F ormidable seems to understate Sheryl Conkelton's task as organizer of "The University Collects: Photography from the University of California," on view at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery.
Conkelton's job was to select 100 representative shots from the university's holdings of more than 20 million, held in 159 collections on the nine UC campuses and associated research facilities.
Asked whether the job is difficult, she laughed. "In a word, yes," she said. "There's just so much to tell."
The exhibit, which includes work ranging from early daguerreotypes to the latest in satellite photography, completes a two-year project to survey and compile a directory of the university's photographic holdings. The project was overseen by the staff of the California Museum of Photography on the UC Riverside campus.
Museum director Charles Desmarais said the project grew out of the suspicion that a large amount of material controlled by the university was languishing, forgotten, in drawers.
"Certainly the caretakers might know about it," Desmarais said, "but the field of photography and art history didn't have access to that work. What we found was pretty remarkable."
The sheer volume of material--more than 20 million images--was particularly surprising, he said: "It took a while for the survey to get going, but in the second year virtually every place I called had some kind of photographic collection, which demonstrated to me over and over how pervasive photography really has become."
In general, Conkelton said, the materials were being taken care of but were relatively inaccessible. Her first order of business was to produce a directory, published in 1985 and updated last year, and to create a computer database of the university's photographic resources. Then, organized as a sampler of those resources and also as a history of the photographic medium, the exhibit was shown at the California Museum of Photography. A subsequent stop at UC Davis preceded the current showing in Irvine.
The difficulty in curating the show was not only in winnowing through the vast collections, Conkelton said, but also in building a coherent show from such wildly eclectic sources. The show includes historic images, artistic efforts and photographs intended purely for documentation of scientific research.
"My idea was to try to demonstrate the connection between all of the impulses to make photographs," said Conkelton, who is an assistant curator in the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The exhibit opens with several daguerreotypes, including what is believed to be the earliest surviving view shot of San Francisco, circa 1850. There are works by some of the well-known Western landscape photographers of the late 19th Century, including Carleton E. Watkins, William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan.
Also of interest is an 1855 cliche-verre by artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the best-known practitioner of the form, in which a design is etched into the emulsion on a coated glass plate and reproduced by a photographic printing process.
The show includes work by many of the major 20th-Century art photographers, including Minor White, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, often alongside work by anonymous photographers.
"I think there are some surprises for someone who is a gallery-goer," Conkelton said. "To go into a show that has such a broad range I think will surprise people and hopefully make them look more closely."
Displaying the scientific works in an art gallery, where "everything is framed and matted and sort of in an art context," may lead viewers to look for the aesthetic qualities in the images, Desmarais said. "I think it's important to look at pictures from their original context, but then it's also fun and interesting and valuable to let your mind wander and think of other things. You might say that a truly functional image has a kind of aesthetic beauty."
At Irvine, an abstract study of a metal ornament by Minor White is displayed near an image by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Donald Glaser, showing the tracks left by subatomic particles in a bubble chamber. Though the images were made with completely different intentions, their proximity in the exhibit tends to bring out their similarities.
"Minor White looked at scientific images of that sort, I'm sure, during his development as an artist, and I think that we could assume that his vision was affected by those pictures," Desmarais said.
"Similarly, I've known many scientists, through my work at the university, who make pictures from a purely scientific standpoint, and yet they see the beauty in these images. They get a special pleasure out of the fact that they are beautiful images also."
"The University Collects: Photography from the University of California" will be on display in the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery through Feb. 7. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Information: (714) 856-6610.