding, and, ultimately, intellectual growth to the students of Colby for generations to come.”
The works included in the Tsiaras Family Photography Collection centrally emphasize the role of photography in conveying human experience across forms of expression. It includes photographers known to many and few, and subjects that are equally wide-ranging, spanning time and place, young and old, famous and unknown: Robert Capa’s war photographs, Margaret Bourke-White’s factory workers, Pedro Abascal’s Habana street scenes. The American landscape is well represented: the West is seen through Ansel Adams’s richly toned prints of Yosemite in snow and bloom and in Barbara Norfleet’s haunting images of nuclear test sites in New Mexico and Nevada. The artfulness of the medium is another of the collection’s great strengths, exemplified by an early 20th-century pictorialist portrait by Clarence White and the rigorous formalism of Siskind’s mid-20th-century abstractions. The character of this collection supports Colby’s commitment to expanding art historical narratives and offers opportunities for new research and fresh approaches to teaching and learning.
Thanks in large part to the Tsiaras family’s vision and generosity, the Colby Museum began acquiring photography in earnest in the early 2000s. Bill and Nancy Tsiaras promised an initial gift of photographs to Colby in 2003, which included works by Garry Winogrand, William Christenberry, and Andy Warhol, among others. That gift formed the foundation of a photography collection that would grow over the next two decades to become one of the Museum’s most vibrant and widely accessed collections.
Bill Tsiaras, now an emeritus member of the Museum Board of Governors, served as governor from 1998 to 2015, including terms as board chair from 2004 to 2007 and chair of the Collections Committee from 2008 to 2014.
“Unlike many institutional photography collections, which have pursued essentially the same historical agenda, the Tsiaras Family Photography Collection at the Colby College Museum of Art is distinctly un-canonical,” notes Lyle Rexer, a writer, curator, and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts. “It showcases unfamiliar work by acknowledged masters and masterful works by unfamiliar artists. In other words, its approach is refreshingly personal. To explore the collection is to revise one’s ideas about the history of the medium and to expand one’s appreciation for the range of photography’s expressions.”
Rexer contributed an essay on Aaron Siskind, which includes reflections by photographer Charles Traub, to Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection.