Old Images

Legendary photos and the materials behind them impress in an otherwise stale show at the CCP

Frederick Sommer was something of a Renaissance man.

During his long life (1905-1999), the supremely gifted Sommer became an éminence grise of photography. Multitudes of young photographers and scholars made the pilgrimage to his longtime home in Prescott to pay homage to his gorgeous prints, of coyote bones etched into the land, of eerie doll heads posed against wood.

But the Swiss-born Sommer was also keen on music, architecture, sculpture, painting and drawing. During the 1960s and '70s, he experimented with cut-paper works that crossed the line between drawing and sculpture.

He'd take a big human-size sheet of brown paper, unfurl it and then begin to "draw," slicing into the paper with swift, sure strokes of a knife. But he didn't excise any of the paper's parts. The cut portions would stay moored to the paper at one end, and the liberated segments would curl up into the air, taking the formerly flat surface into the third dimension. The waving papers picked up the light, and shadows settled into the cut crevices.

One of these big cutwork pieces is on view at the Center for Creative Photography, in a large, rather muddled show called Making a Photograph: Iconic Images and Their Origins. Sommer named the work "Two Figures, Easter," 1970, and his simple slices do indeed conjure up the bare outlines of a pair of human bodies in all their rhythmic glory. Given a monumental framing behind glass, it's a piece of art in its own right.

But the inventive Sommer also used his cutworks as the basis for photos. On a wall adjoining "Two Figures," some 10 photographs show how he compressed the large, exuberant cut drawings into small black-and-white photographs. (No photographs, alas, of the Easter cutwork are here.) Dating from 1962 to 1985, the photos are wonderfully expressive little abstractions that can be read as a continuous meditation on darting line and shadow. One can readily see the energy and abstraction of the New York painters in these small, interesting works.

Pairing the actual cutwork piece with the photographs is the kind of thing the Center for Creative Photography does very well. The center's huge archive is packed not only with 80,000 photos; it also has artists' source materials (like Sommer's cutwork), letters, notebooks, contact sheets and even tools. (Sommer's red utility knife is on display in a nearby case.)

Throughout this show, some of the center's most famous photographs are paired with materials that help us understand them. A letter from Ansel Adams describes the trip on which he took his well-known photo "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," which hangs nearby. Edward Weston's equally famous--and equally luscious--pepper photos are not far from the daybooks in which he describes his joy when he first photographed them.

Robert Heinecken shocked the nation back in 1971 by superimposing a grisly picture of a Viet Cong soldier--holding two severed heads, one in each hand--atop a cosmetic ad. The news photo he used as a source is in a case, and so is the metal litho plate he used to extract the soldier from his context.

All well and good, but Making a Photograph, a typically huge center show, is both too big and too small: too many topics, too little depth. Drawing its title from an Ansel Adams book, the exhibition serves as a rather simplistic photography primer. Divided into seven parts, each featuring several photographers drawn from the archive, it attempts to categorize the myriad ways artists approach their work.

Sommer's pieces, for instance, are in the section called In the Studio. So are Weston's peppers, the point being that both photographers made important decisions right in the studio that shaped these particular works. (Weston did rely on apprentice Sonya Noskowiak to run out to the market to buy his veggies.)

In the Field makes the unassailable point that photographers often go out into the world to get their photographs. W. Eugene Smith traveled all the way to Africa in 1954 for his photo essay on Dr. Albert Schweitzer for Life magazine, represented here by some nice images of the good doctor frowning over his correspondence by night.

By contrast, Garry Winogrand stepped right out on the streets of his native New York for his famous urban candids. Several spectacular images drawn from his book Women Are Beautiful are here, including the engaging clutch of young women on a bench in "New York World's Fair," 1964. An original contact sheet demonstrates just how many mediocre pictures the prolific Winogrand shot to get to his gems. (Former curator Trudy Wilner Stack is credited for her pioneering work on Winogrand in her superb retrospective six years ago.)

In the Darkroom recounts how Adams tinkered in his darkroom with his prints. An early "Moonrise" print, from sometime before 1948, has a rather light sky; the sky in another one, printed in 1978, is velvety black. Adams confides in a note that "it was not until the 1970s that I achieved a print equal to the original visualization." (The revered photog also reveals himself as a rather heartless dad. His young son, Michael, accompanied him on the "Moonrise" trip. He casually recounts that when the boy was stricken with appendicitis, he dropped him off in a New Mexico hospital and then continued on his photographic quest.)

On the Page demonstrates that style magazines helped fashion the aesthetic of photographers Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Richard Avedon. A great Avedon close-up from 1948 pictures a giant woman's foot plunged into a mink-lined high-heeled shoe, with the Eiffel Tower hovering in miniature in the background. On the Wall touches on the blossoming of early photography galleries, including New York's LIGHT, run by Harold Jones before he became the center's first director.

In the Archive looks at the phenomenon of younger photographers responding to an earlier generation. Mark Klett, for example, has made a longtime project of re-photographing the Western landscapes captured by 19th-century photographers, with a view toward chronicling changes over time. And In Dialogue takes a look at photographers responding to each other's work. Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, for example, both trained their cameras on old stone walls in Cuzco, Peru, with predictably different results.

None of these assertions is particularly original. In fact, Making a Photograph travels well-worked ideas--and offers up exceedingly familiar imagery. Obviously, it's tempting to haul out a greatest-hits show from the archive from time to time, especially when the archive is as fabulous as the center's. But we've seen many of these works before, and more than once. As lovely as Weston's peppers are, they're wearing out their welcome.

Part of the problem is that the center's staff is obliged to keep working the same ground. For some time now, the CCP has been under an unwise mandate to create its exhibitions primarily from its archive. That fixation has yielded a number of interesting shows, from the exhilarating On the Street: The New York School of 2004 to the scholarly Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work of 2005. There's some great stuff in Making a Photograph, too, including Adams' familiar "Moonrise" and Sommer's unfamiliar swathe of paper.

But the air in the hallowed archive is getting a little stale. The center is now searching for a new director. It may be as good a time as any to open a window, and let in an invigorating blast of fresh work from the living world.

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