A last minute addition to the long list of top museum people who left their jobs in 2008 — the J. Paul Getty Museum just announced that Weston Naef, their longtime photography curator, is stepping down. Naef was the lucky man who got to build the Getty’s great photo collection almost from the ground up. In 1984, when he came to the Getty from his old job as curator of prints and photos at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Getty had just established a photo department by what you might call checkbook force majeure, the near simultaneous purchase of a number of major American and European private collections, notably the one assembled by Robert Mapplethorpe’s protege Sam Wagstaff.
By the time Naef arrived the Getty collection amounted to about 25,000 images, much of it concentrated in 19th century pictures. Over the next 25 years he got to add about 75,000 more, big heaping tranches of Stieglitz and Strand and Atget and Kertesz. During the Naef era the Getty organized a few big traveling exhibitions, but fewer than I had expected when he first took the job. What he did best was grow the collection and cultivate it at home. Every time I stopped in at that museum there was likely to be a sharp little show that the press kit would explain — you could almost hear the chuckle — “is drawn largely from the Getty’s own holdings”.