Gordon Parks, Drinking Fountains, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 Credit: Gordon Parks / Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Photography

As the Museum of Contemporary Photography celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, the institution faces an existential question: Should a place devoted to photography worry that the fundamental definition of the medium has recently and radically changed? The explosion of amateur pocket photographers could seemingly wipe out the need for a brick-and-mortar monument to an aging art form. Inside the museum, images are stored in dark, refrigerated vaults, while everywhere else pictures are exchanged at the speed of light. But the MoCP is celebrating its birthday by displaying about 200 of its most significant holdings, and several surprises. It’s a self-assured gesture for an establishment born out of change, which in many ways is a Chicago story.

Few realize Chicago’s role in launching photography into a legitimate art movement. While the first photo curators and critics worked in New York, some of the first major collectors lived in Chicago, like David and Sarajean Ruttenberg, a couple whose appetite and philanthropic advocacy for the medium touched most Chicago art museums. Equally important, the first graduate-school program dedicated to photography originated at the Institute of Design, subsequently called the Illinois Institute of Technology. The influential artwork of teachers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind attracted attention, as did their legion of students, a few of whom went on to become some of the masters of 20th-century photography, such as Chicagoans Barbara Crane and Kenneth Josephson. Since the 1950s, photography has retained its academic position, contributing to the notion that this art form can also be an intellectual and potentially lucrative pursuit.

This is where the MoCP enters the story. “There was real hunger to see photography, and a limited number of places to see it,” recalls Bob Thall, a photographer who came of age in the 70s. Photography was still new and urgent. Demonstrators carried cameras in the streets. Banks such as Exchange National began collecting art photography, perhaps recognizing the potential investment value of the new medium. (Exchange National later sold its collection to LaSalle Bank, then Bank of America.) Young photographers swarmed to the city, especially the new photo department at Columbia College, which had a lower threshold for admission than other local art schools.

“There was an atmosphere that something was happening. It just needed representation,” says John Mulvany, who founded the MoCP in 1974. Columbia contributed more than $5,000 to open a tiny museum in an unused classroom. (It has since relocated to prime real estate on South Michigan Avenue.)

Despite the nearby Art Institute of Chicago opening its own photography department at roughly the same time as Columbia, “there was no venue for contemporary photography,” recalls Mulvany. The distinction of “contemporary” photography is important—it was a matter of life or death, so to speak. Major museums prefer to exhibit and purchase the work of dead artists, those already established by the canon of art history. But a contemporary museum could be more nimble, less tied to the masterpiece market, and risk its exhibition space on newer, younger talent. Mulvany even set a strict policy for what enters the MoCP’s permanent collection: nothing made before 1959, and work by Americans only. Those parameters refer to the title and publication date of Robert Frank‘s influential book The Americans; Mulvany considered it the start of modern photography. The new movement would finally have a good home.

The MoCP has always been free, open to the public, and surprisingly populist. “We have a very open door,” executive director Natasha Egan says. The museum accepts submissions, and every month she assembles her curatorial staff and interns to review photos—they usually see 100 portfolios at a time. “It’s not like we can give everyone a show, but we like to watch people grow,” Egan says. Photographers are partly drawn to the museum because of its high-quality book series dedicated to emerging artists, the Midwest Photographers Publication Project. The MoCP even commissioned what was proclaimed at the time as the “largest documentary photography project ever held in an American city.” Titled Changing Chicago (1989), this historic publication is presently available for $0.49 on Amazon. The museum nevertheless routinely receives major donations from prominent artists, including, recently, 400 prints by Dorothea Lange and a few dozen by An-My Lê.

The MoCP admits it has some work to do in order to become a fully contemporary institution. “We have almost no African holdings,” says Karen Irvine, who has been a curator at the museum for 15 years. The founder’s original edict—to buy only post-1959 American photography—succeeded in making room for local, working artists, but on another level excluded international work. It was a practical decision but nearsighted, and something the current staff is trying to remedy (though the MoCP has always exhibited international and historic photography in its temporary shows).

“A lot of photo-specific museums are grappling with the future now that photographic imagery exists all over the place as files, not objects,” Irvine says. The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, for instance, ceased being an independent venue in 2009. As for the future, “There are two schools of thought,” Irvine says. “The collection might become more special as it allows for the study of actual objects, or we embrace new-media technologies that digital natives are expecting.” Irvine and her team favor the fine-art print; indeed, that is what makes visiting the physical museum so special. But their view is not conservative: in 2012, for example, they asked local artist Jan Tichy to overhaul the MoCP’s website and make it more accessible, an unusual and functional take on a conceptual-art experiment.

Whereas many museums tend to produce solo exhibitions or retrospectives for major artists, the MoCP does something very different—it curates more group shows. These exhibitions have a concept or theme and are packaged to be relevant to both casual viewers and photography experts. Concordantly, the programs have been some of the most well attended in the museum’s history, such as last year’s “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity” and “North Korean Perspectives.” It’s the exhibition-as-think-tank model, and it’s how the MoCP anchors itself against changing winds.

“People are always asking us, how do you define photography?” Egan says. “We don’t even like to try to define it. It’s image based, and images can be quite broad.” More definitively, Egan follows up, “artists lead the change.”

Does the museum have anything by Vivian Maier? “No,” Egan says. “We’re trying to discover new artists as we go, not relive the past.”  v