The Caponigro Collection: Boston in 1959

The Caponigro Collection: Boston in 1959

August 28-December 30, 2023

A Boston native, Paul Caponigro photographed the West End and Back Bay in 1959. Tantalized by the neighborhoods’ ruined state, Caponigro found beauty in the city’s decomposing forms. In this small series, the photographer focuses primarily on details within the demolition. Caponigro aestheticizes the ruins by turning wrecked homes, churches, and schools into abstracted
and sublime patterns.

Decontextualizing the neighborhoods, Caponigro photographs the West End and Back Bay as personal, intimate spaces worthy of contemplation. Caponigro centers on the neighborhoods’ liminal spaces— doorways, stoops, windows—spaces in-between. Fittingly, Caponigro photographs each site at a liminal moment, in the midst of destruction.


Oceanic New England explores what Herman Melville called the “watery part of the world.” This collaboratively curated exhibition challenges surface-level understandings of the sea in order to pursue a deeper engagement with its multiple histories. Spanning the long nineteenth century, the exhibition reveals the Atlantic Ocean to be a realm of travel and commerce, violence and exploitation, aesthetic inspiration and scientific inquiry. The diverse array of objects, ranging from seaweed albums to slave narratives, displays the complexity of human encounters with the Atlantic Ocean and foregrounds perspectives and practices often submerged by the dominant historical record. As we confront rising sea levels and an increasingly acidic ocean, these objects invite us to revisit the stories we tell about the ocean and to contemplate our relationship to the region’s most vital natural resource. 

This exhibition is a collaboration between the Boston Athenaeum and the University of Massachusetts-Boston’s English Department. Professor Sari Edelstein, PhD and graduate students from her seminar Critical Ocean Studies worked with Athenaeum curator Christina Michelon, PhD to co-curate this exhibition.

Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City

Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City

August 28 – December 30, 2023 in the Calderwood Gallery

During the mid-twentieth-century, two photographers captured Boston’s developing landscape: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman. Abbott, an acclaimed photographer, produced a 1934 photographic survey of Boston’s nineteenth-century buildings. Twenty-five years later, Shwachman, a lesser-known yet crucial city chronicler, began “The Boston Document” (1959–1968). This self-directed photographic series pictured Boston’s redevelopment.

The twentieth century witnessed great change in Boston’s topography. The city’s crooked, narrow streets were widened to make way for increased automobile traffic. Human-scaled buildings and small open spaces were usurped by skyscrapers and monumental plazas. The city’s skyline of spires and domes became punctuated with tall, boxlike office buildings. 

Photographing at different times in Boston’s history, Abbott and Shwachman’s series each explore ways of viewing, dissecting, and preserving Boston. Abbott approaches Boston from a distance, offering stoic views, oscillating between straightforward and oblique angles. Shwachman, a student of Abbott’s, amended her teacher’s approach by photographing Boston through a personal, subjective lens to highlight the city’s dynamism.

Examining how the photographers consider presence, tempo, materiality, and change within the city, Developing Boston invites visitors to explore Boston’s past, present, and future, and find their place within the city. 

As a coda to the exhibition, the Athenaeum collaborated with teen artists from Artists For Humanity to create photographs that explore Boston’s continued redevelopment in the twenty-first century. These images illustrate photography’s critical role in understanding, remembering, and preserving Boston and its many iterations. 

The collaboration with Artists For Humanity is supported by the Mass Cultural Council.

This exhibition is generously funded by the Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust.

Mapping Berenice Abbott’s Boston

Our friends at the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library published Mapping Berenice Abbott’s Boston, a companion to this exhibition. Using the Map Center’s Atlascope technology, Lauren Graves, exhibition curator, mapped the buildings in Abbott’s work as a way to explore different ways of viewing Boston’s history.

Related Programming

See the full list of related programming, including curator-led gallery talks.

Reading the Room: Reconstructing the Boston Athenæum

Reading the Room: Reconstructing the Boston Athenæum

March 1, 2023 – May 2023

In 2022, Newton-based photographer Tira Khan served as the Artist in Residence at the Boston Athenæum. During this time, she documented the evolution of the library during its historic revitalization and building expansion.

Reading the Room presents spaces in the midst of change and as sites of transition between the old and new. This project looks ahead to the future with an eye on the past. From chaotic construction sites to the quietude of artwork in storage, the photographs explore space as a receptacle for personal and institutional memory. Please find the artist’s statement here.

A Place I Never Knew

A Place I Never Knew, Photographs by Tira Khan

November 14, 2022 – February 20, 2023

A Place I Never Knew (2019) explores Rampur, India, a Muslim-majority city and artist Tira Khan’s ancestral home. Formerly a Princely State of British India, Rampur gained independence in 1949. Today, the city struggles with increasing poverty and illiteracy. Ranging from sensitive portraits of residents to photographs of urban structures and homes, Khan’s images are intensely colorful and crisp. The artist’s eye for juxtaposition, texture, and color effectively bridge the past and present to capture the complexities of this little-known city. Throughout the series, Khan grapples with her relationship to Rampur, a place she never knew despite her family ties. 

About the Artist

Photographer Tira Khan is based in Newton, Massachusetts. She began her career as a writer, working as a staff reporter at daily newspapers. Khan’s work explores the meaning of family and the architecture of place, and she believes documentary photography is important as both art and historical record. She exhibits her work internationally in galleries, books, magazines, and festivals.

In 2022, Khan was Artist in Residence at the Boston Athenaeum and documented the changing spaces of the library during its historic renovation.

What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women,1843-1999

What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999
A Hands-on Reading Room Exhibition, Henry Long Room

Organized in collaboration with  10 x 10 Photobooks

March 2-4, 2023

What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999, was a hands-on reading room showcasing a global selection of photobooks by female photographers from photography’s beginnings to the dawn of the 21st century. 

Materialia Lumina | Luminous Books: Concept & Craft in Contemporary Artists’ Books

Suzanne Moore, Zero: Cypher of Infinity (Vashon Island, Washington, 2014)

Suzanne Moore, Zero: Cypher of Infinity (Vashon Island, Washington, 2014)

Sue Anderson and Gwen Harrison, Howl for a Black Cockatoou (Sydney: Impediment Press, 2015)

Materialia Lumina | Luminous Books: Concept & Craft in Contemporary Artists’ Books

November 15, 2022 – March 11, 2023

Materialia Lumina | Luminous Books showcases a selection of outstanding contemporary artists’ books created by some of the world’s most accomplished makers over the past twenty-five years. The books embody a distinctive marriage of “high craft” with “high concept.” They demonstrate a mastery of the traditional arts of the book—printing, printmaking, typography, calligraphy, bookbinding, papermaking, and graphic design—intersecting vigorously with the conceptual daring and exploratory nature of the best contemporary art. The exhibition explores the extraordinary level of skill and persistence involved in creating these beautiful works, as well as their unique power to speak to a range of contemporary issues and concerns. 

These forty selections from the Athenæum’s holdings and the collection of a generous private lender were drawn from a curated list of 75 exemplary works, out of more than 6,000 pieces exhibited at the CODEX International Book Fair, the world’s largest venue for contemporary artists’ books, since the fair’s inception in 2007. The Athenæum is one of three venues for this international exhibition, along with Stanford University Libraries and the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach, Germany. A substantial catalog, with descriptive essays and extensive illustrations, accompanies the exhibition. 

Books on display from the Boston Athenæum’s collection are cataloged in Athena, the Athenaeum’s online catalog, and can be consulted in the Vershbow Special Collections reading room after the exhibition concludes.

The exhibition was curated by John Buchtel and designed by Jennifer L. Munson. The exhibition catalog, Materialia Lumina: Contemporary Artists’ Books from the CODEX International Book Fair, was jointly published by the CODEX Foundation and Stanford University Libraries with support from the Boston Athenæum. Works featured in the catalog were selected by Peter Koch, Susan Filter, Roberto Trujillo, and members of the CODEX Foundation Board of Directors.

Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872

Revisiting the Ruins: The Great Boston Fire of 1872

April 7–July 29, 2023 in the Calderwood Gallery

Beginning on November 9, 1872, fire ravaged Boston’s central commercial district for nearly twenty hours. By late afternoon the next day, sixty-five acres of the city lay in ruin. The fire destroyed 776 buildings, and the Boston Athenæum was spared by just two blocks. 1,000 people lost their homes and another 20,000 lost jobs. It is estimated that thirty people lost their lives. 

Many factors fueled the blaze: a horse flu epidemic, highly flammable wooden rooftops, and low water pressure, to name a few. The Great Boston Fire occurred just one year after the Great Chicago Fire (1871) and not long after the havoc of the Civil War (1861-65). Though these earlier catastrophes impacted New England, they happened hundreds of miles away. This time, Bostonians were confronted with destruction up close. 

Artists, journalists, and eyewitnesses rushed to record the devastation. Photographic technology at the time could not capture the fire as it happened, so ruins became the basis for many depictions. Photographers swarmed The Burnt District and created romanticized images of the fire’s aftermath. Newspapers printed pictures and sensationalized accounts of the disaster. Relics, written remembrances, maps, and works of art became material commemorations of the fire. Stereographs, a popular form of nineteenth-century entertainment, transported viewers to the ruins from the safety of their homes.

Not long after the fire, the rubble was cleared away to begin rebuilding, making way for the areas known today as the Financial District and Downtown Crossing. A century and a half later, what can we learn from revisiting the ruins?
Following the 150th anniversary of the Great Boston Fire, Revisiting the Ruins presents a range of media that documented the blaze and its aftermath. This exhibition will showcase powerful artifacts from a pivotal moment in Boston’s history while prompting visitors to consider how it has been remembered generations later.