All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by sharing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.
— Susan Sontag
The breadth and depth of the photographs in the Coville Collection now on display at the Ringling Museum of Art spans the entire 20th century and beyond. Its earliest image is the 1888 photograph of the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris; it ends with photographs of the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 90 photographs are a small sampling of more than 1,000 images given to the museum by Warren and Margot Coville, whose collection focused largely on photojournalism.
The Covilles "focused on photojournalism before photojournalism was considered a genre worth collecting," said Matthew McLendon, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ringling.
The images on display include such iconic photographs as Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on Nov. 24, 1963; the explosion of the Hindenberg on May 6, 1937; the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945; and the shocking image of a man plunging headfirst down the side of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Less well-known photographs by photojournalists Margaret Bourke White, Gordon Parks, Albert Eisenstaedt and Louis Wickes Hine hang side by side with art photography by Ansel Adams, Andre Kertesz and Edward Weston.
Coville initially began collecting art photography but soon noticed that photojournalism "was not getting the attention it deserved," said McLendon.
He collected through auctions and commercial galleries, "but as he became more excited about photojournalism, he would write directly to the news agency to request the images," said McLendon.
The photography collection is key to the Ringling's Art of Our Time initiative, said McLendon, "not just here but at many other museums."
Before the Covilles donated their collection to the Ringling, the museum's photo collection was small.
"We can now look to new strengths," said McLendon, noting that two other smaller collections had been given to the museum by Hillary Leff and Elliot Groffman and Geoffrey West in honor of the Coville contribution.
The exhibit also includes a handful of images by Coville himself, who was a war photographer aboard a B-17 bomber in World War II.
"Most of these photographs of Warren's were not quite in a shoebox, but a step up from a shoebox," said McLendon.
McLendon said the photographs take on a whole new meaning when matted, framed and displayed in a gallery setting.
"Framing creates a whole new aesthetic," he said.