Robert Sobieszek, the longtime curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who took a fledgling collection in new directions and mounted adventurous shows that expanded the boundaries of what could be considered fine art photography, died at a Los Angeles hospital Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 62.
Sobieszek had a reputation as an imaginative scholar and curator during two decades at the George Eastman House, the world’s oldest photography museum, in Rochester, N.Y. He was its senior curator when he left in 1990 to oversee a far smaller and less prestigious collection at LACMA.
Over the last 15 years, he increased the size of the museum’s collection from 2,700 to more than 8,300 photographs through gifts and acquisitions that emphasized local and contemporary artists, including David Hockney and Cindy Sherman. He mounted more than 50 shows, including “Ghost in the Shell” in 1999, an unusual assemblage of portraits that tracked the history of artists’ depictions of facial expressions.
“He was one of the signally great photography curators of his generation,” said Earl A. “Rusty” Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who hired Sobieszek when Powell was LACMA’s director. “In connoisseurship, collecting and exhibitions, he was at the front of the field.”
Sobieszek also was a prolific scholar, who wrote 10 books and edited or contributed to 90 others.
With his 1976 book “The Spirit of Fact: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes,” co-written with Odette M. Appel, he became one of the first to draw scholarly attention to the works of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Joseph Hawes. They were 19th century portraitists who are widely considered the first masters of American photography.
He also wrote “The Art of Persuasion: A History of Advertising Photography,” based on an exhibition at the Eastman House in 1988 that included Ansel Adams landscapes and celebrities hawking products.
It was a notable study of a form of commercial photography not widely recognized as being overtly artistic, but Sobieszek regarded it as an essential form of modern art. In that respect it signaled one of the hallmarks of his approach as a curator.
“He had a way of looking through the surface of things ... through and into the picture,” said Anthony Bannon, director of the George Eastman House. “He was such a wonderfully curious thinker and writer.”
“I’m less interested in photography than in artists who use photography,” Sobieszek told The Times in 1992. “It’s incumbent upon a curator to do the best you can to understand the issues artists are dealing with and, by your selections, to mirror what’s going on out there.”
Sobieszek was born in Chicago, and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Illinois in 1965. He went on to acquire master’s degrees in art history and philosophy from Stanford in 1969 and Columbia in 1981.
He joined Eastman House as a curatorial assistant in 1968 and held several posts, including director of research, before rising to curator of photography in 1971. At Eastman he oversaw a collection of more than 400,000 photographs and negatives and organized 50 exhibitions.
He said he was lured to Los Angeles because it was evolving into a national center of photography, with prominent collections forming at such local venues as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Huntington Library art galleries. His hiring at LACMA was a signal to others in the photography curatorial world that the museum was ready to step up its efforts at building a more robust collection.
“Anyone who knows him knows that you don’t invite Robert Sobieszek aboard if you don’t expect to have a very vigorous and aggressive curator. He doesn’t lie back and go with the flow,” Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego, said in 1990 after Sobieszek arrived in L.A.
Among the more daring shows he organized here was “Robert Smithson: Photo Works” in 1993, which focused critical attention on the photography of an artist who had primarily been known for conceptual earthworks such as “The Spiral Jetty,” a sculpture that uncoiled into Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
He also mounted “Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts” in 1996. Burroughs, best known as the author of the scatological novel “Naked Lunch,” was an accomplished photographer.
“Robert had felt for most of his career that of course photography is an art and it wasn’t even an issue, so he ... didn’t feel a need to justify it. He was very courageous in that approach,” said former LACMA curator Tim Wride, who worked with Sobieszek for 12 years
Imagination and risk taking also molded Sobieszek’s last major show. “Ghost in the Shell -- Photography and the Human Soul, 1850-2000" was the culmination of 33 years of research and rumination. It had its roots in the curator’s encounter with a set of bizarre pictures by Duchenne de Boulogne, a 19th century French neurophysiologist who used electrical shocks to see how specific muscles of the face moved.
The disturbing images made an impression on Sobieszek and led to his lengthy investigation into photographic representations of the self. The result was a show that used examples from Duchenne, Andy Warhol and Sherman as touchstones to organize 150 photographed faces.
Between packing up at Eastman and starting at LACMA, Sobieszek served as an expert witness at a 1990 Cincinnati obscenity trial involving photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. He and three other photography experts were asked to prove that Mapplethorpe’s images were art, not pornography. Sobieszek’s role in the trial was to discuss the importance of context when judging photography.
He said that “yes, if some of Mapplethorpe’s photographs were badly printed in a sleazy magazine in a porn shop, they might be interpreted as pornography. But when those images are beautifully composed, printed and framed and they are in a museum as part of a larger body of work and an integral part of an exhibition, it’s a very different issue.”
The jury ultimately agreed with the experts and acquitted Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, whose exhibit had included Mapplethorpe photographs with homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes
Sobieszek is survived by his wife, Sarah Lee.