Ansel Adams to Edward Weston: Celebrating the Legacy of David H. McAlpin
The Princeton University Art Museum has benefitted from and continues to grow thanks to incredible donors whose generosity has dramatically shaped our collections. This summer an exhibition of photography celebrates the transformative impact of David H. McAlpin (1897–1989), Class of 1920. An investment banker for most of his career, McAlpin was also a trustee of Princeton, an officer at many philanthropic organizations, and a committed conservationist. It was through his championing of photography, beginning in the late 1920s, however, that he made his most lasting mark. Indeed, by 1978, the photographer Ansel Adams could declare that “no one has done more for photography in this country than David McAlpin.”
McAlpin’s lifelong interest in photography coalesced in the 1930s when he visited An American Place, the Manhattan gallery overseen by the photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz. McAlpin soon became acquainted with many prominent artists, including the photographers Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Edward Weston and the painters Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keeffe. In his lifetime, he amassed one of the century’s most significant collections of American photography, anchored by an unparalleled suite of prints purchased directly from Adams and Weston. Not merely a patron, McAlpin forged intimate friendships with the artists whose work he admired, as their travels together and warm letters attest.
While McAlpin collected broadly, his pursuit of photographs by Adams and Weston is evidence of his passion for landscape photography. To learn more about what drove this passion, Amanda Bock, Princeton doctoral candidate and newly appointed assistant curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, examined hundreds of pages of archival material—letters, press releases, and exhibition announcements—that have been generously donated to Princeton by McAlpin’s son, David H. McAlpin Jr., Class of 1950. From this research, Bock notes that the senior McAlpin’s central concern was always “the unspoiled natural scene of this country’s unique wilderness areas—which photography has done so much to record and interpret, and hopefully, preserve.” Eliot Porter’s photographs from Black Place, New Mexico, exemplify this impulse. They capture the dramatic, ashen landscape of one of O’Keeffe’s beloved camping sites, where she was often joined by friends such as Porter, Adams, and McAlpin. Today this wilderness is technically on federal land, yet drilling threatens and flare stacks are now visible beyond the remarkable formations that inspired Porter’s and O’Keeffe’s creations.
As an ardent supporter of photography, McAlpin also had an appreciation for other genres, including portraiture, architectural photography, and still life, which are represented in the exhibition in a compelling selection of pictures. Most come from McAlpin’s exceptional 1971 gift to the Museum of more than five hundred photographs. While he had given significant support to other photography programs, like the one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, McAlpin saved his most substantial contributions for Princeton. In addition, he provided dedicated funds so that the Museum could continue building its photography holdings. He also sponsored exhibitions and the Stieglitz Memorial Lecture series, which brought to campus notable photographers, such as Adams and Minor White, and curators like Beaumont Newhall and John Szarkowski. Moreover, in 1972 he endowed the first professorship in the history of photography in the country. Through these acts of generosity, McAlpin ensured Princeton would become a pioneer in the study of photography and remain one of its foremost centers for decades to come; to this day, students convening for classes in the Museum often meet in the McAlpin Photography Study Center. This exhibition celebrates McAlpin’s foresight by bringing together works from his gift, acquisitions made possible through the David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920, Fund, and archival material that reveals the impact of his artistic network—objects that collectively form a cornerstone of the Museum’s holdings.
Katherine A. Bussard
Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography