Featured photo: Edward Weston, “Nude” (1936). Edward Weston Archive/ Gift of the Heirs of Edward Weston © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents. 82.10.21. Press image for the 2011 exhibition, “Creative Continuum: The History of the Center for Creative Photography.”
A road trip to Tucson this week gave me an opportunity to visit the Center for Creative Photography on the University of Arizona campus — a treasure trove of historical and contemporary photographs, by any measure. My timing was good, as the current exhibition, “The Lives of Pictures: Forty Years of Collecting at the Center for Creative Photography” affords close-up, leisurely, mesmerizing viewing of several famous works. Think Ansel Adams’ iconic “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941) and Diane Arbus’s unforgettable “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.”
The exhibition not only validates and venerates photography as an art medium, but it also reveals the medium’s surprising variety. I took notice of at least five areas where photography excels. One, of course, is landscapes, as in the work by Adams, one of the founders of the Center for Creative Photography. Who doesn’t call to mind Adams and his majestic black-and-white images when the topic is American landscape photography? But also on view is work by Arizona’s own Mark Klett, represented by the enigmatic “Campfire reached by boat through watery canyons,” from Lake Powell (1983).
Another theme I noticed is street photography, or candid views of urban life that display a certain bravery on the photographer’s part, given that such scenes are much more gritty than pretty. Often the photos with the strongest narratives are those taken in the name of photojournalism. The exhibition includes Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind, Lee Friedlander and W. Eugene Smith.
Along similar lines, I noticed a good dose of photos that address social issues. Examples include: Russell Lee’s “Woman in Solitary Confinement, Texas” (1959), with its heartbreaking image of a woman on a bare prison floor, covering her face with her hand, and Carrie Mae Weems’ untitled piece satirizing the collectibles craze with photographs of the front and back of an African-American woman’s head on two ornate plates.
A fourth and related point is the exhibition’s attention to photographers of diverse backgrounds. A curator’s statement on the wall text notes that the Center purposely seeks out works from across the border, and I was glad to see works by Lola Alvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide, among others.
Lastly, I noticed how the exhibition treads boldly into photography’s use in abstract images and collages. You might be familiar with Harry Callahan’s “Collage, Chicago” series from 1957 which experiments with arrays of tiny black-and-white images. It’s on view, along with a handful of works by contemporary artists taking the genre in new directions.
As the Center’s website explains, the museum opened in 1975 to highlight and preserve work by founding members Adams, Callahan, Siskind, Wynn Bullock and Frederick Sommer, all master photographers, and it has grown from there into a world-class repository of North American photography — some 90,000 images strong. In addition, the CCP preserves literally millions of archival objects including negatives, work prints, contact sheets, albums, scrapbooks, correspondence, writings, audiovisual materials and memorabilia, not to mention its extensive library. The Center is no doubt a magnet for the study of the art form.
Earlier this year, the Center named Rebecca Senf as chief curator. In 2007, Senf joined the CCP as the inaugural curator of a collaboration with the Phoenix Art Museum, bringing exhibitions from the Center to Phoenix audiences. A number of shows on PAM’s top-floor Norton Gallery over the past few years have been real crowd-pleasers.
“The Lives of Pictures” continues until May 14, 2016. Put it at the top of your to-do list should you venture down I-10 this spring.