The beauty of a bargain
“The Collectible Moment: Photographs in the Norton Simon Museum” is a homage to Fred R. Parker, an artist turned curator who, in 1969 and just three years out of graduate school, left his position as director of the Memorial Union Art Gallery at UC Davis for a job as a gloried gofer and troubleshooter at the Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon.
The thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly intimate exhibition is also an inspiration to no-budget do-it-yourselfers whose journeyman enthusiasms generate far more satisfaction and goodwill than financial remuneration -- and stand in stark contrast to the heartless professionalism that dominates mainstream culture today.
When Parker was interviewed for the job in 1969, “photography” was not even in its title. At his suggestion, curator John Coplans and director Thomas Terbell Jr. added it to the title and hired Parker as coordinator of exhibitions and acting curator of prints, drawings and photography.
When he started, the museum’s photography collection consisted of 48 works. By the time the board was dissolved and Norton Simon took over in 1974, Parker had increased its holdings to more than 500.
The exponential growth of the collection is remarkable because the museum did not have an acquisitions budget for photography. Charm and hard work, along with youthful optimism and a bit of chutzpah, did the trick for Parker, whose passion for pictures convinced hundreds of photographers to donate their own works to the fledgling collection.
“The Collectible Moment” fills three galleries and features about 160 photographs by 102 artists. Nearly all are black and white, and all are modestly scaled, most no bigger than a notebook page. Organized by curator Gloria Williams Sander, the show is accompanied by an informative catalog that reproduces every work in the collection and documents an important era of California history.
The exhibition begins conventionally, with works by the most well-known photographers clustered near the entrance. These include 12 gorgeously formal gelatin silver prints by Edward Weston, three by Imogen Cunningham, two by Ansel Adams, one by Andre Kertesz and two by Brett Weston, Edward’s son. All are exquisitely printed. Nature is the subject of most. Many are close-ups, with the camera zeroing in on details and the photographers accentuating abstract patterns and sensuous textures to make the visible world look strange, alien and fascinating.
Interspersed among these masterpieces of modern photography are similarly themed pieces by less famous artists, including fine prints by Walter Chappell, Wynn Bullock and Ruth Bernhard.
The first hint of Parker’s vision is evident in three images that do not share the organic, abstract naturalism of the majority in this section. Roy De Carava’s “Man on Subway Stairs,” Lee Miller’s “Joseph Cornell With One of His Objects” and Barbara Morgan’s “Spring on Madison Square” depart from the clear-eyed realism and stylish formalism that defined fine art photography on the East Coast. Instead, the three took a more poetic approach to the medium and its subjects, experimenting with its processes and seeking mystery in metaphors.
The collection’s quirky personality comes clear in the second half of the first gallery, which pairs 14 robust pictures by Manuel Alvarez Bravo with 13 ethereal images by Frederick Sommer. The two photographers represent the extreme ends of Surrealism’s influence.
Bravo, born in Mexico, found stark beauty -- as well as death, struggle and suffering -- in the street. He depicts ordinary folks grinding out their lives amid little epiphanies. Sommer, born in Italy and based in the U.S., stayed in the studio, where he crafted fantastically evocative abstractions by photographing paint-covered cellophane, smoke-coated glass and cut paper, as well as soft-focus nudes.
Their works, made from the 1930s to the early 1960s, form the bedrock of the collection, both numerically (66 by Bravo, 30 by Sommer) and aesthetically. The fantasy-saturated mystique of Sommer’s abstract images and the bittersweet Romanticism of Bravo’s loaded narratives create the emotional atmosphere in which the rest of the collection, mainly images from the late 1960s and early 1970s, orbit.
The next two galleries flesh out Parker’s focused yet wide-ranging vision. (A portfolio of his works is in the collection but not in the exhibition.) The curator, like most of the photographers whose work he collected, treated cameras and chemicals as adaptable tools to be used to make sense of the tumultuous times and profound social changes then sweeping America.
Most of the works are rough, raw and trippy. Gone are the refinement and naturalism of the preceding generation’s beautifully printed pictures. In their place is a sort of hallucinatory realism, a gritty attempt to come to terms with the image-glut of modern life and the divisive complexity of a global world.
The pictures are scrappy, sexy and strange. Highlights include Todd Walker’s metallic tinted images of poisoned innocence, Thomas Francis Barrow’s harrowing study of TV’s intrusion into individual souls and Bart Parker’s “Newport, R.I.,” a mind-blowing seascape in which an island appears to be melting down from its core.
Superimposed, manipulated imagery by Robbert Flick, Jerry N. Uelsmann, Robert Heinecken and Edmund Teske give vivid form to a world out of joint. Also impressive is the cockeyed, doubt-riddled realism of Henry Wessel Jr., Hans Leopold Levi, Nathan Lyons, Scott Hyde, Anthony Hernandez and Donald Blumberg.
All of these works add up to a vision that is distinct from the pedestrian realism of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, which defined modern photography in New York. For Parker, photography’s job was to get past the surface and reveal hidden truths.
Also displayed are 45 similarly sized images from three portfolios assembled by the graduating classes of the Institute of Design in Chicago and San Francisco State College. They emphasize the democratic nature of Parker’s curatorial work. Each is a time capsule that reveals more about when it was made, 1971 and ’72, than the individuals who participated. Today, such earnest, all-for-one behavior seems quaint: It’s difficult to imagine current graduate students and instructors cooperating on such a project.
But it’s even more difficult to imagine a museum curator doing what Parker did, without a budget. “The Collectible Moment” is a rare chance to travel back to a wild time, when photography was a thrilling, risky adventure -- and some jobs were just as exciting.
‘The Collectible Moment: Photographs in the Norton Simon Museum’
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays (until 9 p.m. Fridays); closed Tuesdays
Ends: Feb. 26
Price: $8; seniors, $4
Contact: (626) 449-6840; www.nortonsimon.org