“I’m a scopophiliac, I guess,” says Arthur Ollman. “I love to look.” What the founding director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park loves to look at is photos. He claims his eyes have never yet tired of them — not in his nearly two decades in San Diego, nor in his earlier years as a photographer in his own right, based in San Francisco.
There is a perfect pear in the midst of the papers and photography books on his desk. Yesterday, the apple was well-chosen. His suits are, similarly, right. Today, it’s the charcoal gray, worn with an interesting tie and deep blue shirt — just the thing for a small captain of the art industry.
He offers tea to his visitor, saying, “I’m a tea drinker.” On his desk is a catalog from a Parisian tea store. “The Greatest Tea Store on the Planet,” it proclaims.
On the wall behind him is a sepia-toned photograph from the museum’s collection. It’s of Greta Garbo, made in the soft-focus, pictorialist style by one of its most famous practitioners, Arnold Genthe. Garbo is a young woman in this 1925 image, aged 20. Her eyes are pleasantly heavy-lidded, her brows curved coquettishly over them, like the tops of question marks.
“See, the camera is the only medium that allows you literally to look through someone else’s eyes,” Ollman says. “What you see here is what Genthe saw in his studio. It’s not an approximation. It’s not three inches to the side. It’s exact. It’s called The Madonna and was said to have turned Garbo’s career around. Until then, she was getting bit parts as a sort of tall Scandinavian with an accent. She was a character actress. But when the studio saw this group of pictures that Genthe made — and this was the best of them — they saw the possibility of her as a lead and started giving her lead roles.”
Like the fruit and the wardrobe, the Garbo seems a perfect choice, since the museum’s expansion has made room for a movie theater. “Film is the child of photography,” Ollman says more than once in the course of these conversations. “It’s something that the museum ought to be more identified with. There was Eadweard Muybridge, who made pictures in sequence, so if you looked at them quickly you could imagine the motion. And if you put them in a zoopraxiscope, you could actually see them moving.” He has always wanted a theater right inside the building. (Sandy Wagner, museum public relations director, calls it “Arthur’s dream fulfilled.”) “So many people who make films were influenced by photography and vice versa. And so many photographers have made films. Not only is one the progenitor of the other, but there is a huge amount of crossover.”
Facing him, on the wall across from his desk, is another photograph from the collection — by a living photographer. Something else Ollman often says is that he’s committed to collecting and exhibiting contemporary artists. “One, because I can get more for our money; and two, because I can be involved in making the statement of who’s important. If an artist’s reputation is good but still on the verge of greatness or it’s growing, I can be a part of bringing them to the public’s attention, giving their career a little stimulation, giving them a few bucks to go on.”
The black-and-white portrait was made in 1987 by Sally Mann (born 1951), who is known for photographing her family in provocative, sometimes controversial, ways. This one shows Mann’s youngest daughter, at age two and a half or three, enfolded in the arms of a working man in overalls, who stands beside his pickup truck that looks to be made of dented pie tins. The place is unspecified, but Barbara Pope, the museum’s registrar (who keeps all the records of the collection), makes the logical guess that it’s near Mann’s home in Lexington, Virginia.
Mann titled the image Tobacco Spit, says Ollman, “because she thought it looked like tobacco spit all over the side of that truck.” He can’t remember exactly what the museum paid for it, but he’s sure it was under $1000. Today, he says, it would cost him ten times that, possibly more.
Mann’s daughter is blond and fair-skinned; the skin of the man has been stained by the sun. “He’s a grizzly old guy, who looks kind of greasy and dark,” says Ollman, “almost like a different species, while the daughter is alabaster white, almost paper white. She’s the whitest white in the whole print — angelic white. She looks like an angel, like she just dropped in from a different sphere of being.”
On a table in front of the Mann picture is another portrait. It’s one that Ollman made of his own children, Ariel, 8, and Jonah, 11. Their mother is Leah Ollman, a freelance writer and art critic for the Los Angeles Times, among other places.
Many years ago, Ollman raised other people’s children. This was on a commune, where he lived after his graduation with a degree in art history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1969.
In the 1960s Madison was a turbulent, highly politicized place. “I had been involved in the antiwar movement and had gotten beaten a couple of times, and arrested a couple of times, and I was looking for, perhaps, more positive alternatives,” says Ollman of his decision to live communally. “I was trying to make a difference on the ground. And The Whole Earth Catalogue was very seductive at that point. So I heard about some friends who had bought a farm in Maine and I said, ‘That’s extraordinary! How do you do that? What does that mean? What are you going to do? Do they have any more?’ ” Born in Milwaukee, in 1947, he had not spent much time on the East Coast and had never been to Maine. “So I went there, looking. And it was beautiful, forested, clean — and I got excited about it. And I bought a farm.”