FOR 25 YEARS, Tucsonans have had ringside seats at one of the world's best photography institutions.
Like the scholars who travel to the Center for Creative Photography from around the world, ordinary Tucsonans can go there too and, unlike the scholars, we can go virtually whenever we want. Any one of us is free to inspect the sacred prints of an Edward Weston or an Ansel Adams, stored in the Center's specially cooled vaults; or to stop into the gallery to see what high-level working photographers are producing right now; or to do research in the history of photography in its fine library. Local schoolkids regularly troop in to see its treasures, and grad students get professional training working there. Its scholarly publications delineate new knowledge.
The Center embodies an extraordinary, and quite possibly unique, mix of collections and services, and it remains one of the University of Arizona's best gifts to the taxpayers who keep the school in business.
Earlier this summer, Our Quarter Century: The University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography Turns Twenty-Five and Into Our Prime: Acquisitions Since 1966 kicked off a yearlong celebration of the center's 25 years in business. The two shows, like many of the Center's most interesting exhibitions in its last eight years, were curated by Trudy Wilner Stack, the savvy, Yale-trained scholar who has brought the Center into ever greater national prominence since she hired on.
For Our Quarter Century, Wilner Stack set herself the difficult task of picking just 25 prints from the Center's collection of over 60,000 works by 2,000 different photographers. The 25 photographs, by artists as different as Robert Mapplethorpe and Helen Levitt, together represent what's been going in photography--and in the world--in the years since the Center opened. There is one photo for each of the 25 years from 1975 to 2000. The exhibition in effect is a policy statement about the Center's mission. Blessed as the institution is with the works of such giants as Adams, Weston, Frederick Sommers et al., the Center could have become mired in a fixed-in-amber homage to the past. It hasn't done that. The Center honors photography's history while staying on the edge of new knowledge and new creation, exactly where it should be.
The exhibition begins with a real timepiece. 1975's "Rose Mary Woods" is a typically head-on Richard Avedon portrait, this one of the Nixon secretary who mysteriously erased all those minutes of audio tape. The quintessentially loyal staffer is recorded for all time in unfortunate printed polyester, though she wears the de rigueur Republican pearls above the fabric's patterned magic carpets (really).
Her technological glitch seems positively medieval when you back it up against the year 2000 entry, Vik Muniz's "Giant Step." Muniz, whose work was showcased at the Center in a wonderful exhibition a season or so ago, reworks famous pop-culture images in drawings in ink or spaghetti sauce or cotton, and then photographs his new creation. "Giant Step" is an ink re-do of Neil Armstrong's famous footstep upon the moon, but his rendering is shattered, the footprints made up of hundreds of isolated drops of ink. Gone are the certainties of line and form and shape, the solidities of the old Euclidean world. In their place are blips and dots, the brave new world of digital and dot.com.
Photography has long occupied that nether region between pop culture and aesthetics. This show points out its uses as cultural document, covering photographic forays into feminism, environmentalism, mass culture. The landscape photographers working in the final years of the 20th century, for instance, were no longer searching for the pristine West that Adams and Weston once recorded in luminous black and white. Instead, the more recent photogs were tracking the degradations humanity had wreaked upon the wilderness. Thus. Richard Misrach, in his 1988 Desert Cantos series, captures in brutal living color "Dead Animals," a herd of cattle dumped in a desert ditch and overladen with such human debris as barrels, cardboard boxes and contaminated water.
Photography by women, about women's lives, obviously is another important theme of the century's twilight years. Sherrie Levin, like landscape photog Mark Klett, searches the medium's past for messages about the present. Her 1986 "Barcham Green Portfolio No. 5 (Walker Evans)" is a photogravure enlargement of an Evans photo of a destitute Appalachian woman. Dressed in tattered cotton, the woman delivers a hard, quizzical look, first captured in the Depression and still speaking silently in the present. Carrie Mae Weems, in a portrait printed on two ceramic plates, prints a woman coming and going, her face and the back of her head asserting her identity. The UA's own Judith Golden, who pioneered work investigating the images of women in the mass media, is represented by a 1976 picture of a cut-up People magazine held up to her own face. Golden printed the double-take work as a gelatin silver, and tarted it up with pink and purple oils. Robert Heinecken's 1982 untitled portrait of Connie Chung treads some of the same ground. Hemmed in by a television screen, Chung's only dimly seen, a flesh-and-blood woman blurrily transmitted worldwide in wavy lines.
Similarly, Tseng Kwong Chi, the late Canadian photographer born in Hong Kong, spent a career investigating the relationship between snapshot photography and mass culture. He traveled the nation to tourist hot spots, dressed in a peculiar Mao suit, with a badge announcing himself as a "visitor," and having his picture taken with, say, the astronauts at Cape Canaveral or in front of the Empire State Building or Grand Canyon. Incisive and funny to boot, he became the new global personality, a multinational guy questioning which is more real: the real-life experience or the photographic documentation of it? He checks in in this show with the 1979 "Disneyland, CA," posing poker-faced with a giant chipmunk. Disney, it seems, is us.
The peripatetic Tseng's fluid explorations of cultural monuments and identity are a fine role model for the Center for Creative Photography as it enters its second 25 years. Here's a happy birthday wish: Celebrate the icons of the past, visit them respectfully, but don't get trapped there. Keep going, and keep questioning.
From 2 to 5 p.m., Saturday, September 16, the Center will hold a free symposium on The Arts at the Turn of the Millennium: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Creation. Panelists include Alison H. Deming, poet and UA creative writing prof; Ken Foster, director of UApresents, and Marilyn Seitlin, director and chief curator of the Arizona State University Art Museum. The moderator is Trudy Wilner Stack, the Center's curator of exhibitions and collections.