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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.