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PHOTOGRAPHY : A Guy Who’s Sharply Focused : In 10 years, Getty Museum curator Weston J. Naef has built a vast and much-envied collection of historic photographs, with some recent ones, too. And to think it all started in the wink of an eye.

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. </i>

At dawn one July morning in 1984, Weston J. Naef disembarked from a cargo plane in a remote area of LAX. His 10-year-old son, Edward, was at his side, and thousands of the best photographs in the world were still in crates on board.

Their arrival marked the final chapter in an art world thriller that began just the year before, when J. Paul Getty Museum Director John Walsh learned that at least three major private photography collections might soon be for sale. He saw the potential for a world-class museum collection, and he urged the Getty board to act.

The board did. New York art dealer Daniel Wolf circled the globe for the Getty, methodically acquiring the most important photographs money could buy. He purchased all or substantial portions of the fabled collections of Americans Samuel Wagstaff and Arnold Crane and of Andre and Marie-Therese Jammes in France. Photographs poured in from other top collections in France, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere.

“By being able to move very quickly and quietly, we were able to make an extraordinarily favorable deal,” Walsh says. “We were able to get the whole works for less than the price of a moderately good Cezanne still life.”

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The Getty instantly became one of the world’s great repositories for photography. And Naef, the man who had been offstage advising Wolf and the Getty on what to buy, was hired to oversee and expand the Getty’s riches.

Naef was also a widely known figure in the world of photography. While still serving as a curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he had worked for nearly 15 years, he helped the Getty evaluate possible photography purchases and suggested additional ones. Then, anticipating that the Getty would prove successful in its quest, he left one of the world’s most important museums and headed west to an institution whose reputation was then based primarily on its enormous endowment.

“That challenge was one that I could not resist,” says Naef, today the Getty’s curator of photographs. “It offered the promise of building one of the greatest collections of photographs that may ever be created.”

Energetic, intense and very, very determined, the 52-year-old Naef has continued amassing treasures in the only Getty department that regularly collects 20th-Century art. Starting with the initial acquisition of 18,000 photographs, he has built the collection to more than 25,500, with thousands more mounted in albums and on cards and other media.

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Sometimes it has been a matter of adding to strong areas of the collection such as 19th-Century French photographs, Walsh says; sometimes Naef has focused on weaker areas, such as classic American modernists. As he puts it: “We started with a great base and persisted--searching, hunting and gathering the very best that complements the existing collection or fills gaps.”

One such gap was work by Frederick Sommer, an 89-year-old Prescott, Ariz., photographer whose evocative images are currently on view at the Malibu museum. Although art experts have long appreciated Sommer’s work, he has not been as widely known as less reclusive, more prolific contemporaries.

Just one Sommer photograph was among the Getty’s original purchases, so last summer, after three years of effort, the museum made a major purchase of Sommer’s work. Naef had first met with the artist’s New York dealer, then repeatedly visited the artist’s Arizona studio, talking with the artist and his assistants. By last spring, Naef had selected 107 photographs for the Getty to buy.

“Sommer’s work is just extremely rare and it trickles onto the market,” Walsh says. “I was just floored when it was possible for Weston to come up with an agreement.”

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Naef may look like a scholar in the tweedy clothes and bow ties that belie his Palm Springs upbringing, but he clearly knows how to forage.

“Weston is a dauntless unearther of treasures,” says Robert A. Sobieszek, curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “He’s got the dough and knows how to negotiate.”

The Getty photography collection today is obviously worth considerably more than the $20 million estimated as its initial value. (The Getty won’t disclose such information.) Its annual acquisitions budget is reportedly $1 million to $2 million. By comparison, LACMA curator Sobieszek says that after the current fund-raising drive, he expects his annual photo acquisitions budget to be $150,000 to $200,000.

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But dealers here and elsewhere say that, despite its resources, the Getty hasn’t tipped the marketplace out of balance.

“They’ve been amazingly responsible when you consider the amount of money they have,” says Los Angeles photography dealer G. Ray Hawkins. “While they will pay top price for something they desperately want, they won’t overpay for it.

“They’ll wait until the price fits in with their idea of value. Even though (a photo) may go to a collector or another institution, the sense of certainty that they will get it offered to them again in the next millennium gives them the freedom to say no.”

Consider, for instance, Naef’s acquisition of almost 100 Alfred Stieglitz photographs purchased from artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s estate between the time of her death in 1986 and September, 1992, the close of a Getty show of Stieglitz’s photos of O’Keeffe.

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Most curators buy art before they show it, and dealer Hawkins says that Naef’s willingness to wait displays an underlying conservatism. “He didn’t commit to purchasing until he gave himself time to curate his ideal show, frame it, install it and live with it.”

Another time, Naef went to Walsh teary-eyed, describing a Stieglitz photograph he would buy if the money were available. (Naef recalls that the photograph, “Hands Sewing,” went at auction for $400,000 in 1993.)

“Even we don’t have the money for everything,” Walsh says. “Weston is constantly moving the pots from the front to the back burner, turning down the gas, and hoping to keep a patient collector on simmer (without) the flame going out. He’s like a cook, and the kitchen’s hot.”

Naef enjoys the heat, Walsh says. When they both worked at the Metropolitan Museum, “I’d get into an elevator, and there would be Weston with a short old man with a beret, and he’d say, ‘Oh, John, I’d like you to meet Andre Kertesz.’ ”

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The Sommer exhibition, which opened Tuesday, is just the Getty’s third of a living artist. (The others presented the work of Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Edmund Teske.)

“We put more money into work of people who aren’t making any more,” Walsh says. “It’s a question of where we’re best off putting the money. And across the board at the Getty, we’re still looking for the endangered species. We figure the others will still be around.”

The Getty’s initial foray into photography actually began with such concerns.

“Starting as late in the day as we were starting,” Walsh says, “we were looking for areas in which the Getty could do something really distinctive without preempting the place of some other Los Angeles institution.”

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Walsh next turned to Naef, someone he had known since Naef first went to work for Walsh at the Met as a college intern.

“I admired (Naef’s) collecting and exhibitions,” Walsh says. “I got his advice on formation of this new collection, and then I got him to make a career change.”

About 2,000 photographers are represented in the Getty collection, but Naef has focused on the work of about 24 masters. He calls such artists as Stieglitz and Walker Evans “creative geniuses” and seeks with each “a panorama” of work. The Getty buys individual photographs, of course, but it often makes larger purchases of photo groups that place those masterworks in context.

“It is a superb collection,” says Peter Galassi, chief curator of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It is notable for its range and diversity and for great depth of such holdings as August Sander, Man Ray and Walker Evans, where they have pictures in very significant quantity as well as quality.”

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Many of those photographs have been shown in the 35 exhibitions Naef and his staff have organized since 1986. The department’s small gallery located near the Impressionist paintings has also presented shows of such individual artists as Edward Weston and Alexander Rodchenko, early French and Egyptian photos and several shows on experimental photography.

Although the collections have long been available to scholars and curators, the general public will soon be able to get to know them better. Late next month, the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art will open a major exhibition of Getty photography holdings, and due out in early spring is a handbook of the collection, the first to document its scope and size.

Naef, who will curate the Hammer exhibition, also wrote the handbook, and his office reflects the many demands on his time. A testimonial to his motto that “More is more,” no desk or shelf space is visible in the modest office. Every surface, from the floor to his Stickley chairs and table, is covered with papers, photographic materials, books or other possessions.

Naef’s shows, like the collection itself, have spanned photographic history, styles, attitudes and artists. He even refers to the exhibitions as his metaphoric children, calling them the “fulfillment of personal dreams” realized by both himself and his colleagues.

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The dreamers aren’t always the dozen or so staff people Naef supervises either. Producer-screenwriter and collector Michael G. Wilson (best known for his James Bond films) guest-curated a recent Getty show on Northern California pictorialism, for instance. Jackie Napolean Wilson, a Detroit attorney whose grandfather was a slave and who collects photography about the life of African Americans in the 1850s and 1860s, will curate a show called “Hidden Witness” at the Getty in February.

“Hidden Witness” provides the Getty an opportunity to show 25 rare pieces in the collection, Naef says, and the museum occasionally also collaborates on exhibitions with local museums to maximize impact. The pictorialism show, for instance, was done in collaboration with a companion show in the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Naef says that each year the Getty lends to a dozen or more institutions from New York to Paris and Tokyo.

“It would be hard to think of major historical photography exhibitions to which the Getty has not lent,” the Museum of Modern Art’s Galassi says. “They’ve done wonderful small exhibitions in the space they have, but one way the richness of the collection is known is through their loans.”

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Access will also increase with the Getty’s newly ambitious publications program. Naef says he has studiously avoided coffee table-size books, believing that there are already too many available, and he has recently begun an “In Focus” series of small “serviceable books.” Reception has been good, he says, to their first “In Focus” book, on Kertesz, and the Getty plans books tied to coming exhibitions of Stieglitz, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Doris Ulmann and others.

The Getty hopes to publish 10 “In Focus” books by the time it moves in 1997 to the Getty facility currently under construction in Brentwood, and the museum also plans a major book on Walker Evans for late next year. It was written by Getty associate curator Judy Keller and documents the museum’s 1,200 Evans photographs, the largest public collection of the artist’s work.

The photography department’s final show at the Malibu museum site will be work by Englishwoman Julia Margaret Cameron, also the subject of the department’s first show, and Naef expects to inaugurate its space at the new Getty facility with a Walker Evans show. Besides two galleries for changing exhibitions, Naef will have a small gallery for selections from the permanent collection and an occasional turn at a general exhibition gallery.

But he warns against expecting many blockbuster photography shows.

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“We’ve found between 50 and 100 pictures seems to be a very satisfying number to bring together,” Naef says. “We will stay deliberately small. We want (exhibitions) to be contained and focused in order to have our visitors leave with a taste for more.”

* “Frederick Sommer: Poetry and Logic,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Feb. 12. Admission is free, but advance parking reservations are required: (310) 458-2003.

Museum Guide

If the only culture in your life is growing in your refrigerator, check out the Museum Guide on the TimesLink on-line service. Find out about the permanent collections and view images of major works. Sign on and “jump” to keyword “museums.”

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