Bodleian Libraries to appoint Curator of Photography for first time in its history, and to welcome archive of American portrait photographer Bern Schwartz

The Bodleian Libraries are pleased to announce that, for the first time, a Curator of Photography will be appointed to care for and develop the libraries' growing photography collections, thanks to a transformational gift of £2 million from The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation. The endowment accompanies the Foundation's donation of the archive of renowned American portrait photographer and businessman, Bern Schwartz.

The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, inspired by the talent for photography that businessman Bern Schwartz developed later in life, is generously supporting the Bodleian Libraries in advancing the appreciation, understanding, and study of photography by donating the archive and funding the curatorship, which will be known as The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Curator of Photography. 

The study of and research into photography is increasing in prominence at the University of Oxford, and this post will be key to bringing together different strands of the University for research collaborations with various faculties, museums within the University, other organisations in the city, and with the History of Art department under the leadership of Professor Geoffrey Batchen, whose work focuses on the history of photography.

The Bern Schwartz Archive is rich in original photographs, negatives and documentary material that illuminates Schwartz's photographic practice. It joins an important group of Bern Schwartz's photographs which were donated to the Bodleian Libraries by the Foundation in 2019. This new acquisition brings to life the compelling work that Bern Schwartz, working with his wife Ronny, undertook during the period of his life devoted to photography. The material charts his instruction from renowned photographer Philippe Halsman, who became his mentor and close friend. Lesson notes, diaries and personal correspondence shed a fascinating light on Bern Schwartz's ability to relate to his sitters; extensive research notes enabled him to understand the life and work of his subjects, which informed conversations and put them at ease. Schwartz's personal notes on each sitting allow us to eavesdrop into conversations with notable figures including Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson and Prince Charles.

Examples of Bern Schwartz's photography

Over forty years later, these portraits still engage the viewer and the body of work, which includes out-takes as well as images chosen for publication or exhibition, allows us to appreciate the output of a unique figure in 20th-century photography. Schwartz was based both in La Jolla, California and in London for much of his career as a photographer. Many of his subjects also feature prominently in the Bodleian's other archival holdings: such as Isaiah Berlin, Edward Heath, and James Callaghan. The photographic archive - the heart of the collection - comprises negatives, contact sheets and prints of various kinds. Images in approximately 150 boxes provide the record of some 600 sittings and around 50,000 pictures, with many currently unprinted and existing only as negatives. The prints come in a range of formats, from proof prints to large format C-prints, as well as dye-transfer prints of immense beauty.

The newly appointed Bern and Ronny Schwartz Curator of Photography will sit within the Bodleian Libraries Special Collections team and will act as the facilitator of the growing collection of photography, built up by the library since 1844, and a strong focus on recent collecting. The outstanding collection, which encompasses the whole history of the discipline, starting with the personal archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, will now have a dedicated curator to take the collection into its third century.

Bern Schwartz's archive will take its place alongside other collections including major holdings of Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Daniel Meadows and Helen Muspratt, as well as photobooks from the Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey Collection and prints recently gifted by James and Claire Hyman. The Bern and Ronny Schwartz Curator of Photography will develop the collection through strategic acquisitions, collaborate with the Bodleian's specialist conservation staff and will ensure that the collection is widely accessible to students, researchers and the public through exhibitions, public programmes and digitisation. A specialist Archivist, also generously funded by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, will work with the Curator to catalogue the Bern Schwartz Archive so that it can be made available for study and exhibition. Recruitment for both positions will begin immediately.

Michael Schwartz, Chairman of The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, and Dr Anne Varick Lauder, Foundation Senior Advisor, said:

We are delighted to make this endowment in support of photography at the University of Oxford. The Bodleian Libraries are also the perfect home for Bern Schwartz's archive. In many respects it is a visual Who's Who of some of the most iconic faces of 1970s Britain, from former Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson to historians Kenneth Clark and Isaiah Berlin, luminaries whose archives are also housed in the Bodleian. We hope the material will be enjoyed for years to come.

Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley's Librarian, said:

We are profoundly grateful to The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation for their gifts. This new partnership allows the Bodleian and the University of Oxford to promote access to, and deepen the understanding of, photography. The new curatorship will ensure the highest levels of scholarship and public engagement and will become an ambassador for the Bodleian's growing photographic collections.