The Guttmans and their Collection

last edited on Thu. October 27 2016

Lester and Betty Guttman’s love of photography was not theoretical; it was embedded in their daily lives.

Their collection, before it arrived at the Smart Museum as a bequest in 2014, lived with them among their orchids in their Hyde Park home, with a restrained selection hanging on the walls and hundreds of photographs housed in flat file cabinets in their dining and living rooms.

For Laura Letinsky and Jessica Moss, the co-curators of There was a whole collection made, the Guttmans’ collection demonstrates a curiosity and interconnectedness that is reflected in Gertrude Stein’s lines from Tender Buttons (1914): 

Stein is the subject of several portraits in the collection and the curators write in the exhibition catalogue that her words seem to perfectly coincide with not only the Guttmans’ rationale for collecting, but also their delight in the world. 

Photography was just one of the Guttmans’ shared pursuits. “Rather than seeking to collect, for example, all the works of a specific artist, period, or place, or the best known or most precious, the Guttmans’ choices grew out of their inquisitiveness and wide-ranging interests in the world. Their aesthetics, alongside their humanist ethics, informed their evocative collection,” write the curators. 

Lester (1919–2006) and Betty (1922–2014) were married for 50 years and worked together at Argonne National Laboratory, where Lester was a senior scientist and editor of the Journal of Applied Physics and Betty was a technical librarian. Betty was an alumna of the University of Chicago (SB 1943). They were also patrons of art and music in Chicago and, as amateur mycologists, co-edited the journal McIlvainea.

“The breadth of historical, technological, and conceptual strategies, as well as the variety of subject matter, demonstrate an ongoing curiosity,” note Letinsky and Moss in the catalogue. “It is a thoroughly eclectic and a fantastically personal gathering of images expressive of the Guttmans’ full, rich lives.”

Vital statistics of work from the Guttman bequest

Photographic works:

Nonphotographic works received from the collection:

Photographers represented: 

Most works by a single artist:

Years of collecting:
31 (1981–2012)

Date of earliest work:

Date of latest work:

Number of dealers/auction houses purchased from:

Smallest work:
1 x 2 inches (2.5 x 5 cm)

Largest work:
44 x 79 1 ⁄2 inches (111.8 x 201.9 cm)

A version of this article was originally published in the fall 2016 edition of At the Smart.

Read more about the Guttmans and their approach to collecting photography in the exhibition catalogue for There was a whole collection made, available in the Smart Museum shop or via the University of Chicago Press.

“There was a whole collection made. A damp cloth, an oyster, a single mirror, a manikin, a student, a silent star, a single spark, a little movement and the bed is made.” —Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, 1914