It all started innocently enough with that early morning phone call sometime in the late summer of 1969. As Director of the Memorial Union Art Gallery at the University of California, Davis, I was in my office working on the gallery’s exhibition schedule for the approaching academic year. The call was from John Coplans, the newly appointed curator of art at the Pasadena Art Museum. I had known John while he was the director of the art gallery at the University of California, Irvine. I had collaborated with him on several occasions, providing additional exposure in Davis for exhibitions that he had organized. Apparently I had made a favorable impression and he now wanted to know if I would like to work with him in Pasadena.
The new museum was still under construction when I arrived for my interview with John and Thomas Terbell Jr., the museum director. By the end of my visit, I had agreed to accept their employment offer, move to Pasadena and help prepare for the upcoming premier opening of the new museum. In reality, I had been hired to be John’s assistant and general gofer. I was to be the keeper of the schedules and point man for solving little conflicts. To make it sound better, I was offered the rather expansive job title “coordinator of exhibitions and acting curator of prints and drawings.” Given my interest in the photographic arts, at my suggestion “photography” was tacked on. As long as it didn’t conflict with my basic responsibilities, no one objected. At the time, I doubt that any of us could have imagined the ramifications of that small addition. Over the next year or so, my job slowly shifted from generalized duties to more specific responsibilities of a curator of photography.
Reluctant to leave Davis with unfinished projects, I sought to combine those concerns with my new responsibilities in Pasadena. Foremost on my list was the continued development of California Photographers 1970, an open and noncompetitive survey of current trends in California photography. I had originally, intended to present the exhibition only in Davis. With my new position in Pasadena, however, it became possible to arrange for its tour to Southern California. With the availability of a larger gallery space in Pasadena, it also became possible to double the number of photographs in the exhibition, allowing each of the seventy participants to add a second example of his or her work. Influenced by Pasadena’s participation, the Oakland Museum quickly agreed to present the show as well. As a result, with little intent and with a great deal of naive good luck, I was able to introduce many of California’s most experimental and thought-provoking photographic artists to a statewide audience for the first time. Those encounters would be seminal for many artists and photographers, as well as for the participating museums and myself. Suddenly, it appeared that established and legitimate institutions throughout California had a new willingness to study, exhibit and collect contemporary photographic art. The stage was set for much of what would follow.
For me, the most obvious effect of California Photographers 1970 was the explosive expansion of my personal contacts with individual photographic artists. Although I already knew many of the Northern California photographers, once I moved to Pasadena I was warmly accepted into the Southern California photographic community. I was invited to all the local exhibitions and visited studios. Photographers often visited the museum, eager to share their visions with me or to simply inquire about the museum’s activities.
Thanks to the well-established prestige of the Pasadena Art Museum, our fledgling photographic activities began to receive increased attention and useful contacts were easily established with other institutions and individual photographers from far beyond California. It became easier to locate touring photographic exhibitions that could be rented, and we were in a stronger position for obtaining government and foundation grants for our exhibitions and events.
My move to Pasadena greatly increased my personal involvement with the nonphotographic community as well. Given the multifaceted character of my position at the museum, I was introduced to numerous contemporary artists, dealers, and collectors of a variety of disciplines and media. Perhaps as a natural extension of the protest movements of the 1960’s, a desire for reevaluation seemed to touch everything. Throughout the arts this reevaluation allowed for a general acceptance of an experimental mixing of art disciplines and media. Within the Pasadena Art Museum this willingness to explore alternative approaches extended to the types of photography exhibited, how exhibitions were created and presented, how catalogues were designed and what was accepted into the permanent collection. Examples of cross-pollination among traditional media were evident throughout the museum’s programs and exhibitions.
Given the experimental tenor of the time and my personal background as a student of painting and photography, my approach to curatorial work was unique. More comfortable in a studio or darkroom, I had never been much of a historian or scholar. From my earlier experiments with exhibition and catalogue design in Davis, through my time at the Pasadena Art Museum, and beyond to my later years as curator of photography at the Santa Barbara Art Museum, I thought of exhibitions and catalogues as if they were paintings or sculptures. In my view, a curator’s role was to function as a benign conduit between the art of others and the viewing public. My challenge was to present that linkage in a creative and original form while avoiding any misrepresentation or undermining of the artist’s intentions. I selected and organized exhibitions more to ask questions and expose varied approaches rather than sanction particular artistic opinions. I seldom thought about the potential historical value of the art included in the exhibitions or catalogues. I had little interest in identifying the “masterpieces” of photography and was more motivated by the diversity of ideas and attitudes—the big picture rather than a hierarchy based on dogmatic values. As a totality, the photography exhibitions presented at the museum between 1970 and 1974 – which included work by artists as diverse as Ansel Adams, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Robert Heinecken, as well as unknown students—reflected this basic approach. Likewise, the works brought into the permanent collection were most often selected for their ability to raise questions rather than answer them.
Prior to 1970 the museum had obtained very few photographs for their permanent collection. Most had been acquired as miscellaneous items within a more significant donation and were relegated to being footnotes within the prints category. There was little cohesiveness to the collection, and as important as some items were, most had never been studied or exhibited. The establishment of a more useful collection became one of my major objectives.
When I arrived in Pasadena, the museum’s established fund-raising system was already overstressed, with priority given to projects related to the new building. With no budget for acquisitions, I was restricted to seeking donations of art from individual photographers rather than funds for purchases. Wanting to minimize the potential effects of my own aesthetic biases, I typically requested donations of two prints from an individual photographer—one that I selected and one chosen by the photographer. Fortunately, my brazen solicitations were usually answered with appreciation and generosity.
With the exception of the prints by the Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo (which were purchased with funds specifically donated for that purpose) individual collectors and photographers were the primary source of works in the permanent collection. The current collection is the result of the Pasadena Art Museum’s unique supportive posture and its openness to alternative approaches, combined with the generosity of the photographers and collectors and their desire for inclusion.
Many of the photographers were generous with their advice as well as their art. My knowledge of photographic trends and activities, even of the history of photography, was due in no small part to the photographic community’s openness and willingness to share their discoveries and ideas. One of the most helpful individuals was Robert Heinecken, at the time the head of the photography program a UCLA. Not only an important practicing artist, he was also a teacher who was in contact with many of the photographic programs at educational institutions and museums throughout the country. He was actively involved with hundreds of students and other art and photography professionals. Shortly after my arrival in Pasadena, Heinecken introduced me to Todd Walker, who in turn introduced me to Mr. Shirley Burden. Both of them would later be indispensable to the successful development of the exhibition and acquisition of works by Alvarez Bravo, which would become my most memorable and rewarding project for the Pasadena Art Museum.
I had first encountered Alvarez Bravo’s work in 1968, while doing a summer internship at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The director of the intern program, Nathan Lyons, had asked me to select a photographer of my choice from the permanent collection and to prepare a brief presentation to my fellow interns. When reviewing the collection, I started at the beginning of the alphabet and was stopped immediately as I came to the work of Alvarez Bravo. I had never seen his work before and it made a strong impression on me. I was also frustrated by the scarcity of images of his work and of written information about the photographer. Those limitations to my initial research only added to the power and beauty of a mystery that would eventually mature and blossom in Pasadena.
After my first year in Pasadena, an opportunity to travel to Mexico presented itself, giving me the chance to pursue the Alvarez Bravo mystery. Because most of the published materials on the photographer were in Spanish or French, however, and because he seldom left his home in Mexico City, a number of happy coincidences needed to converge to make it all possible. Fortunately, Yolanda Hershey had recently joined the museum’s staff and was fluent in English, Spanish and French and was available to help with the research and necessary translations. Also, Todd Walker’s oldest daughter, living in Mexico City, was available as my guide and translator during meetings with the photographer. The Pasadena Art Museum agreed to provide funds for my travel expenses. And, most importantly, Shirley Burden agreed to fund the publication of the exhibition catalogue and purchase of all the exhibited prints for the museum’s permanent collection. The icing on the cake came later, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the George Eastman House agreed to rent the exhibition—something quite rare for both institutions. We were even able to bring the photographer and his wife to Pasadena to see the exhibition and meet many of their American counterparts. During his visit to California, I recall Alvarez Bravo saying to me, “You are going to make me famous!” It seemed obvious to me that it was the other way around. The museum and I were the winners in the notoriety game. His vision had already brought him fame.
Thanks to the depth and diversity of the photography program, in four short years the Pasadena Art Museum established itself as the foremost supporter of the medium on the West Coast. I have often wondered what might have happened had we been able to continue beyond 1974. Now, thirty years later, many other institutions have stepped into the void. Museums throughout Southern California now have photography curators, there are commercial photography galleries everywhere, and dealers negotiate ever-increasing prices with an army of passionate collectors. In spite of the program’s brief life, it is comforting to realize that the Pasadena Art Museum provided a critical catalyst for the advancement of the medium.
For the past three decades, the collection of photographs has for the most part remained in storage, drawing little attention. I was both surprised and humbled that the Norton Simon Museum decided to acknowledge and document its existence. Looking back now, I am amazed at how significant the addition of “photography” to my job title became.
Fred R. Parker