Peter Bunnell, eminent scholar of photography and an ‘essential’ figure in the University Art Museum, dies at 83

Peter Bunnell, the David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art, Emeritus, and professor of art and archaeology, emeritus, died at his home in Princeton on Sept. 20 after a lengthy illness. He was 83.

Peter Bunnell

Peter Bunnell

Bunnell joined Princeton’s faculty in 1972 as the inaugural David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art — the first endowed faculty position in the field in the U.S. He also spent more than 30 years at the Princeton University Art Museum — as curator of photography, Museum director (1973-1978) and acting director (1998-2000).

“During his career at Princeton, Peter Bunnell, through his teaching, curating, and collection building, played an essential role in making both the Department of Art & Archaeology and the Princeton University Art Museum leading centers for the study of the history and theory of photography,” said Rachael DeLue, the Christopher Binyon Sarofim ’86 Professor in American Art and chair of the Department of Art & Archaeology. “The impact of his scholarship, at Princeton and beyond, has been and continues to be tremendous, and he will be remembered as a vital member of the Art & Archaeology community.”

“Peter was one of the most essential figures in the history of photography and in the history of our museum,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “No one did more than he to shape the field of photography or our collections at Princeton — but equally his national and international influence was immense. Peter taught, mentored and shaped generations of students, scholars, curators, and others. The stories of him bewitching students in the classroom, surrounded by original works of art, are legion. He was also one of the kindest people you could hope to know.”

Photographer Emmet Gowin, professor of visual arts in the Lewis Center for the Arts, emeritus, and longtime colleague of Bunnell, recalled Bunnell’s gift for “awakening and reaching the hearts and minds of students of all kinds, but especially his ability to connect with and support students attempting to practice the art of photography themselves.”

“I am one of the many, many students for whom Peter opened the world of photographic history,” said Malcolm Daniel, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “His infectious enthusiasm for photography, his deep personal knowledge of its history, and his unfailing dedication to his students sent me on a new path and a professional career that has been joyful and fulfilling. It is no exaggeration to say that Peter changed my life, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling.” 

Born in 1937 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bunnell met the American photographer Minor White as an undergraduate at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where classes taught by White nurtured his burgeoning interest in photography. Bunnell went on to receive a master’s in photography from Ohio University in 1961 under the tutelage of Clarence H. White Jr., the son of noted American photographer Clarence Hudson White, as well as a master’s in art history from Yale University in 1965. 

Before joining Princeton’s faculty, Bunnell worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1960-72. As a curator of photography, he curated several important exhibitions, including the first survey of the work of Clarence H. White and the seminal “Photography into Sculpture,” which offered innovative new avenues to analyze and understand photography.

Bunnell oversaw the exhibition of work by the photographer Harry Callahan for the U.S. Pavilion at the 38th Venice Biennale in 1978. He was a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in 1979 and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

In 1989, Bunnell curated “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes,” which interpreted White’s photographic achievements in relation to past photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Paul Strand. The exhibit traveled to six other venues, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

Bunnell was instrumental in securing the archives of both Minor White and Clarence H. White for the Princeton University Art Museum, making it a vital center for research in twentieth-century photography. Princeton’s Minor White Project fosters research into the publication of the artist’s work, legacy and influence, in part through a program of annual grants to scholars.

“Peter Bunnell was a lifelong defender of photography as an art form,” said Anne McCauley, the David H. McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art. “A consummate fundraiser who had a plan when he was hired at Princeton to set up a center for the collection, study, and teaching of the medium, Peter made it all happen. He valued creative expression in all its guises and passed on his enthusiasm to his friends and students.” 

Through Bunnell’s leadership, the Princeton University Art Museum today holds one of North America’s most important repositories of historical photographs, including modern Japanese photography in which Bunnell was a pioneering curator and collector. Through the generosity of several former students, the Museum’s curatorship of photography was named in Bunnell’s honor in 2011.

Among the many volumes that Bunnell wrote and edited over the course of his long career are “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes,” which won the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award of the Art Libraries Society of North America; “A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography, 1889–1923”; “Edward Weston on Photography”; “Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976”; and “Photography at Princeton,” which was published on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Museum’s photography collection. 

“Long into retirement, Bunnell happily remained an invaluable source for researchers in the history of photography who called upon his recollections of firsthand encounters with twentieth-century photographers, recollections aided by file cabinets filled with decades of carefully taken notes, newspaper clippings, and other seldom-saved ephemera — an invaluable resource that will become available to future scholars at Princeton’s Art Museum and Firestone Library,” said Daniel.

A celebration of Bunnell’s life and career will be held at a later date.