The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibition “Ansel Adams to Edward Weston: Celebrating the Legacy of David H. McAlpin” draws exclusively from the works donated by McAlpin to the university that serve as the foundation for the museum’s massive photography archive — currently marking its 45th anniversary.
A member of the Class of 1920, McAlpin (1897–1989) was an investment banker, trustee of Princeton University, an officer at many philanthropic organizations, and a committed conservationist.
Yet starting in the early 1920s he also focused his efforts and energy on promoting and championing photography. The 40 works in the exhibit represent the more than 500 objects, photographs, and letters he donated.
The very public exhibition shares many private moments between McAlpin and several of the artists that he befriended. And among the many classic images created by noted artists Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz are letters, greetings, and other correspondence between them.
All of this happens under the aegis of curator Katherine A. Bussard, who in an essay about the exhibition, says, “McAlpin amassed one of the century’s most significant collections of American photography, anchored by an unparalleled suite of prints purchased directly from Adams and Weston. Not merely a patron, McAlpin forged intimate friendships with the artists whose work he admired, as their travels together and warm letters attest.”
After Bussard came to Princeton in 2013, David McAlpin Jr. (Class of 1950) would periodically call and bring her letters that he had found among his father’s collections. It helped piece together the friendships that the elder McAlpin had with the photographers even though there were letters from the artists but not ones he wrote to them.
In among the exhibited works are photographs of McAlpin on a camping trip with Ansel Adams, a Christmas greeting from Adams and his wife Virginia, a warmly written letter from Edward Weston dated February 3, 1944, as well as one from Georgia O’Keeffe. Bringing the letters into the exhibit sets up a dialog with the work.
But photographs are the focus of the show and collection, and there are many iconic images on view. Among them is Ansel Adams’ famous “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” A work the museum says was created after Adams “had been traveling by car around the southwestern United States with his son, Michael, and good friend, Cedric Wright, making pictures on commission for the Department of the Interior. Suddenly, he was confronted with the beauty of the last, fleeting moments of light at dusk. Although the image quickly became one of his most sought-after photographs, Adams modestly recalled: ‘Some may consider this photograph a tour de force. But I think of it as a rather normal photograph of a typical New Mexican landscape. Twilight photography is unfortunately neglected; what may be drab and uninteresting by daylight may assume a magnificent quality in the halflight between sunset and dark.’”
The exhibition occupies two galleries — with about 50 percent landscape photography. “McAlpin was a dedicated conservationist and environmentalist, and landscape comes through as one of his chief passions when it comes to photography. There are 19th century examples, there are contemporary examples,” says Bussard.
Another section contains still life and object studies, a stunning pastel by Georgia O’Keeffe “to create a sense of how interwoven their lives (McAlpin and others) were,” says Bussard. Portraiture and the subject’s connections and attachment to specific places are also on view. Though the show is organized by genre it still allows for the full historical range of photography.
Bussard notes McAlpin’s lifelong interest in photography coalesced in the 1930s when he visited An American Place, the Manhattan gallery overseen by the photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz. There he became acquainted with many of the mentioned photographers as well as photographer Eliot Porter and painter Charles Sheeler.
Bussard adds that with Stieglitz as the catalyst, McAlpin became passionate about photography. He was a benefactor to several institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art. But in 1971 Princeton became the beneficiary of the largest gift.
Since photography was still considered a reproductive medium, the donation helped Princeton to become one of the earliest museums to commit to photography as an art form. In addition to these gifts, he endowed several funds so that the museum could continue to grow its acquisitions and assured that more contemporary works would become part of the collection.
He also was responsible for the creation of the first endowed professorship in the history of photography. In 1972 Peter Bunnell became the first to hold the position, and Elizabeth Anne McCauley now serves as the David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art in the Department of Art and Archaeology.
In bringing this exhibition together, Bussard gives high praise to Amanda Bock, a Princeton doctoral candidate and now the newly appointed assistant curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Bock examined hundreds of pages of archival material — letters, press releases, and exhibition announcements — donated to Princeton by McAlpin’s son.
“From this research, Bock notes that the senior McAlpin’s central concern was always ‘the unspoiled natural scene of this country’s unique wilderness areas — which photography has done so much to record and interpret, and hopefully, preserve.’ Eliot Porter’s photographs from Black Place, New Mexico, exemplify this impulse. They capture the dramatic, ashen landscape of one of O’Keeffe’s beloved camping sites, where she was often joined by friends such as Porter, Adams, and McAlpin.”
“It took several months of researching the collection to arrive at the works that reflected not only McAlpin’s vision, but his relationship to many of these artists, his unbridled passion for photography, and a glance of his generosity that helped the art museum build one of the most important photography collections in the country,” notes Bussard.
Never having met McAlpin, Bussard draws on the experience of knowing him through his son to understand the passion the elder McAlpin had for photography. “I very much like this level of commitment,” she says. “He set out to have this passionate commitment to something visual and thank goodness for me he landed on photography.
“But I have that sense of someone who really had that vision and that seems very, very, important. That’s the sense that I take away most strongly. He could see where it needed to go. That he could see that to give the gift of the many hundreds of photographs here was one thing, but to establish the professorship would make it something more galvanizing, more serious more vigorous, and a much greater contribution to the scholarly world of our history. So that kind of foresight seems incredible to me.”
Ansel Adams to Edward Weston: Celebrating the Legacy of David H. McAlpin, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University. On view through Sunday, September 25, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.