Permanence With Change

The Center for Creative Photography gives its permanent collection a permanent spotlight

Walker Evans is on hand these days to greet visitors to the Center for Creative Photography.

So are Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Diane Arbus, Laura Gilpin and Garry Winogrand.

These late luminaries are not here in the flesh, of course, but they're represented in the best way possible: Their exhilarating work is up on the walls of a new CCP gallery.

Each of the 23 photographers has just one piece in what amounts to a greatest-hits show. Lange's 1938 "Abandoned Farmhouse on Large Mechanized Cotton Farm, Texas," plays against the expectations of her usual Depression-era work. No distressed migrant mothers or hungry children populate this lonely landscape. Instead, Lange pictures the hardscrabble home these economic refugees might have left. Isolated on a distant horizon, beyond the curving furrows of the field, it stands alone under the big Texas sky.

Evans' "Butcher Shop Sign, Mississippi," 1936, zeroes in on a bull that a shopkeeper has playfully painted on his store's brick wall. Stieglitz captures the handsome, angular face of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, in a tiny 1925 portrait, while Winogrand memorializes a bizarre moment of New York street life, circa 1962. A woman gliding along in a sumptuous, finned car looks at the photographer, terrified, but she's oblivious of the larger danger, a bus bearing down on her automobile.

The 23 pictures hang in a so-far nameless new "permanent gallery" that the center recently carved out its sweeping exhibition rooms. The little gallery will always show treasures from the center's own vast collection of some 80,000 photographs, while the main galleries will continue to show the usual changing exhibitions of new work from contemporary photographers or photos from the collections. Visitors have to walk through the new gallery to get to the changing exhibitions, a physical layout that embodies both the center's commitment to the past and to the present.

"The center has always had a pretty good mix of shows from the collection along with temporary shows," says Doug Nickel, the center's director, "but this clarifies it a little. We'll change the shows every three to 3 1/2 months, and do about three to four shows a year. It will take us years to get through the collection." The current permanent show will close Dec. 6.

Nickel himself selected the pictures for the permanent show, which accompanies Jo Ann Callis: Cake Hat Pillow, a major retrospective of the work of a California photographer. As former curator Trudy Wilner Stack did frequently in the past, during her many exhibitions of work from the collections, Nickel has paired some archival material with the prints in the permanent show, "which is what we do particularly well," he says.

For instance, a letter that Stieglitz wrote to Strand in 1923 hangs next to Strand's "Ship Abstract," a 1922 picture whose shipshape tangle of vertical and diagonal lines pay homage to Stieglitz's 1907 "The Steerage." The master roared back his approval in the letter, which begins: "Dear Strand: Your photographs look very fine up here. Georgia, Seligmann and I stood before them admiringly yesterday afternoon." He breezily signed it, "as ever your old St."

Weston's shimmering close-up, "Shells," from 1927, gets a similar rave from Tina Modotti, the photographer and sometime lover of Weston. "My god Edward your last photographs really took my breath away. I fell speechless in front of these," she writes in a June 25, 1927 letter, which hangs next to the photo.

Wilner Stack took a similar tack with Weston's luminous peppers in her 1999 exhibition, Art for an Age, another all-star show that paired archival material with photos. She displayed a diary page on which Weston recorded his excitement over his "bright idea" right below that bright idea: the gorgeous photo of the pepper. And Nickel's placement of Winogrand's marked-up contact sheets next to the final Winogrand print recalls Wilner Stack's groundbreaking two-part Winogrand show of three years ago, which led to her award-winning book, Winogrand 1964.

Contrary to a misleading report published recently in the Arizona Daily Star, the center has always showcased its own photographs and its archives. And it's practically unique in allowing the public to make appointments to come into its viewing rooms to look at photos from the collection. What's new--and good--is that the permanent gallery will devote itself exclusively to the center's own treasures.

Jo Ann Callis: Cake Hat Pillow covers the 30-year career of an as-yet unsung artist whom Nickel believes will achieve superstar status in another 50 years. (The 64-year-old Callis has promised her archive to the center.) A professor for many years at Cal Arts, Callis is a surrealist of domesticity. She propels the homely objects of the home--cups, pillows, meat--into a world of dreams, and nightmares.

In her hands, days at home can become monstrous. In "Untitled (Woman Jumping)," a black-and-white from 1974, a blurry female figure is trying to jump right out of her claustrophobic suburban yard. Her feet have left the lawn and her body's leaping up past the house's stucco. You can no longer see her head; apparently, it's already made its escape into the sky.

"Untitled (Empty Room With Laundry Bag)" grimly depicts the barren bailiwicks of America's isolated moms. A room, bare except for its wall-to-wall carpeting, is lit up only by two forlorn windows. A laundry bag, the ever-present bane of the housewife's life, hangs in one window like a prisoner dangling in a noose, and casts a desolate shadow on the floor.

Callis's biography is instructive. She had barely begun studying art in the late '50s when she dropped out of Ohio State University to marry, and stayed home for a dozen years to raise her two boys. Only after that long domestic retreat did she return to college, this time to UCLA, where she began studying under the photographer Robert Heineken. (Heineken's edgy 1971 piece, "T.V. Dinner/Shrimp #16," a strange, crumpled cloth picturing a TV dinner plate, is in the other show.)

Having begun her studies as a painter, Callis "directed" her photos in the same way that a painter would set up a still life. She stage-managed her own images, defying the then-fashionable documentary ethic of street photography, posing a woman tied up in the bathtub or examining her own body with a flashlight. Gradually, she moved from black-and-white into deeply pigmented color. "Parrot and Roast Beef," an incorporated color print from 1980, might make a vegetarian of any meat eater. The Sunday roast, grotesque in all its glistening gristle and fat, presides in a pool of bloody drool. It's paired incongruously with a surrealistic parrot. Brilliant in red, yellow and black, even the bird turns its head away from the fleshy mess.

More recently, in the 1990s, Callis has made the domestic world even more theatrical. Drawing on the fabrics of traditional women's crafts, she sets up billowing curtains with a vaguely threatening air. "Untitled (Blue Icing)," from 1992, has a sumptuous set of pale-blue silk drapes. They're lovely, but sinister, their Martha Stewart-esque billows blocking off escape. There's no exit from this domestic prison.

The center is also exhibiting a small sampling of works by Richard Avedon, who died two weeks ago. With 440 of his prints in the permanent collection, the center is the largest institutional owner of Avedon materials, Nickel says. Appointments may be made to view his work.

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