McAlpin, the First Professorship

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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 7, 1998. All rights reserved.

At Princeton: 25 Years of Photographs

When Peter C. Bunnell invites you upstairs to see his prints, you'll want to jump at the opportunity.

In a walk-through tour last week of the expansive new exhibition, "Photography at Princeton: Celebrating 25 Years of Collecting and Teaching the History of Photography" at the Art Museum, the voluble Bunnell could hardly contain his enthusiasm for this landmark survey of one of the premiere photography collections in the nation.

On view at the Art Museum to January 3, this is the first major exhibition to focus on the collection as a whole. Installed in three galleries, it comprises 125 masterworks from the history of photography, every one a gem. Dating from 1840 to the present, the works chart the development of the medium from the daguerreotype through early paper and glass processes to the present-day use of color material and electronic imaging. Bunnell, the McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton University, gives talks on the exhibit on Friday, October 9, at 12:30 p.m., and again on Sunday, October 11, at 3 p.m.

The story of 25 years of collecting and teaching the history of photography at Princeton is largely the story of two exceptional -- and one might say singleminded -- individuals: David H. McAlpin, Princeton Class of 1920, and Bunnell, the first and only occupant of the chair he endowed.

Surveying the riches, dazzlingly displayed in one of the largest shows mounted by the museum, Bunnell recalls the man whose life's work he continues today. McAlpin's interest in graphic arts began early. As an undergraduate, he was already building a collection of Rembrandt etchings. These were also the days when Princeton's art history curriculum ended with the Renaissance, explains Bunnell, adding lustily: "One day McAlpin asked one of his professor's, Is there any American art? Is there any modern art?"

The professor responded by sending the young McAlpin to Alfred Steiglitz's Gallery 291, the vanguard of modern art in America in the years after World War I. And here the die was cast. Steiglitz introduced McAlpin to the burgeoning new art and the two became friends. When Steiglitz mounted an exhibit of work by the unknown Ansel Adams, McAlpin bought the entire show. Thus in the 1930s, McAlpin, an investment banker who died in 1989 at age 92, and his wife, Sarah Sage McAlpin, began building one of photography's great collections.

Soon the McAlpins were not only collecting the works of Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and his son Brett Weston, but also offering economic support to the struggling artists. When the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was founded in 1929, Alfred Barr (also a Princeton graduate) included the art of photography -- the first director to do so. McAlpin became a MOMA trustee, working at the flashpoint of the new medium. In 1940 McAlpin was instrumental in the establishment of the department of photography at MOMA and went on to fund photography departments at the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum. And in the mid-1960s, when he was ready to donate part of his collection to MOMA, Bunnell was the man who drove out to Pretty Brook Road to pick up the collection. Thus began the fruitful association.

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McAlpin, the First Professorship

In April, 1972, Princeton established the nation's first professorship in the history of photography, the David Hunter McAlpin Professorship, and in July of that year, Bunnell left MOMA after six years as curator of photography to accept the job. The chair came with a gift of 500 hundred works from the McAlpins' collection, the majority consisting of works purchased from and given by living artists whom they befriended. With a passion for instruction, Bunnell uses the collection as an integral part of his teaching program.

"The collection of photographs is as fundamental to the teaching of the history of photograph as a laboratory to the study of biology," says Bunnell. "It enables students to understand the uniqueness of an original work of art firsthand."

A testament to his teaching is found in the exhibit's 350-page catalog that includes contributions by six Princeton alumni who received their Ph.D. degrees with Bunnell and are now professionals in the field. Eight more graduate students are now in the program.

Inspired and funded by the McAlpins, the collection, however, is Bunnell's. Acting as an acquisitions committee of one, he has endeavored to collect work from the entire history of the medium. Holdings in some periods, such as Pictorialism and more recently contemporary Japanese photography, are deep. But overall breadth is the goal.

Bunnell was trained as a photographer, but the combined influence of his teacher, Minor White, and photo historian Beaumont Newhall helped direct him to the history of photography and museum work. He earned graduate degrees at Ohio University and Yale before becoming a curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, working with John Szarkowski.

Bunnell met Minor White in the early 1950s -- at a bus stop -- during his freshman year at the Rochester Institute of Technology. While still an undergraduate, he began printing for White and working on Aperture magazine. In 1969, the two worked closely together on White's only volume of photographs published during his lifetime, "Mirrors Messages Manifestations."

It was Bunnell who inspired Minor White to bequeath to the Princeton Art Museum his artistic legacy of more than 150,000 photographs and 5,000 documents including letters, manuscripts, his annotated library, teaching notes, and personal journal. Bunnell spent almost 10 years sorting, cataloging, and interpreting the artist's estate. The result of his efforts was the 185-print retrospective exhibition, "Minor White: The Eye That Shapes," that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989 and toured to Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Rochester, and Boston, before its exhibition at the Art Museum in 1991.

Bunnell's self-imposed professional mission is to teach his students to "read" a photograph. An advocate of White's psychological approach to the interpretation of art, Bunnell believes that biography represents the key to understanding a work. "Unless you know something of the life, you have no way of getting into these pictures." he says.

Bunnell's freedom in acquisitions, he says, "has its advantages and disadvantages." Over the years, retiring director Allen Rosenbaum has given Bunnell carte blanche to select work for the photography collection. But Bunnell must also find the funds.

Like a proud parent, Bunnell is ready to regale his listeners with anecdotes about every one of the 125 masterworks in the three galleries. His favorite acquisition coups include the discovery, by former student Malcolm Daniel, in France, of a phenomenally well-preserved 1856 salted paper print by Edouard Baldus. Striving to stay at the cutting edge of new work, Bunnell's purchase of a major work by Sarah Charlesworth at her first New York show last year changed the course of her career. As the word went out that "Bunnell just bought that picture," her unheralded show quickly sold out.

At auction, Bunnell is not too proud to sniff out bargains, such as the Anna Atkins cyanotype of 1854 he bought at Christie's. "I looked at the catalog and at the black tie dinners taking place before the auction. I knew the lots would be alphabetical, so by skipping dinner at Lutece, arriving early, and setting myself down in the front row, I beat the hot shots and got it cheap at $2,000," he announces like the best bargain hunter. He wanted Atkins' work in the collection, he explains, because "Women were right there [in photography] from the first day. Now two-thirds of our modern collection is by women."

Less canny was the time he bid, with the encouragement of Rosenbaum, on a major work by German stars Bernd and Hilla Becher. "I just sat there and kept my hand up until I got it," he recalls with a chuckle. The following day Rosenbaum called slightly shaken by the morning newspaper headline, "World record price for Bechers set by Princeton University." Bunnell, however, was unapologetic. And with good reason. At the 25-year mark, the world is still learning about this extraordinary collection.

-- Nicole Plett

Photography at Princeton: Celebrating 25 Years of Collecting and Teaching the History of Photography , Art Museum, Princeton University, 609-258-3788. To January 3. Free.

Peter C. Bunnell, faculty curator of photography, gives a gallery talk about the exhibit on Friday, October 9, at 12:30 p.m. and on Sunday, October 11, at 3 p.m. Free.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. 609-258-3788.


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