"Sonya, as Ramiel did last year, keeps tempting me with new peppers," he wrote in his day book. "...I tried putting it in a tin funnel for background. It was a bright idea, a perfect relief for the pepper and adding reflected light to imported contours...I have a great negative, by far the best!"
The hand-written page from the journal right now is in a display case at the Center for Creative Photography. And the photograph in question, the priceless "Pepper No. 30," is hanging above it on the wall. It's the first print Weston made from that "great negative" and it's inscribed on the back by Weston to his lover and student, Sonya Noskowiak, she of the pepper gifts. He gave her the first print, noting that "she discovered this pepper for me -- watched the long struggle to see it well."
The Weston material touches on both art and history, and its wonderful co-mingling of image, documentation and biography is typical of the Center's extraordinary holdings. Founded 24 years ago, the Center now owns an astonishing 50,000 exhibition prints by 2,000 photographers and millions of items of archival materials, from diaries like Weston's to camera equipment, contact sheets and manuscripts. Still more unusual is its policy of making these treasures accessible to the general public, a practice quite different from that of most museums.
Its newest show, of which the Weston exhibits are only a small part, is called Images for an Age: Art and History at the Center for Creative Photography. Drawn from the Center's own vast holdings, it indulges in some forgivable boasting. And in just 36 images pulled out of storage drawers, the exhibition manages to provide a mini-history of 20th-century photography. "About two-thirds are extraordinary treasures," says Center curator Trudy Wilner Stack.
The names of the 36 artists read like a Who's Who of the century's most famous photographers: Ansel Adams, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Laura Gilpin, Edward S. Curtis, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, Frederick Sommer. A few of the works on display are so well known they've become an indelible part of the culture, such as Smith's "The Walk to Paradise Garden," his optimistic postwar photo of a an innocent boy and girl walking out of a dark forest into the light. But for the most part, Wilner Stack tried to give the viewers something new. She could have put up Adams' famous "Moonlight over New Mexico"; instead she chose a little-known vintage photo, his unpublished "Yosemite Valley from Tunnel Esplanade." The Center owns the only known print.
Made around 1930, when Adams was 28 years old, the small picture presages his lifelong themes. It's a wilderness of mountain planes, sharp and dark in the foreground, receding to pale and misty in the background. And accompanying it is some riveting personal material, a letter Adams wrote to Ma, Pa and Aunt Mary during a visit to Yosemite in 1916, and a scrapbook he kept of this earlier trip.
The exhibition was originally put together for what Wilner Stack says is the world's most discriminating photography audience, attendees of The Photography Show 1999 in New York City, the largest annual fine-art photography exhibition. So Wilner Stack was able to inject some clever insider allusions that a general audience might not get.
Dan Weiner's "Untitled (Art Auction)" from the 1950s is hung just to the left of Weston's pepper. Its crowd of well-dressed art lovers leans eagerly toward the Weston, probably the most valuable picture in the show. And Tina Modotti, still another of Weston's student-lovers, gets a spot for her "Untitled (Circus Tent, Mexico)" on the wall directly across from the pepper. Weston and Modotti both took pictures of the same circus tent the same afternoon. Weston's, which does not appear in the show, nudged the lines and shadows of the tent's cloth ceiling into a geometric abstraction. Modotti, a dedicated Communist as well as a fine photographer, approached the same scene with a view toward highlighting her political concerns. Her picture has the tent's lovely lines and shadows, but just as important is a trio of impoverished Indians sitting on the bleachers below. Ratcheting up the gossip quotient is a Modotti love letter to Weston, and a tiny picture he took of her face, placed side by side with the journal entry about Sonya.
The alphabet imposes a random order on the show, which begins with Adams and ends with Max Yavno, whose own Mexican work was showcased in a Center show back in 1996. But there is a theme of sorts. Wilner Stack said that whenever possible she selected pictures that have to do with seeing, for instance, Ruth Bernhard's view of the clever eye-shaped curtains in the "Eight Street Movie Theater, New York," ca. 1946, and Lee Friedlander's "Mt. Rushmore," 1972, which is overwhelmed by a 10-cent viewing machine for tourists. A pair of great Mexican photographers, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Lola Alvarez Bravo, collaborated on "Caja de visiones," a visual pun on the camera. Manuel made the picture and Lola is the model, posing inside a homemade "vision box" holding aloft a black cloth, looking for all the world like an old-time photographer.
Danny Lyon does a Big Brother image in his 1968 "Texas Prison," a sober vision of inmates filing past a bank of all-seeing, closed-circuit television.
As the Center finishes up its first quarter-century, acquiring archives of the caliber of an Adams or a Weston isn't as easy as it once was. Ironically, its problems are in part a measure of the Center's success. With its program of conservation, exhibitions, scholarly publications and free access, it's done its part to enhance the reputation of photography as a fine art. And the marketplace has responded: the value of photographs has gone up dramatically. The Center can't always compete with commercial concerns or heavily endowed institutions for work it wants, and that's a worry for the future. But what the Center already has is mind-boggling, and its open collections are a continuing gift to the people who live here.
At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 19, UA Art Professor Keith McElroy will give a free gallery talk on "20th Century Photography in Retrospect." At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 1, Center archivist Amy Rule will speak on "Images for an Age: The Material History of Photography." At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, February 3, Terry Etherton of Tucson's Etherton Gallery and Joseph Bellows of Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California, will discuss "Evaluating Photographs in the Marketplace." For more information, call 621-7968.