Filler Permanent Visions

By Margaret Regan

THE CENTER FOR Creative Photography set itself an ambitious schedule this season. First there was the three-part, three-museum project on immigration. Next, starting in late April, there'll be the big William Christenberry show, shared with the University of Arizona Museum of Art, with the two institutions exhibiting 35 years' worth of this Alabama artist's photographs, paintings, sculptures and controversial anti-Ku Klux Klan installation.

But sandwiched in between these major shows, blockbusters for low-key Tucson, is a modest little two-part exhibition that quietly showcases the Center's extraordinary strengths. Selections from the Permanent Collection: The Archives displays a single work by each of some 31 photographers whose work and papers the Center has collected in depth. It's an all-star show, studded by the work of such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Frederick Sommer and Harry Callahan, that almost inadvertently charts a history of 20th-century photography. The companion Recent Acquisitions, 1992-1996 features more recent photographers, including Tucsonans Cy Lehrer, Michael Longstaff and the late Andrew Harkins, whose work the Center considers important.

What's interesting about the Permanent Collection show is its eclectic presentation of the many roads photographers have taken, from fine-art photography to commercial magazine work, from photojournalism to social criticism. There are fashion photographers (Richard Avedon, Louise Dahl-Wolfe) alongside the cerebral modernists and surrealists who've taught in the university photo programs and design schools (Harry Callahan, Jerry Uelsmann). In one of the most telling juxtapositions, a minimalist abstraction by Callahan, "Detroit," 1945, a trio of taut black wires against a blank white sky, has been hung right next to Dahl-Wolfe's elaborate 1950 portrait of the world-weary Cecil Beaton, another fashion photographer, pictured in full-dress white suit and makeup. Callahan and Dahl-White's sensibility and intentions couldn't be further apart.

The photographers are lined up in an ahistorical way, hung alphabetically rather than chronologically. This system generates a bit of confusion at first: The show begins with a reverential 1942 Ansel Adams view of "Old Faithful Geyser," followed by a dark-and-light 1950 portrait of a Mexican woman by Lola Alvarez Bravo followed by a sassy 1956 Paris fashion shot of the model Suzy Parker by Avedon. But when you catch on, you understand the system underlines the Center's democratic philosophy that some of the century's great photographers have been found laboring for pay in the trenches, sometimes literally. Todd Webb, for instance, an American born in 1905, influenced by both Adams and Alfred Stieglitz, served as a U.S. Navy photographer in World War II, though he's here represented by a 1949 shot of Paris billboards.

Image One of the most compelling works in the show to my eye is by Mickey Pallas, a Chicago commercial photographer who variously worked for Ebony magazine and ran his own photo lab. His "Meatpacker, Chicago" is a wrenching, head-on view of a blood-stained working man, the factory where he works rising at a steep diagonal behind him. A union button is fixed to his grimy cap. It's only lately, the wall text tells us, that Pallas has come to be appreciated for his evocative pictures of 1950s American life. Similarly, German immigrant Marion Palfi, who worked indefatigably to document the social injustice she found in her new home, captures Southern poverty in the bleak "Charlottesville, Va.," a 1951 photo of two black women walking the rails.

And one of the Center's biggest archives houses the effects of W. Eugene Smith, the famous Life photographer who won renown for his Spanish Village series. The exhibition doesn't display any of these pictures, which unveiled for the American public the fascist face of Franco's police, the Guardia Civil. Instead, there's 1954's "Window on a Foggy Morning," a skillful, misty work that proves how often the lines between fine art and commercial photography blur.

To be sure, the biggest stars among the fine-art all-stars shine brightly, though, as in the case of Smith, the curators have wisely not always chosen their most signature work. Paul Strand, well-known for his luscious pictures of curving adobe walls of the Southwest, is indeed represented by a Taos church interior, but this one is dreary and dark, decidedly un-curving and un-charming. Edward Weston, whose career went from pictorialism to modernism, weighs in with an odd nude--a man? a woman?--posed in a gas mask on a couch. Sommer, now ancient and still living in Prescott, his home of many years, exhibits a startling picture of a chicken's severed head.

Since the show is based on the Center's own archival holdings, it's by necessity an incomplete history of the photographic century. The Center, for instance, owns only a few prints by the seminal Stieglitz, whose archives are housed in a Harvard library. Also missing are such early social reformers as Lewis Hines and the great WPA photographers of the Depression, such as Dorothea Lange. But the intention was to showcase the vast archival holdings the Center does have. The informative wall text, which gives a bio and list of the Center's holdings on each photographer, serves as a concise guide to the archives. (Packaged as a booklet, it would make a great introductory brochure.) This show reminds Old Pueblo photography fans what a treasure we have in our midst, especially since the archives are open to serious seekers by appointment.

We seem to be in photography season right now. Several other shows in town worth checking out include UA prof Harold Jones at the Davis Gallery; Al Huerta and Amy Zuckerman at Dinnerware; Cy Lehrer, Omer V. Claiborne and Bill Baker at Eclectic; and a group show on the theme of the desecrated landscape at Apparatus. See City Week listings for details.

Selections from the Permanent Collection: The Archives and Recent Acquisitions, 1992-1996 continues through April 10 at the Center for Creative Photography, on the UA campus. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free admission. For more information call 621-7968. TW

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