The Princeton University Art Museum is playing host to an exhibition one of the most outstanding privately held photography collections in the world. “Shared Vision: The Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection of Photography” — on view in the museum’s upper level gallery through Sunday, September 15 — represents work by more than 70 artists who played an important role in the past 100 years of the history of photography. The public is invited to its opening the evening of Thursday, July 11.
Gilman began collecting photography as a result of her first husband, Charles Gilman Jr., and his role in building a corporate collection for the New York City-based Gilman Paper Company in the 1970s. She also led the photography acquisition committee for the Whitney Museum of American Art.
After her husband’s death in 1982, Sondra Gilman met Celso Gonzalez-Falla who shared her passion and interest in photography. The two married and after more than 30 years, their holdings now number some 800 photographs. Both color and black and white prints are included with an emphasis on vintage prints.
“Many exhibitions profile the history of photography, but few are able to reflect the exquisite eye and discerning depth and diversity that this exceptional collection amassed by Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla does,” says Princeton University Art Museum director James Steward. “What these preeminent collectors are able to share through this exhibition is not only their own aesthetic and emotional response to the evolving photographic canon but the lasting impact of the most important practitioners of their day.”
Indeed many of the most prominent photographers of historical and contemporary note are represented here. Among them are Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rineke Dijkstra, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Andre Kertesz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Misrach, Vik Muniz, Man Ray, Andres Serrano, Garry Winogrand, and Francesca Woodman.
Several New Jersey-born photographers are also included in the group: Robert Adams, born in Orange; Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ridge; Mike and Doug Starn of Somers Point; and Alfred Stieglitz, who was born in Hoboken.
The show is made up of landscapes, street scenes, portrait, still life, and digital images. About the couple’s approach to collecting, Celso Gonzalez-Falla says, “To me, it is an extremely visual experience. It has to be an image that I can clearly see in my mind’s eye, even days later. Sondra’s response is more visceral. The interesting thing is that when we go to shows, we usually agree on what we feel are the best photographs, even though our approaches are different.”
Gilman admits to the emotional and physical feeling that draws her to a particular image. “It’s emotional. It touches something in my heart. That is where the feeling comes from. I just think you fall in love. We try to verbally describe art, and it’s not a verbal experience. The end result is a love affair.”
The exhibit is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Jacksonville, Florida, and has traveled to several other venues with Princeton being the last stop.
“Gilman and Gonzalez Falla are enlightened collectors’” says Marcelle Polednik, director of MOCA Jacksonville, “who direct their vision not only to strategically guide the growth of their collection, but also to advance the scholarship and institutional investment in the photographic medium. Paramount to this endeavor is an emphasis on their role as stewards of these exceptional artworks and their abiding sense of obligation to make the photographs available to a larger audience.”
The curators, Ben Thompson of MOCA and Paul Karabinis, assistant professor of photography at the University of North Florida, worked closely with the couple to select works for the traveling exhibition. They conducted extensive interviews with the collectors and excerpts from those conversations can be found in the exhibition catalog.
Katherine Bussard, recently named as the Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton Art Museum, is overseeing the installation of the exhibit here. Bussard has pointed out several highlights in the exhibition that is divided into seven sections.
With each section exploring key themes and subjects in the history of photography, many familiar and iconic images can be found by anyone who has been devoted to the medium. The range is evident. Landscapes make up the theme in the section titled “In Visible Sight.” They reflect a human presence if not a human interaction. Bussard points out Eugene Atget’s vintage albumen print “Saint Cloud” was what got Sondra Gilman interested in collecting, and it became one of her first acquisitions.
The photograph “Coney Island, NY,” by Rineke Dijkstra is from a series of portraits of young adolescent girls posed on beaches in Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and the Ukraine. Found in the section titled “Minor Matters,” it is a chromogenic print that Bussard describes as “stunning.” In “The Form of Content,” Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is, she says “the one that gets the closest to abstraction.” The silver gelatin print is a photogram of curls of paper and speaks to the experimental nature of early photography. This section shows how the photographer uses unusual framing or vantage point.
The section “Poses and Gestures” highlights figurative and portraiture work. Robert Frank’s “Indianapolis” gets the nod as Bussard says, “the mystery of it I have always loved.” The image, two people on a motorcycle, raises questions of where are they going, what are they doing? They are not in transit and seem quite unaware of the camera.
Berenice Abbott’s “Exchange Place, NY” is in the “Urban Exposures” section. This section is a grouping of 10 images. Abbott’s cropping emphases the structure of a skyscraper in New York. Also “Subway Portrait: Two Hatted Ladies,” by Walker Evans finishes in a virtual dead heat with Abbott.
According to the curators, “Throughout the short history of the medium, photographs have been staged, fabricated, and manipulated. Picture making of this sort has been most controversial when the results have challenged the prevailing sensibilities of how a photograph should be made and how it should look.” In “Subjective Inventions” area, Cindy Sherman’s gelatin silver print from her series “Untitled Film Still #53” exemplifies this. She explores cultural stereotypes and it is described as one of the most important series of postmodern photography.
Finally a grid by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher is an urban landscapes and a more conceptual practice. The photograph “Gas Tanks” portrays the banality, repetition, vernacular, and the everyday. The curators explain in “The Insistent Object” that “the final image is a kind of natural magic conjured up by the photographer who explores his subject until something new or unforeseen emerges in the viewfinder.”
For a walk through photographic history, this exhibition offers more than a snapshot.
Bussard is only the second person to hold the endowed curator position. She speaks about her plans at Princeton and of those who had preceded her. “My role here is to build on what they have done. Certainly, Peter (Bunnell) first and foremost. Peter built a very formidable collection strong in American and European photography. Certainly 19th century probably up through the 1960s. Other curators who have been involved with the collection have had other interests that don’t actually necessarily mirror my own which are more solidly contemporary. There’s an interest I have in artists who use photography who might not have been seen as traditional photographers in the history of the art and I think that is something that will really benefit the collection. So my goal here is to add to what’s already a formidable collection.’’
The curator comes to Princeton with a B.A. from Smith College, an M.A. from Williams College, and a Ph.D. in art history from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, where she wrote her dissertation on street photography. Prior to her appointment to Princeton she was the associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bussard’s interest in photography came about as an undergraduate student. She “loved the magic of the darkroom. It was a great place to spend an entire evening and walk out and see dawn.” Her interest in art history led her to figure out how to combine it with her love of photography. While she no longer practices photography as a formal pursuit she has been awarded two publication grants for an upcoming book on street photography.
‘Shared Vision: The Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection of Photography’ and ‘Faces and Facets: Recent Acquisitions’, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton. Opens Thursday, July 11, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Music, refreshments, and family-friendly fun. Katherine Bussard, will provide a brief commentary on Shared Vision and participate in a Q&A session at 5:30 p.m. in McCormick 101. On view through Sunday, September 15. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.