Pablo Picasso and his daughter Maya, ca. 1944. William and Ethel Baziotes papers.


Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Coyoacán, Mexico. Photograph by Chester Dale (1883–1962), Chester Dale papers.


Jackson Pollock on the beach with a dog, ca. 1945. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers.

“I have always loved snapshots,” says curator Merry Foresta, who over the last few years, has poured over thousands of private family photographs belonging to the greatest artists of the last century, beginning with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in the early 1900s. For Artists Unframed: Snapshots from the Archives of American Art, Foresta has pulled together more than one hundred of these behind-the-scenes moments of artistic giants and their families, revealing the spontaneous and everyday occasions that underpinned the intimate lives of everyone from Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol to Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Since 1954, the Archives of American Art, where Foresta would ultimately serve as the director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, has gathered over twenty million objects and excepts from the collections of American masters. When she embarked on this project, she selected frames that could only be classified as “snapshots.” As a child and into adulthood, Foresta remembers reaching to a high shelf to recover a box of her old family portraits, listening intently as the backstories were recounted and the scene spun to life. A snapshot, she suggests, evokes both a sense of familiarity and mystery, disclosing biographical information about its subject while inciting a slew of unanswered questions.

The photos Foresta selected range from those captured at historic gallery openings to those taken as after-thoughts to family vacations. While she was of course captivated by the prolific and unforgettable names, she was also drawn to those artists who were more obscure; in the end, the potency of the image relied on the moment they captured. Her favorites are the ones she describes as “slightly goofy:” the shots of Andy Warhol galavanting with his buddies at Fire Island, or Ansel Adams mugging for the camera, posing like a movie star. One surprise, she admits, has been the overwhelming quantity of photographs chronicling the life of Jackson Pollack, whose family seemed obsessed with recording even the most hushed and routine interactions.

In unveiling these images, which range from candid to informally staged, Foresta hopes to humanize both the individuals pictured and the more vague and elusive figure of “the artist.” In the end, these people—most of them lost to us—are far more complex than we imagine them, and often, the realities of their lives don’t fit within the confines of the history books. While many of the Artists Unframed photographs provide invaluable insight into the inspirations and ambitions of their subjects, their beauty lies in the fact that they evade any fixed conclusions. Yes, they bring us nearer to the innermost experience of these artists, and yet they remain slippery and elusive, inviting us to revisit them time and again.

Artists Unframed: Snapshots from the Archives of American Art by Merry A. Foresta is published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2015.


Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Andy Warhol, June 5, 1971. Photograph by David Bourdon, David Bourdon papers.


Alexander Calder and Agnes Rindge Claflin in Calder’s studio, in Roxbury, Connecticut ca. 1942. Agnes Rindge Claflin papers concerning Alexander Calder.


Una Hanbury sculpting a bust of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1967. Una Hanbury papers.


George Tooker, Daniel Maloney, and William Christopher, ca. 1951. William Christopher papers.


Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon with dog Pipe in the garden of Villon’s studio, Puteaux, France, 1913. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn Family papers and Armory Show records.


Dorothy Cantor, Andy Warhol, and Philip Pearlstein on campus at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, ca. 1948. Philip Pearlstein papers.


Gertrude Abercrombie and Dizzie Gillespie on his birthday, October 21, 1964. Gertrude Abercrombie papers.


Ansel Adams, 1936. Katharine Kuh papers.


Helen Lundeberg at Mount Baldy, San Bernardino County, California, October 1943. Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg papers.


David Hockney at his studio in Los Angeles, April 1982. Photograph by André Emmerich. André Emmerich Gallery records and André Emmerich papers.


Lee Krasner, Stella Pollock, and Jackson Pollock carving a turkey, 1950. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers.