5/10/2021 Diane Gegg

Parents Donate Photographs Worth More Than $2.5 Million to the Phillips

It's been said a photo is worth a thousand words… but some photos are worth much more than words. Over the past two years, Dr. Stephen Nicholas and his wife, Eileen—parents of twins and Class of 2020 graduates Michaela and Stephen Jr.—graciously donated photographs worth over $2.5 million to the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall College. Additional photographs will be donated or loaned over the next several years.

Dr. Nicholas, a graduate of Harvard University, is a physician and orthopedic surgeon, and the founder and director of N.Y. Orthopedics in New York City. He said he and his wife have been collecting photographs for nearly 20 years.

Although not a photographer himself, Dr. Nicholas revealed he is personally excited by photography in the humanist tradition, particularly photos depicting triumph over adversity.

"The work of Danny Lyon is especially memorable on that score," he said. "The collection we’re donating to F&M includes important examples of Lyon’s Civil Rights photo essay, which he made while participating in the Freedom Rides as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee."

When one has collected more than several hundred photographs, some of those photos will have been taken by famous photographers and others by less well-known photographers. And some come with interesting stories. Dr. Nicholas shared a favorite story about photos he helped collect that were taken by Mike Disfarmer, an American photographer who took distinctive portraits of everyday people in rural Arkansas in the first half of the 20th century.

"Back in 2003 or 2004, I participated with an old high school and college friend of mine in the systematic 'harvesting' of vintage Depression-era photos by Mike Disfarmer from families in rural Arkansas, where Disfarmer had a portrait studio," he remembered. "This self-taught photographer, though a curmudgeon on a personal level, was actually one of America’s most gifted portrait artists in any medium, and his work was largely still preserved in old family albums belonging to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his subjects. Today, they’re in museums across the country, where they deserve to be. There are terrific examples of Disfarmer’s work in the photo collection we’re gifting (to F&M)."

  • Dr. Stephen Nicholas and his wife, Eileen Dr. Stephen Nicholas and his wife, Eileen

Franklin & Marshall Was Great for the Twins

According to Dr. Nicholas, Michaela and Stephen Jr. grew up hearing good things about F&M from a childhood friend of his, Rippy Philips '85. The twins, very close siblings, visited the campus together after Stephen was recruited for football—and both decided to attend. 

"After a year of football, Stephen walked onto the golf team—under the great Coach Andy Tompos—and eventually rose to be team captain," Dr. Nicholas remembered. "Michaela walked onto the field hockey team and became team captain herself. The social and leadership skills they gained at F&M have been a joy to watch. They both had a great experience there."

With the children successful at F&M, and Dr. and Mrs. Nicholas learning more about the school, it was an easy decision to donate the photographs to the Phillips Museum of Art.

"We know the Phillips Museum will not only display the photography as fine art, but also make it accessible to relevant academic departments such as American studies, history, anthropology, and so forth," Dr. Nicholas said. "The collection we’re gifting is rich in opportunities for campuswide cross-fertilization of this sort."

Lindsay Marino, director of the Phillips Museum of Art, is very enthusiastic about this donation—and confirmed that is exactly what is planned.

"First and foremost, we will use these photographs for exhibitions supporting the curriculum," Marino said. "During Modules 3 and 4 this spring, we see applications for a program on Civil Rights and classes on history, art, and others." She noted that the museum will use the photos extensively over the coming years, for an endless number of exhibitions and classes.

"The collection is particularly exciting because many of the photos are vintage, meaning the prints were made when the negative was developed," she said. "Having access to the vintage print is fantastic because it’s considered the original piece. There is often a great deal of information included on the back of the photograph that gives us the history of the artwork. The Mike Disfarmer collection of photos are especially notable, because many of them were collected directly from the families in the artist’s Arkansas hometown. Other artists included in this donation include Joel Meyerowitz, Bill Owens, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Mario Giacomelli.

Marino added that this is a unique gift for the museum in another way.

"This is the most extensive gift of photography the Phillips Museum has received in its 20-year history; it is truly a transformative donation that will benefit the F&M community indefinitely," she said.

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