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About the Author
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The Photographic Object 1970
By Mary Statzer
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
CONVERSATION WITH THE CURATOR, PETER BUNNELL
April 29, 2012, Princeton, New Jersey
MS: How and when did you first discover dimensional photography? When did you know that it was prevalent enough to be the subject of an exhibition?
PB: It was clear to me then, in the mid-1960s, and clear to me now looking back, that when I was on the road doing research for the Photography as Printmaking exhibition, I was beginning to see things that were giving me pause. An example would be Doug Prince and his boxes, or Bea Nettles. I remember going to the University of Illinois, where Nettles went to graduate school. The photography professor there, Art Sinsabaugh, had invited me to give a lecture. I was doing a lot of lecturing then. John Szarkowski was very tolerant and often let me take two or three days to fly to some godforsaken place and give a lecture.
The artist behind much of the new work I was seeing was Robert Heinecken. When I finally made a trip to Los Angeles, I encountered his students and alumni from UCLA. On that trip, or maybe another one, I discovered Richard Jackson in the Eugenia Butler Gallery. Coincidentally, after the exhibition closed, I wanted to buy the Richard Jackson piece for MoMA but nobody could figure out if it belonged in the sculpture department or the photography department. Everything was compartmentalized in the 1960s, so it didn't come to pass.
MS: I'm under the impression that John Szarkowski had well-defined attitudes about what constituted photography. How did you see your own attitudes fitting with his? And how did that dynamic affect your work as a curator of photography at MoMA?
PB: I think what you say about Szarkowski is correct. He had a very formalist and traditional approach to photography. He liked straightforward, reality-based imagery, but you should understand that he was a very broad-minded person. He gave me complete freedom. When he was hired, which was only three years before I arrived, he was seen as a kind of volatile young man in the field. He was only thirty-some-odd years old. In other words, he was seen as a contemporary photographer and curator and he succeeded Steichen, who was ancient. My understanding of what the administration expected from John, from my knowledge of working with him for six years, was that they envisioned him focusing on contemporary photography. When it came time to hire an assistant curator who would not only deal with curatorial matters such as cataloging but also with the history of photography, I was considered in part because I had worked with Beaumont Newhall at George Eastman House and was coming out of the Yale art history program. I was perceived as the leveling figure who would do the more historical work.
Well, I wasn't there for even six weeks before I realized that John was not interested in this. John wanted to do exhibitions of Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt. As a matter of fact, he had a list in his wallet of the photographers he was looking at in terms of large solo exhibitions. If you look at his exhibition record, by and large, and at the beginning especially, he was doing almost exclusively one-person shows. Part of that was to make up for Steichen, who had mostly organized group exhibitions. It was clear that if someone was going to be dealing with what photography was right then (and not necessarily imagining that there was going to be something called Photography into Sculpture), I realized I was going to have to do that work because John was flying off to Paris to meet with Cartier-Bresson and that kind of thing.
MS: What were some of the other ways in which you shared the work of running the department?
PB: John did not like to go to galleries, because he didn't like being accosted by people saying, "Oh, Mr. Szarkowski, look at my portfolio. Come in the other room." I lived in New York in an apartment on the Upper East Side, so my Saturdays turned into visits to Lee Witkin's gallery and eventually Light Gallery and anybody else who was doing anything photographic. I would report back to John that he should sneak into this or that place some noontime when the crowds weren't there and take a look. We were also open to portfolio viewing. One day a week, John and I would stay until 7 or 8 p.m. looking at works submitted by photographers that I had previewed. We worked in tandem in that way.
That said, there were aspects of contemporary photography in which Szarkowski clearly had no interest. And yet, at the same time, here's an example that is a complete anomaly. The very same year that Nathan Lyons did his show at George Eastman House [The Persistence of Vision, 1967], Szarkowski gave Jerry Uelsmann a one-person show. Of all the people you can imagine. The irony of course is that this photographer is actually believable. Uelsmann is not like Edmund Teske or Val Telberg, where the artificiality of the image is very prevalent and obvious. With Uelsmann, until you actually get into it, you say, well, that tree is just floating out there and it's so real and perfectly done. In a way, it was John being adventuresome and conservative at the same time. He had it both ways, and, of course, it launched Uelsmann's career.
The 1964 Philip Johnson addition to MoMA included space for the photography department. We were on the third floor. All you had to do was push a button in the gallery and an intercom came on upstairs and anyone could ask to see Weston prints. Eventually, we had to put a rope across the stairwell and take the thing out because all we did all day was answer viewing requests.
MS: Could you talk about the photography department's exhibition program, and how Photography into Sculpture came about and fit into it?
PB: John's main shows, as he was the head of the department, were large exhibitions on the first floor and were usually accompanied by a catalogue. We did all kinds of exhibitions in the third-floor gallery for which there was no catalogue. If the show traveled, and there was then an active circulating exhibition program at MoMA, there was a folded brochure. Photography into Sculpture was actually on the first floor. Interestingly, it was in the same two galleries as the New Documents exhibition had been when Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand showed back in 1967.
In a sense, I started a focus on younger contemporary photographers at MoMA. I did Robert Adams's first show. Emmet Gowin's first exhibition. Paul Caponigro. I did some historical exhibitions, too. I did a show of Pictorialists, and I frequently did new acquisitions exhibitions. I did a Minor White sequence in new acquisitions. We bought some Frederick Evans platinum prints. We bought a group of silver prints by Max Waldman, who was the photographer of the Living Theater that made famous the Marat/Sade nude play. I did those kinds of things, whereas John concentrated on the bigger shows.
MS: What was the exhibition approval process at MoMA? Did Photography into Sculpture go through a formal review?
PB: I had to make a formal presentation to John first, and then to the exhibitions committee, which was chaired by the museum's director, René d'Harnoncourt, in front of other curators. If an exhibition was going to be in the departmental gallery, it didn't involve this process, but anything on the first floor had to go through this system. Budgets and publicity people were all part of it. I wouldn't say it was cutthroat, but when I took up three months of gallery space it meant that prints and drawings were not going to get in there, or architecture and design, or painting. So I gave this presentation saying that I had begun to discover this kind of work, and I showed a couple of examples and snapshots that I had taken. Everything was approved.
I took a year or so to do the research and traveled to Vancouver, Los Angeles, and elsewhere to pick out the actual objects. The next thing you know, these crates started to arrive. At MoMA, the person who probably had the greatest amount of power in the entire museum was the registrar, because once an object entered the building there was no way that you could see it without going through a formal procedure. Every now and again I'd be down in the cage where the temporary loans were kept and I would ask the assistant registrar if Szarkowski had come down to take a look at anything. She'd tell me to look at the ledger. You had to sign in and out every time you were there. I looked through the ledger, and no Szarkowski. Finally the day came when the registrar and the art handlers brought everything up to the first-floor gallery. Big screens were put up so the public couldn't see. About halfway through the first day of installation, Szarkowski banged on the screen and said, "Can I come in?" That was the first time that he saw any of that material!
MS: No kidding?
PB: Yes, and he loved it. He had very interesting ideas in some cases about where to put works. If you look at the installation views, you'll see that some pieces were hung high up on the wall. He looked around and said, "It's going to be great. Good," and left. That was that.
At that time, when you were a curator in a museum, you wrote the text panels, and more often than not they were unsigned. At MoMA, however, everything was credited, so my name appeared at the bottom of the wall label. That meant that if the show failed, it was me who failed. When the press came, they would know exactly who the curator was. Of course, if critics wanted to take it up with Szarkowski, they could.
MS: As you say, there were no catalogues for your shows Photography as Printmaking and Photography into Sculpture, but you obviously worked hard to place essays about them in publications so that the content reached a wider audience.
PB: I had a very good relationship with Jean Lipman, who was the editor in chief of Art in America. I could pretty much call her up and place an article. She liked what I wrote and the concepts behind what I was showing. Yes, I was very conscious of that. Part of it was the residue of my Rochester experience. All kinds of wonderful things happened in Rochester, but few people ever saw them. The question wasn't whether we had traffic at MoMA, but if you lived in Phoenix or Tucson or someplace like that, you weren't about to just jump on a plane and go to the Museum of Modern Art. The goal was to get out there. MoMA was very conscious of that. There was also an active museum newsletter, and we were required to promote our own shows in the newsletter to members who lived all over the country.
MS: Going back to the show itself, how did you find the work in Photography into Sculpture? For example, what led you to Vancouver and the work of Jack Dale and Michael de Courcy?
PB: I may have learned about the Vancouver activity in several ways. In California I heard that artists from Vancouver were very conversant with what was going on there. They came south as far as Los Angeles to check it all out. At MoMA I seem to remember becoming aware of the work of Iain Baxter and his N. E. Thing Co. in Vancouver [see fig. 32]. Through him I may have been introduced to his colleagues such as Michael de Courcy. I knew James Borcoman, who was the curator of the National Gallery in Ottawa. It could very well be that he mentioned that there were these lively, unconventional, interesting people working in Vancouver. Then there was also the magazine artscanada, which I was familiar with.
In general, I learned about new work by word of mouth. I would talk with somebody and they in turn would suggest so-and-so. There was certainly a ripple effect of working with Robert Heinecken and his students and their friends. I may have found Doug Prince because he taught with Jerry Uelsmann, who was a friend of mine, and I know Doug brought his work to the Museum of Modern Art because I remember that it came in boxes that we had to unpack. In other words, they didn't come in a traditional portfolio case like most of the work that was presented to John Szarkowski and me. I may have found Dale Quarterman, who lived in Virginia, through George Nan, an old college classmate in Rochester who taught at Virginia Commonwealth University.
I met Jerry McMillan through Heinecken or Richard Jackson. McMillan, in turn, introduced me to Ed Ruscha. I went to his studio and we talked about a little bit ofeverything. He knew I was out there to work on the show and was curious about who I was seeing.
In any event, the photography community was so small that everybody knew one another. Once I got started with my research for Photography into Sculpture, all I had to do was go to a Society for Photographic Education meeting and there would be the professors from all of these different schools who were teaching photography. They would say, "Oh my god! I have this student doing this kind of work," or I would initiate the conversation and ask if they had any students who were doing three-dimensional work. In other words, this kind of situation just snowballs and one thing leads to another.
There was much more of that in locating works for Photography into Sculpture than when I did Photography as Printmaking in 1968, because I knew what I was looking for and how it fit into the history of the medium. One of the problems I had with Photography as Printmaking was that the MoMA print department was not comfortable loaning a Rauschenberg to a fellow department. They had a vision of printmaking, in spite of the fact that it was photo technique printmaking, and they did not want it to be shown in the photography department. Even Szarkowski was a little concerned about that. He said, "Well, I don't think Rauschenberg is a photographer." That was before we knew that Rauschenberg did, in fact, make straight photographs.
There were these domains that had certain critical parameters both inside the museum and beyond it that carried into the 1980s and 1990s. For example, when the 150th anniversary of photography was celebrated in 1989, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, did a significant exhibition. They wanted to borrow the Princeton University Art Museum's Hamish Fulton. I was one of the first curators who knew the history of photography who bought a Hamish Fulton. He got wind of the National's request and refused to let the work be shown because he said that it was a photography exhibition and he was not into photography. He saw himself as another kind of artist. I got on the phone with him in England and reminded him that it was the National Gallery in Washington that wanted to exhibit his work, not some small regional museum. I also told him to face facts and be honest that this was a photograph and that without photography he could do his long walks but would have no evidence of them. He finally gave in, and it was a hit of the show. I think they used it in the brochure.
MS: There was no historical element in Photography into Sculpture. Did you consider expanding the checklist to include historical precedents? In your essay in artscanada you reference and illustrate examples such as Robert Rauschenberg, Antoine Pevsner, Edward Weston, ambrotypes (which are a nineteenth-century process), and lantern slides.
PB: No. Photography into Sculpture was considered an exhibition of contemporary works being made at that moment.
MS: Did you talk to your counterparts in painting and sculpture at MoMA about what you were finding?
PB: I did not have a meeting that I can recall with any curator in painting and sculpture as to what, in fact, that group defined as sculpture. I just took it for granted that I knew what sculpture was. That may have been my bias in the reverse. I was confident about what I was doing and where it was coming from.
I did, however, recently find a memo dated February 26, 1970, from me to William Lieberman in the painting and sculpture department briefing him on the content and background of Photography into Sculpture. It concludes, "I have informally discussed some of my ideas with members of your staff and I have appreciated their counsel. If you have any questions about the show, please do not hesitate to contact me and I hope you will be with us for the opening on the 7th." So obviously I was discussing my ideas with someone in painting and sculpture. Then Lieberman replied back to me on March 4, "At our curatorial staff meeting today, all curators were very interested by your raisonné of the photography exhibition and thanks for letting us see it. However, everyone seemed to think that 'Three Dimensional Photography' might be a much more accurate title, at least from your description of the show." And then there's one dated March 31, "We found to our chagrin this memo," the one that I just read, "was attached to another piece of correspondence and you never received it. Our profuse apologies." You can imagine what a dull title "Three Dimensional Photography" would have been. Some people would have thought it was an exhibition of stereographs or something. I just love the memo about the lost memo — so bureaucratic.
Excerpted from The Photographic Object 1970 by Mary Statzer. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Introduction. Case Study: Photography into Sculpture Conversation with the Curator, Peter Bunnell
Peter Bunnell’s Photography as Printmaking and Photography into Sculpture: Photography and Medium Specificity at MoMA circa 1970
“New Prominence”: Photography at MoMA in the 1960s and 1970s
Eva Respini and Drew Sawyer
Expanding Photography circa 1970: Photographic Objects and Conceptual Art
Panel Discussion with Ellen Brooks, Darryl Curran, and Leland Rice
Britt Salvesen, Moderator
Delightful Anxiety: Photography in California circa 1970
The Evolving Photographic Object
INTERVIEWS WITH THE ARTISTS
Robert E. Brown
Michael de Courcy
Giuseppe PironeDouglas PrinceDale Quarterman