Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Diana Gaston and Arthur Ollman. The board told Ollman that he could set the tone at MoPA and that they'd raise the money. "Everything was true but the last part."
1. The Vault
If a photograph dies and goes to heaven, it might end up here in the breathable vault at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The prospect for immortality is good, since the temperatures is right, about 60 degrees, and the humidity is right at 40 percent, and the air is fresh, since the vault takes a breath every minute of so. Here at the breathable vault a photograph outlives its subject, outlives the photographer, outlives us all, I suppose. About 3600 photos presently sit in the vault, wrapped in tissue paper, boxed and labeled.
Man with a Hoe - Remedios, Paul Strand. The uncompromising Paul Strand, who would spend a day making a single print.
Diana Gaston, curator at MoPA, has stepped inside. As the door closes, the vault reacts, like a disturbed sleeper murmuring and taking a few breaths before settling back into peacefulness. In the cool and perfect air, we look about.
Tina Modotti Reciting, Edward Weston. A Weston can now bring more than $75,000.
On the racks are the dreams, the images, the visions: there's a box of Ansel Adams, 23 photos (the iconic Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico among them); and Edward Weston, not such a good presence for perhaps the greatest of California photographers with only 9 photos (one a haunting image of his lover, Tina Modotti Reciting); the uncompromising Paul Strand, who would spend a day making a single print, 23 images from his Mexican period.
Philipp Scholz Rittermann, in the United States for the first time, felt that he was in the realm of the Ansel Adams Zone System.
And there's the Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Braco, 37 photos; and Roy DeCarava, three photos from the eminently interesting African-American photographer who worked in Harlem, who liked to take his prints way over into the dark and shadowy zone (Dancers, New York, 1956, hardly more than silhouettes on the dance floor, but oh so emotive); and Lewis Hine, the documentary photographer who took pictures of immigrants at Ellis Island and of workers during the construction of the Empire State Building and who was Paul Strand's teacher (39 photos).
Albanian Woman, Ellis Island, Lewis Hine. Hine took pictures of immigrants at Ellis Island and of workers during the construction of the Empire State Building.
In several boxes there's the whole of the estate of Lou Stoumen, images of a life and a world (Pensive Child, Venice Beach; VD Hotel, Prostitution, Puerto Rico; Beggar Girl, Calcutta; War Widow, Los Angeles), 178 photos and 10,000 negatives; and necessarily, images form the first photographer to win the MoPA/Lou Stoumen prize, Debbie Fleming Caffery (After the Snake Bite, Enterprise Sugar Mill), 5 photos; and also, importantly, two San Diego photographers (whom we'll get to later); Philipp Scholz Rittermann, San Diego by way of Peru and Germany (seven times forty-five seconds), 5 photos, and Becky Cohen, Leucadia (Consical topiary with ladder at Park du Sceaux), 3 photos.
Conical topiary with ladder at Parc du Sceaux, Becky Cohen. Cohen spent weeks hiking through the Le Nôtre gardens.
And lots more.
The vault breathes, lets loose its Buddha-like breath. Diana Gaston carefully unfolds the paper from a daguerreotype, and we see an anonymous artist. In Gaston's hands, the photo looks valuable, as if someday we'll know who they were, the taker and the taken. The museum's collection is strong in daguerreotypes with several hundred of them, largely due to a gift from the doctor and collector Stanley Burns.
Becky Cohen: "I am more than in love. I am hungry, hungry, hungry!"
She puts away the daguerreotype and then opens a box labeled Garry Winogrand (excellent presence in the MoPA vault, 108 photos), the New York street photographer who captured such arresting images, strange, provocative, and humorous at once. As she lifts back the paper we see a Winogrand image: a couple rides in a convertible on a Manhattan street, while a monkey (their monkey, you assume) crouches up on the back seat, snarling at the photographer; the couple looks back in amusement, knowing the scene is interesting — and there's the New York skyline rising ironically in the background.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Ansel Adams. At a 1985 Sotheby's of New York auction, an Ansel Adams print of Moonrise was offered at a bidding price of $4000 to $6000.
"I used three Winogrands in the exhibit," Gaston says, of the most recent showing of the permanent collection. "It was hard to hold back."
She spent many hours inside the vault preparing the exhibit, she said, and it was eerie to go from box to box. Because the images were so vivid the photographers seemed to be there. It was challenging to fill the space in the gallery, to choose 20 photos, but it was also exciting to sift through the photos and think about themes.
"Two Pairs of Legs," Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Ollman and MoPA organized the Bravo exhibition that opened in 1990.
Museum of Photographic Arts
She came up with the major theme — measuring time — by studying Philipp Scholz Rittermann's seven times 45 seconds, a night photograph of a crane dredging in San Diego harbor, taken in seven long exposures. The photograph, a cumulative cone of light over the water, seemed to have "made time tangible." The camera, Gaston thought, had "understood time." With the tangibility of time as a departure point, she let her feelings guide her to the right sequences.
Guard Shukov Tower, Alexander Rodchenko. Fifty-four Rodchenkos are now stored in the MoPA vault.
On the leading wall of the exhibition Rittermann's seven times forty-five seconds led to Mark Klett's Car Passing Snake, Eastern Mojave, with a carlike stream of light speeding blithely by a rattle tensed up on the road — one experience of time posted against another, Dictionary, by Abelardo Morell, a close-up in high detail of a book, pages about to turn, led to Robert Adams's Southwest from the South Jetty, a set of five pictures of the shore, waves caught in motion, which to Gaston seemed musical. The feeling of arrested time could carry over to other sections that documented work (a Lewis Hine photo of the Empire State Building project), or war-torn places (the exhibit's most shocking photo was a Susan Meiselas rending of a charred body in a field on the Nicaraguan coast), or nighttime places (DeCarava's Dancers). A section of portraiture, of landscapes, a section of scenes of summer life in the Southern states, and at the end, Becky Cohen's photos of the garden of Le Nôtre.
Certainly a purpose of the exhibition — of any permanent collection exhibition — was to show off the strength of MoPA's assemblage. It's remarkable that a museum that has been open only since 1983 has these 3600 photos by these 450 artists. It's a collection strong in historical depth (10 photos, for example, from the seminal Scottish portraitists Dave Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson, working in the 1840s with paper negatives), and in key eras of American work (such as Depression and WWII-era documentary photography), and in some international areas (an extensive collection of the early Soviet constructivist Alexander Rodchenko and of Stalinist era photographers). The historical depth and geographical depth of the collection made it all the mroe interesting for Gaston to curate the exhibit. In today's market, she says, with prices of artistic photographs soaring, it would be "almost impossible" to duplicate what's in the MoPA now.
Diana Gaston was the photography curator at the art museum at the University of New Mexico before coming to MoPA four years ago. The University of New Mexico has one of the strongest university collections in the country, with 6000 to 7000 photographs, assembled during the 1960s and 1970s, when photographs were much more affordable. But as universities offered academic study in photography and as museums hired photography curators — as photography became institutionalized, as a history was created, a competitive market developed. Prices rose sharply in the 1980s as collectors increased and vied for images. One spur to the rise was the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which also began collecting in 1983 and by dominating the photography auctions soon gathered one of the largest collections in the world.
At a 1985 Sotheby's of New York auction, an Ansel Adams print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, was offered at a bidding price of $4000 to $6000, in a 1996 Sotheby's auction, another Moonrise was offered at $9000 to $12,000. An Adams Monolith, The Face of Half Dome was offered at $2000 to $4000 in the 1985 Sotheby's auction; another Monolith, a smaller print, was offered in 1996 at $000 to $6000 — less than half the size for twice the price. In the 1985 auction, several Edward Westons were offered, four to them set in the $1000 to $2000 range, with Excusado, a photo of a toilet, at $3000 to $5000; 11 years later in the 1996 auction several more Westons were offered, with the portrait Guadalupe Marin de Rivera set at $10,000 to $15,000, Portrait of a Male Nude at $20,000 to $30,000, and a vintage Tina Modotti Reciting was featured in the permanent collection exhibit.) A Weston can now bring more than $75,000.
In 1985, Paul Strand's Church Near Espanola, New Mexico brought $5000 and a portfolio of 11 photographs brought $2000. In the 1996 Sotheby auction Strand's Wall Street, New York (his most famous photo) was offered at $70,000 to $100,000. Also, in the 1996 auction several rare daguerreotypes were offered, one of Frederick Douglass set at a range of $70,000 to $100,000, and another of John Brown, taken by African-American photographer Augustus Washington offered in the range of $80,000 to $120,000.
Garry Winogrand photos were present at both Sotheby auctions. In 1985, 15 signed Winogrands were offered at $1200 to $1800, and the print People on Park Bench was set at a range of $200 to $400. In the 1996 auction, a pair of Winogrands, American Legion Convention, Dallas and Central Park Zoo, were set at $3000 to $5000. Five Robert Mapplethorpes were offered at $4000 to $6000, with one self portrait at $6000 to $8000. Mapplethorpe's Grapes, a still life of hanging fruit, was set at $15,000 to $20,000.
All of which is good for photography and photographers, and for the value of the MoPA collection. Now as the museum prepares to expand into the space next door, presently occupied by the Hall of Champions, it also prepares to have three times the exhibition space and to exhibit three times the photographs, using the collection to a great degree, challenging the curator even more. By 1999 or 2000 when the doors of the new MoPA open, the permanent collection will be even larger. But any increase won't come by way of an acquisitions fund, because according to Gaston, there isn't one.
"Very few institutions have come late and been successful," Gaston says. "We rely on public programs."
2. The Director
When Arthur Ollman was asked to come to San Diego and get involved in the creation of the Museum of Photographic Arts, he thought at first that it would just be in an advisory role, to suggest names for a director. Ollman was working as a photographer, doing portraits and taking photographs of night scenes, and teaching in Ansel Adam's summer workshops. As chairman of the board at San Francisco Cameraworks, he had been used to working with small nonprofit spaces for exhibitions, but when he arrived on the Prado in Balboa Park, eh couldn't believe what he saw. "They'd shot Xanadu here," he thought: "This is going to be a museum?" It was Sunday and people were everywhere, and there were jugglers — the place looked terrific. The financial possibilities of an income as director induced Ollman to flirt with taking the job ("And you must be careful when you flirt). The board told Ollman that he could set the tone at MoPA and that they'd raise the money. "Everything was true but the last part. I had to raise the money."
Ollman decided that even though San Diego was not an art epicenter, he would do "world-class stuff." He decided that if a British or a Russian photographer was doing something important, the museum would go for them. William Klein, a street photographer from New York but an expatriate, was living in Paris. He had never had a retrospective, Ollman said, and he didn't want to have one in New York, even though the Museum of Modern Art had invited him. Ollman contacted Klein, offering him MoPA, Balboa Park, and San Diego, and Klein agreed to hold his first American retrospective there in 1988. Klein was pleased with the show and made a donation of ten prints to the permanent collection.
And then there was the case of Roy DeCarava, who had a 1996 retrospective at MOMA in New York. "We were there ten years earlier," Ollman said. "I met him teaching an Ansel Adams Workshop, and kept in touch. He's probably one of the best-known black photographers. "DeCarava made donations of prints to an auction to benefit the museum in 1993.
Ollman and MoPA organized the Manuel Alvarez Bravo exhibition that opened in 1990 that toured to 11 cities over a four-year period. Arnold Newman one of the best-known portrait photographers, had his first retrospectives at MoPA. "We were at the Ansel Adams Workshop together, sitting on a log," Ollman said. "I asked him if he'd done a retrospective, and he said no. When I got this job I called him." Arnold Newman: Five Decades toured nine cities in the United States, five in Europe, and two in japan. For the Los Vecinos/The Neighbors project, the museum commissioned three photographers from Mexico and four from the United States to come to San Diego and explore the border, "to engage themselves photographically." The exhibition opened in San Diego and in 1992 traveled to ten cities in Mexico.
Ollman realized threat MoPA had to appeal to as broad a base as possible, that inclusion was a matter of survival. He wanted the museum to be "on the edge of diversity," particularly when he saw himself as one among other curators "in rooms of white people feeling guilty." There was a lot of photography after all, by and about people of color — one of the great strengths of the medium was its accessibility. MoPA organized an exhibit of photographs of African-American women who have changed America, called I Dream a World, with portraits of Marian Anderson, and of a midwife in Louisiana, and of the first African-American neurological surgeon. Prior to another exhibit on child poverty called Outside the Dream, the museum invited 130 organizations — YMCA, legal services, bilingual programs — to meet and discuss how they could use the museum space. About 30 responded, and so Ollman held board meetings with organizations he hadn't been in touch with before. ("That kind of partnering a few years later became known as collaboration. It was a way to survive and get audiences into the museum.") Ollman even held receptions for hotel concierges and cab drivers.
The biggest project by far at MoPA has been Points of Entry exhibition series dealing with immigration, a collaboration with the Friends of Photography in San Francisco and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. Ollman wanted to "find a way to talk about a deeper reality, such as, What knits this country together?" He looked around at museums with material on immigration and sought interested partners, finding a cocurator in Vicki Goldberg, New York Times photography critic. Ollman talked with the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and was told that if he could build something larger they'd help. After enlisting San Francisco and Tucson, they got $400,000 from Reader's Digest. Metropolitan Life provided anohter $100,000. The result was three exhibitions, three books, and a set of educational materials, and in 1997 a national tour that included the Smithsonian Center for African American History and Culture and the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta.
The San Diego component called A Nation of Strangers, included 200 photos. "The problem was here, the issues were here, the history was here," Ollman said. "When people came into teh exhibit, you could see that by the tenth picture they were starting to tell their own stories. You could see that people from different backgrounds had much the same experience. People want some of their ethnicity back. The price of not having it is to disappear into American nothingness." At the opening of A Nation of Strangers the museum conducted a naturalization ceremony.
"It's been a tremendous success for us," Ollman said.
And now? "We're still working on how to be here."
In order to expand into the larger space next door, MoPA had to navigate through "a protracted political period" to prove "That we were the obvious choice." They had to come up with a set of ideas, one being that with a theater they could fulfill their mission as a film and photography museum and have thematically related photo and film exhibits. They designed a fundraising campaign and produced materials to show that MoPA was both vibrant and viable and "not just the new kid on the block. We wanted to show that we try harder," Ollman said, "that we have a good reputation in the community. Not everybody likes us."
But enough people do. The expansion moves ahead, and MoPA increases its collection. Since National Endowment for the Arts procurement funds have dried up, the emphasis has been on private donations. "Clarence John Laughlin [a photographer] left us 20 images," Ollman said (a donation that included such cryptic titles as Leaf Face #2, The Woman Whom the Trees Love, and Anomalous Intercourses. "Max Yavno left us 20 images (Mexico City Cathedral, Muscle Beach, Wailing Wall, Men's Section, among others). Lour Stoumen (photographer and filmmaker) left us his entire estate, negatives, papers, scripts, and his house, which included a buyer. Now the money is invested. When the interest gets to be enough, we hand out the Lou Stoument Prize, $35,000, about every two years. the first went to Debbie Fleming Caffery. The stipulation is that we get to choose ten images." Ollman is director of the award fund. He chooses ten nominators, and they each make three submissions, all unknown to the photographers — Stoument wanted no losers. Ollman chooses the winner.
MoPA and Ollman also cultivate collectors. "There were no collectors here when I moved here, that I knew of. Once we started exhibiting, getting an audience, some people get interested in collecting." The museum hosts occasional public programs such as "The Art of Collecting" lecture held in May 1997, when several private collectors gave advice on how to buy photos. A collector's group pays membership fees that go to the museum. The group makes outings, such as a recent one to a Women in Photography exhibit in Santa Barbara.
"It's not the same game as it was ten years ago," Ollman said, "but we're up for the struggle. In 14 years we've created a track record. We're well-regarded. We're excited about the future."
Ollman, whose own work has been auctioned at Sotheby's continues to photograph, to make the long night exposures — up to 90 minutes — the he began doing in the 1970s. At that time night pictures were taboo, but they could be so dramatic with the unusual color spectrums. In 1996 Ollman was commissioned to join other photographers to take pictures in Jerusalem to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of the city. There were six Israeli photographers and six foreigners; Ollman was, he observed, the only foreigner who was Jewish. He gave lectures in Amman, Jordan, and photographed the Petra ruins — Ollman was, as far as he knows, the first photographer to do night work in Petra.
3. The Collector
One of the photographs Diana Gaston selected for the permanent collection exhibit was the portrait Sybylle Binder by Trude Fleischmann, an Austrian photographer who was a teacher of the American documentary photographer Marion Post Wolcott before Fleischmann fled Nazi Germany. The photograph was donated to MoPA by Mike and Joyce Axelrod.
The Axelrods were members of the museum in 1983, but they didn't start collecting until 1993, the year they became trustees. They had wanted to collect paintings, but in buying a painting, Mike Axelrod noticed, "you had to add a lot of zeroes, and if you collected contemporary paintings you had to wait a lot of years for the value to increase." Mike Axelrod, then in his mid-50s, didn't think the had a lot of years. But after looking at the photography market, he saw that you could buy a Walker Evans, say, for $2000, an that prices for photographs were rising quickly.
Mike and Joyce Axelrod asked Arthur Ollman to give them some lessons in collecting. They offered to pay, "but of course Arthur didn't take anything." Instead, he let them know that they should buy a photograph and donate it to the museum. Ollman was impressed with Mike Axelrod's metronomic energy (Axelrod, who had grown up in New York City, had gotten a PhD in biochemistry at Princeton and worked in the medical field before moving to La Jolla to work in investments), and he was impressed by Mike and Joyce Axelrod's ability to absorb information — lending them a stack of books, they quickly brought them back, "and knew it." He gave them five-hour lessons in the history of photography and the fundamentals of collecting. When they were done, the Axelrods went to a preview of an auction, made some selections according to what they liked and what would look good on the wall (fundamentals numbers one and two), and bought a half-dozen photographs, donating the Flesichmann to MoPA.
"Arthur was our Adam in photography," Mike Axelrod says.
What impressed Mike Axelrod was that as a photography collector, you immediately had access to the highest levels. For example, in 1993, he and Joyce went to a MoPA gala in Point Loma. Axelrod asked the fellow sitting next to him what he did for a living and was told he was a musician. Axelrod asked how he was doing, in a field that was pretty hard to be successful in. The musician said he was Graham Nash, and that he'd been collecting photography since the 1960s. Axelrod thought, I'm sitting next to a walking icon. "Naive as I was, I got to know him, and visited his studio. I was a collector with a passion for photography talking to a collector with a passion for photography talking to a collector with a passion for photography." He learned that Nash had sold a portion of his collection at substantial profit, that he had gotten $75,000 for a Paul Outerbridge self-portrait that had cost him $300. "It floored me."
The Axelrods ("this is a joint venture") decided to specialize in 1930s and 19402 street photography, partly because they had both grown up in New York. Through Ollman they met Walter Rosenblum, who had studied with Lewis Hine and who had been taught to print by Paul Strand. "On our next trip to New York we visited Walter in his home. We sat down to dinner and saw his collection — Lewis Hines, Paul Strands. Strand was out of our budget, but we bout all of Walter's vintage signature photographs from the 1930s. Walter sent my daughter a photograph for her graduation. One of the photos in Points of Entry is one we bought from Walter, a 1905 photograph by Lewis Hine of Russian steelworkers."
And because Axelrod is a descendant of Russians who had emigrated to New York three generations ago, they decided to collect Russian photography — after meeting a dealer who had an extensive collection and many many trips to Russia each year. The dealer knew the family of Alexander Rodchenko, the Soviet constructivist photographer, and one day made a call to the Axelrods, telling them that a collection of Rodchenkos was available. The cost was high but affordable, a good investment ("Russia needed dollars"), and so they bought it. Fifty-four Rodchenkos are now stored in the MoPA vault. A Rochenko portrait (The Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky) was part of the permanent collection exhibition. The Axelrods have donated other Russian photographs contributing to MoPA Stalinist-era collection matched only by the Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
"Think about it," Mike Axelrod said. "Our investment, if it's been in MoPA, think of the value. We loan our images to exhibits regularly. But the collecting comes from passion, not for money. We're still paying off for the Rodchenkos." The museum, he says, will eventually be the main recipient of their collection.
They've been to England, gone to a gallery, seen women photographers they've liked, and then been introduced to them. They've been to the Royal Photographic Soceity in Bath, met the curator, and looked at a book of photographs by Julia Margeret Cameron (1815-79, an artist who saw her photographs as forms of prayer), with the portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Axelrod invited the curator, Pam Roberts, to San Diego and introduced her to Kathleen Stoughton, the director at the university gallery at UCSD. The Axelrods also visited the photgrapher Grace Robertson in Sussex and then brought her to UCSD, "networked her into the U.S., where she's not well-known.:
Mike Axelrod says, "I'm networking because of Arthur Ollman. Part of the fun of buying photographs is finding them, and by networking we're also making a contribution to the cultural life of our museum. You don't have to be rich. Our money goes to the cultural life of our museum. you don't have to be rich. Out money goes to the cultural arts, that's what we do. We're patrons, supporters, participants. I've licked a lot of stamps in my life. This is something you actually participate in. And who do you benefit? Your children. The more people we can introduce to photography the better."
4. The Photographer
Philipp Scholz Rittermann (seven times forty-five seconds), born in Peru, educated in Germany, naturalized as an American, moved to San Diego because of the Museum of Photographic Arts.
A self-taught photographer, Rittermann worked for several years as a pharmaceutical representative in Germany during the 1970s. Wearing a three-piece suit, driving a BMW, and talking to doctors by day, he photographed at night "to clear myself, to get my conscience straight." After four years he made a decision to make a life in photography and began teaching at a German community college. For a time he wholesaled tea, traveled, made more photos. In 1981, Rittermann traveled to New York, which he found interesting and scary. He went to the Museum of Modern Art, asked if they had a portfolio viewing policy, and was told to his surprise to drop his portfolio off. This scared him, because Rittermann, in the United States for the first time, felt that he was in the realm of the Ansel Adams Zone System. But MOMA bought one of his prints.
After a trip to California, which reminded Rittermann of Peru and his childhood, he returned to Germany resolved to sell all. He came to the United States with a Mercedes coupe, figuring he'd make a profit on it in Los Angeles, but discovered there were more Mercedes in L.A. than in Germany. Running out of money, he sold 11 prints for $100 each, painted the car and sold it, getting enough money to last eight months. Rittermann went to a photographers' conference in Philadelphia and met Arthur Ollman, who also photographed each night. Ollman, who was about to begin working at MoPA, invited Rittermann to come by and get involved. Construction of the museum was almost complete.
Rittermann moved to San Diego and began working for the Balboa Art Conservation Center; after work he did all nighters at MoPA. "It was high energy, the kind of thing that happens in a new museum. We were the new kids on the block. It seemed like every ten weeks there was a new show. A really exciting time." After two years Rittermann curated a show of nontraditional contemporary photography called The European Edge (a presumptuous title he cringes at now). There was no money for photographs, and for material he relied on all colleagues, 13 artists from seven Western European countries. But it was a great learning experience, and the show got an encouraging response.
Rittermann began freelancing, teaching photography at Grossmont College and San Diego State, and conducting private workshops. He found work in photographing art for museums and architecture for historic preservation for the National Park Service (he photographed Warner Ranch, near Mount Palomar). And he found work in advertising, which could be a lucrative source of income.
Doing historic preservation work, he discovered that as an artist, more and more he wanted to photograph landscape and the environment. He kept it to himself, that he was doing "roots and rocks" photography, that he was turning into an "f/64 type" of the Ansel Adams school), that he was working in the most common tradition, next to portraiture. People would say, "Like Ansel," or "Like Weston." But it felt good to photograph landscape. As his file grew, "I realized I had to cop to it."
"I've got to talk about landscape," Rittermman said. "I'm fueled with an urgent concern about what we're doing. I'm trying to present landscape as spiritually based, so that you think, 'How could you fuck it up?'"
In presentations, at exhibitions, Rittermann works with contrasts "of good and bad, of one landscape inherited, one left behind." He works with the small and the large, hanging oversized photographs next to something tiny, to avoid a series effect so that people won't blow by everything. In photographing and showing landscape, Rittermann wants the illusion of a congregational space, that there are altars. Again, the question is, how could we bulldoze that?"
On this day, as he prepared to do an advertising gig, Rittermann said he was going out into the desert, that he'd be spending a week there It was a way, if indirectly, of photographing landscape.
Photographers have their own idiosyncratic way of describing what they do. Listening to the language of what's in the frame can be as interesting as looking at the photograph itself. For Becky Cohen, there is an esoteric beauty in her perceptions just as there is a beauty in her photographs.
In the 25 years since receiving her mast of fine arts degree from UCSD, Cohen has specialized in the most intimate form of portrait photography, the nude, or as she like to put it, "photographing people with their clothes off." To her, the word naked implies shame, "and I wouldn't want anyone I photograph to feel that." And after nude, it is "a kind of beauty I find uninteresting." For Cohen, a portrait represents a kind of conversation that can't be repeated. As a photographer, she doesn't want to take anything, but she does want to get close, to "seek the music in the subject." She aims for a "kind of transparency, a kind of beholding." A subject lets her in, and after conversation and interviewing, when they "hit a wall," she begins to work. Taking photographs, Cohen aims to embed the history and make it simple." Her theme or approach, is "pleasure from a woman's eye," and she sees herself as an artist arising from the first wave of the feminist movement.
One remarkable sequence of photos is of two sisters, twins in their late teens. Wanting a record, they were photographed without their clothes on. The poses begin in a fetal position, the sister lying in a piscine curl. Frame to frame, they unwind, separate, and become distinct — though never truly apart — until finally the two girls, arms spread, beautiful hair flowing, facing the camera, are upright, adult, and individual.
Cohen has exhibited other sets. At the 1996 Common Ground show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, she featured a narrative called Michel Undressing for Me and the anonymous posing called He Looks Pretty Good in My Dress.
One night not long ago she held a small reception at her house in Leucadia and spoke about her photographs of the gardens of Le Nôtre at Versailles (six gardens created by Andre Le Nôtre for Louis XIV). The occasional was partly a result of the purchase for MoPA of three of the garden photos. Diana Gaston was present, and Mike and Joyce Axelrod, and a few others.
Cohen explained how the project came about, that it was a collaboration with Chandra Mukerji, a UCSD professor who has written a book about the Le Nôtre gardens called Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles, a history of their political meanings. The two met at a party, when Cohen was talking about compost, which she described as "sacred." Mukerji was sitting nearby and overheard and said to Cohen, You're the one to photograph the gardens of Le Nôtre." Mukerji said she was looking for a visual argument to accompany her written one.
And so began a period when Becky Cohen spent weeks hiking through the Le Nôtre gardens and taking photographs. For her, the challenge was "how to consume the spatiality of the gardens, how to make the garden whole in my imagination." The gardens as political metaphors were intended to impress with beauty and to intimidate with the illusion of military warfare, providing surprise openings an grand, geometric views, leading the eye by means of light (just as photography does). Cohen, long practiced in artistic intimacy, got so she could run from one part of the garden to another, anticipating light. Eventually she began to feel that she was in communion with another artist over a 300-year-span of time.
Now in her living room, Cohen presents the Le Nôtre photos. There must be 50 of them stacked against the wall, in aluminum frames and two feet high. There is a concical tree with a ladder, a square-cut hedge of trees in winter, a fountain at twilight, a column of marching hedges, many weathered and pitted sculptures.
"I was walking along," she says, "and suddenly I was drawn to tears when I realized that he [Le Nôtre] was drawing me to the empty sky, positing me against my mortality at every turn. I was paying for my knowledge with my life. I had a sense of my life elapsing as I walked. The external gaze was leading to an internal reaction."
It was just as Le Nôtre had intended, she says.
In August 1996, The Gardens of Le Nôtre: Photographs by Becky Cohen opened at the University Art Museum, Berkeley. After the exhibition she decided to call MoPA. Cohen has some ambivalent feelings about the museum, having to do with the "difficulty of being appreciated in your hometown." She had decided to contact MoPA. With the Le Nôtre photographs, she felt ready.
She talked to Diana Gaston and asked if the museum would be interested in having some of the Le Nôtre photographs in the permanent collection and was told they would be very welcome there. ("The first contact, and I made it," Cohen said.) Relieved, flattered, and proud, she found donors to buy three photographs to give to MoPA. All three were shown in the permanent collection exhibit.
Following her reception, other exhibits have been scheduled of Becky Cohen's Le Nôtre photographs, in San Diego (at the Porter Troupe Gallery through November 8), Del Mar, Santa Monica, and San Francisco. Partial support is being provided by Joyce and Mike Axelrod.
Of her work as a freelance photographer in a business called Best Black and White, Cohen says, "I'm getting away with the life I want to lead." Looking back to her experience in the Le Nôtre gardens, she states that the engagement is ongoing: "I am referring to potent and invigorating desire, the desire to consume the flesh of the gardens with my eyes and incorporate what I've seen into my own body. I cannot imagine being without seeing them again. I am more than in love. I am hungry, hungry, hungry!"
Just now as you breathe, so does the vault at MoPA — it takes another Buddha's breath, a measured exhalation in service of the accessible and immortal art kept within.