Feature - September 9, 1998

Life through a lens
The Art Museum's new exhibition celebrates a quarter-century of photography at Princeton

"Photography at Princeton: Twenty-five Years of Collecting and Teaching the History of Photography," an exhibition opening October 3 at the University Art Museum and running through January 3, surveys nearly 160 years of the art of the photograph.

Comprising more than 125 images selected by Peter C. Bunnell, the David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art and faculty curator of photography, the exhibition charts the medium's development from the first daguerrotypes to the latest electronic imaging, and includes landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, genre scenes, and expressionist studies. A 300-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition has critical essays by six former Ph.D. students of Bunnell's: Claude Cookman *94, Malcolm Daniel *91, Martin Gasser *96, Ellen Handy *94, Diana Emery Hulick *84, and Douglas Nickel *95. The exhibition features the works of photographers both obscure and famous. Among the latter are Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Minor White, as well as artists such as Thomas Eakins, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close who are better known as painters, but whose working knowledge of photography informs their canvases. The images are drawn from the Art Museum's permanent collection, representing more than 900 international artists. Bunnell, who has built and curated the collection since arriving at Princeton in 1972, and whose undergraduate course on the history of photography is so popular he sometimes has to cap enrollments, emphasizes the collection's importance to teaching. "At this time," he writes in the catalogue's introduction, "it is possible to review within the collection the imagery of every period and of every major aesthetic or stylistic development."

The core of the museum's collection are the more than 500 photographs donated in 1971 by the late David Hunter McAlpin '20, a Princeton resident and investment banker. Inspired by their friendship with Alfred Stieglitz, McAlpin and his wife, Sarah, began collecting original prints in the 1930s, years before most mainstream art critics took photography seriously. They were also enthusiastic patrons, supporting many struggling, but later famous, photographers -- including Ansel Adams, and Brett and Edward Weston -- in exchange for prints the photographers sent them.

McAlpin endowed the professorship held by Bunnell, its first incumbent. Today, Bunnell teaches in a room named for McAlpin, located adjacent to the collection in a restricted section of the Art Museum. Bunnell spends a lot of time there -- in some semesters he has taught as many as nine precepts a week, in addition to graduate seminars. Students joke about having to enter the building through the security entrance. Says Bunnell, "This is mandated by a teaching philosophy that demands access to a proper study facility designed to display original prints made by the artists, which show nuances of tone, technique, and scale that can't be seen in copies or in slides. It's critical that students gain a first-hand understanding of the uniqueness of the original work of art."

-- The Editors

The catalogue of the exhibition "Photography at Princeton: Twenty-Five Years of Collecting and Teaching the History of Photography" is available at the gift shop of the Art Museum and through the Publications Office (609-258-5203, $30 plus postage).

Due to copyright restrictions, we cannot reproduce the photographs accompanying this article.

Click here to visit the Website of Princeton's Art Museum.