Peter C. Bunnell, 1937–2021
Peter C. Bunnell, 1937–2021
Professor, Museum Director, Colleague, and Friend
Peter C. Bunnell profoundly changed the field of photographic history. As the inaugural David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton University, a position he accepted in 1972 and held for thirty years before his retirement, Bunnell educated a generation of undergraduate and graduate students in what is still a young branch of art history. His was the first endowed professorship in the history of photography at any American university. An enthralling storyteller with a deep personal knowledge of the medium’s history, an infectious enthusiasm, and an unfailing devotion to his students, Bunnell drew capacity crowds to his undergraduate courses and attracted graduate students from across the country and beyond. A testament to the widespread and lasting influence of his teaching, Bunnell’s Princeton protégés have served as curators and professors at dozens of leading institutions around the world.
Read more about Peter Bunnell
As curator of photography, and as Museum director from 1973 to 1978 and acting director again from 1998 to 2000, Bunnell built a broad-ranging collection of photography, the firsthand examination of which became an unforgettable central element of the student experience in his classes and seminars. “These photographs are used,” he said, “they don’t just sit around in boxes.” In fact, he taught all the discussion sections of his courses himself, always with original photographs rather than with slides. Photographer and former Princeton professor Emmet Gowin recalls Bunnell’s extraordinary gift for “awakening and reaching the hearts and minds of students of all kinds, but especially his ability to connect with and support students attempting to practice the art of photography themselves.” At the time of Bunnell’s retirement in 2002, Gowin praised his capacity to understand the work of artists “who were in no way synchronous with his own stances or world views. To a degree almost unthinkable, the collection he built at Princeton is without gender bias or cultural bias, but embracing of all that was fresh and difficult in the work of young contemporary artists.”
Allen Rosenbaum, who Bunnell hired as assistant director of the Museum in 1974 and who succeeded him as director, similarly recalls his generosity, noting that “there was no ego or vanity in his directorship.” Rosenbaum vividly recalls having been invited to a class led by Bunnell and Gowin and having come away with “a sense of the great gifts of these men as thinkers and communicators, and with the revelation—at least for me—that there was such a thing as connoisseurship in photography.”
In addition to the expansive and carefully selected collection that Bunnell built for the Museum, spanning the history of the medium, he secured two important archives—those of Pictorialist photographer Clarence H. White, the subject of his master’s thesis at Ohio University, and Minor White, Bunnell’s own mentor as a photographer and interpreter of the medium. He met Minor White as an undergraduate at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where classes taught by White nurtured his burgeoning interest in photography. “I took his classes, and, as was his practice, he drew a group of students around him outside the Institute,” recalled Bunnell. “These were informal sessions where he explored in more depth his philosophy and attitudes toward photographing.” Bunnell went on to receive a master’s of fine arts in photography from Ohio University in 1961 under the tutelage of Clarence H. White Jr., as well as a master’s in art history from Yale University in 1965, where he began a doctoral dissertation on the life and work of Alfred Stieglitz.
Immediately before joining the Princeton faculty in 1972, Bunnell served as curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he had joined the staff in 1960 as a collection cataloguer and risen to associate curator in 1968 and curator in 1970. At MoMA, Bunnell’s achievements included groundbreaking exhibitions that offered innovative new avenues to analyze and understand photography: Photography as Printmaking (1968), and Photography into Sculpture (1970), as well as an exhibition of the work of Clarence H. White (1971). In addition to exhibitions at Princeton in subsequent years, including a continuous series of installations designed for students in his courses, Bunnell organized the Harry Callahan exhibition for the United States Pavilion at the 38th Venice Biennale in 1978.
Beyond his role as teacher and curator, Bunnell served the field in various capacities—as national chair of the Society for Photographic Education and chair of the board of The Friends of Photography—and was the recipient of numerous honors and awards including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1979) and the Asian Cultural Council (1984). He was also named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.
Bunnell wrote extensively on topics across the history of photography, though primarily about American artists, and most often about living photographers, many of whom he knew personally. His numerous essays have been anthologized in Degrees of Guidance: Essays on Twentieth-Century American Photography (1993) and Inside the Photograph: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography (2006). His book Minor White: The Eye That Shapes, which accompanied a retrospective exhibition of White’s photographs that opened at MoMA in 1989, won the George Wittenborn Memorial Award of the Art Libraries Society of North America. He also authored three monographs on Jerry N. Uelsmann, his undergraduate roommate at Rochester Institute of Technology and a lifelong friend. In addition, he edited several anthologies—A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography, 1889–1923 (1980); Edward Weston on Photography (1983); and Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976 (2012); and coedited two Arno Press reprint series, The Literature of Photography and The Sources of Modern Photography.
Long into retirement, Bunnell happily remained an invaluable source for researchers in the history of photography who called upon his recollections of firsthand encounters with twentieth-century photographers, recollections aided by file cabinets filled with decades of carefully taken notes, newspaper clippings, and other seldom-saved ephemera—an invaluable resource that will become available to future scholars at the Princeton University Art Museum and Firestone Library.
Peter Curtis Bunnell is held dear in the memory of the many students, scholars, artists, and curators who benefited immensely from his wisdom and deep generosity of spirit.
An in-person celebration of Bunnell’s life and legacy was held on Princeton University’s campus on Friday, September 16, 2022.
Click on the names below to read tributes from some of the students, scholars, artists, and curators who benefited immensely from his wisdom and deep generosity of spirit.
It is my privilege to celebrate the life of our good friend Peter Bunnell: intellectual and curatorial pioneer, stalwart museum director, renowned teacher and mentor, and perhaps most of all, beloved friend.
Fifty years ago, Peter arrived at Princeton as the inaugural David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography, the first endowed professorship of photography at any American university.
He was tasked with establishing, in his words, “a major center where the serious student and scholar may undertake intensive studies. [. . .] Eventually we hope to provide for universities and museums elsewhere the necessary staff to develop a new depth in the study of photography.”
Leaving a job he loved as curator of photography at MoMA to come to Princeton wasn’t an easy decision, but one that he felt was necessary for establishing photography as a legitimate field of art historical study.
He told The New York Times, “I was terribly conflicted about it. . . . I went through one of those walk-on-the-beach moments, and I realized that . . . if we were going to move the field of photographic history forward, we needed the strength of a great university behind it.”
I will largely leave it to others to discuss aspects of Peter’s legacy as curator, teacher, and leader, but I do want to touch on a few aspects of his legacy.
First, I feel gratitude to Peter almost every day for his brilliance and audacity as a collector and a cultivator of other collectors. Not only did he build for Princeton canonical collections, but he collected against and before fashion in ways that can only look strangely prescient in hindsight. Just to cite one example, on the occasion of his retirement, more than fifty artists donated over one hundred works of art in his honor.
Second, even now I feel personally the legacy of his teaching, whether it is the warmth of memories others share about Peter in the classroom—including the stories about the dangling cigarette ash hovering over the irreplaceable print in the study rooms—and yet never falling—or the recollection of life-changing experiences that shaped students into future collectors, many of whom now support us in turn.
Peter’s values as a teacher were obvious even to the New York Times, which wrote that, “Mr. Bunnell sees the dual missions of teacher and curator as intertwined. The collection is above all a teaching tool. Perhaps even more important to Mr. Bunnell than having created an outstanding collection is the fact that he has developed a cadre of graduate students to follow in his footsteps and spread the word about photographic history.”
Peter wrote, in the very first sentence of the introduction to his book Photography: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Collecting and Teaching the History of Photography at Princeton (1998): “The relationship of a university art museum to the teaching program in the history of art is as basic as a laboratory to the student of biology or chemistry.”
Many of you—curators, teachers, photographers, museum directors, collectors—prove that Peter amply accomplished his goal of training “the necessary staff to develop a new depth in the study of photography,” and I know how much it would mean to Peter to see you gathered today.
Third, and briefly, Peter the person.
It was a rather happy accident that I got to know Peter when I started as director more than thirteen years ago. Peter had retired several years earlier, but as an emeritus faculty member he still retained many privileges, including the use of the Museum’s sole typewriter, which he continued to use to type letters long after the advent of personal computers and email—which he fiercely resisted, ultimately losing a long battle with the University to end his email account, to his great frustration.
As much as Peter remained a devotee of the typewriter, he remained committed to the printed document. I personally first got to know Peter largely because of this habit. The Museum’s primary photocopier used to sit right outside my office door, and this lured Peter to my end of the hallway on most of his visits to the Museum, leading to fortuitous conversation as we chatted through the doorway. In every instance I can remember, Peter was generous to a fault in advocating for me, alerting me to where the bodies were buried, effecting introductions to collectors, and so much more. Never did I feel him looking over my shoulder. Years later, when the project of making a new museum began to take shape, Peter met such a prospect with a mix of excitement and wonder, eager to see the emerging designs. Whatever trepidation about institutional change he might have had, he was generous enough to hide his anxiety and never to burden me with it.
One of my happiest achievements, and occasions, to date was successfully concluding fundraising to endow and name our curatorship of photography in Peter’s honor. As many of you will know, honorific fundraising is not usually particularly easy. But as a then relative newcomer to Princeton, I was overwhelmed by the warmth of feeling that led those who could to contribute generously to establishing that endowment.
To those who contributed, you know, I think, what this meant to Peter. Joel and Kate, you know, I think, the pride with which Peter regarded your roles as the first two incumbents of that curatorship. The day we dedicated the position in Peter’s honor, his well-known ability to wear his heart on his sleeve was on ample display; we knew we couldn’t ask Peter to offer remarks of any length because he would (and did) be overcome with emotion. But seeing Peter’s sheer, unfiltered humanity on display touches me still.
James Steward is the Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum.
Alexander "Sandy" Stuart
I was in that first group of students that Peter Bunnell taught in the fall of 1971, when he came down from the Museum of Modern Art to teach Princeton’s first course in the History of Photography, with a lot of help from David McAlpin. To this day, it remains the richest and deepest intellectual experience of my life.
The historical perspective he offered, the long arc of the medium that he described in slides and words, from the daguerreotype to [Henry] Fox Talbot, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange to Robert Frank, Garry Winnogrand, and Dianne Arbus . . . these lectures just lit me up, in part because on my own I was a middling photographer but a pretty decent technician in the darkroom, having spent a summer as a printer in the darkroom of the Chicago Daily News.
Thanks to Peter and his anecdotes about the photographs he showed us—they were asides, really—I loved thinking about the circumstances under which these photos were made, the timing of when to release the shutter, the artistic decisions of a photographer like Walker Evans about what to include within the frame and what to leave out, that Cartier Bresson would file out his negative holders to demonstrate the print contained his full, uncropped vision—and of course, the printing. I took to heart Ansel Adams’s mantra, explained by Peter in a discussion of Adams’s Zone system: “The negative is the symphony, the print the performance.”
He helped me understand how artists see. A fine photographer in his own right, Peter told the story of walking in the woods outside of Rochester with Minor White and Paul Caponigro. It turns out all three of them independently came across a particularly gnarly stump. Each of them returned with utterly different photographs of the same subject.
I remember nights in the library until midnight, when as an English major I should have been reading, say, Middlemarch, but instead [was] being riveted by Edward Weston’s Daybooks or paging through number after number of Camera Work. They were all there for the thumbing in the open the stacks of Firestone Library.
Peter brought his photographer friends like Jerry Uelsmann and Emmet Gowin to small group seminars, and he got Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall to give lectures. He arrived one day with a box of prints that he said had just come into the museum from Berenice Abbot. He spread them out on the table, no white gloves in evidence, and that was my first exposure to the work of Eugène Atget.
He took us to the archives at MoMA, and to one of the early galleries in those days run by Lee Witkin. I was stunned to see an Ansel Adams Moonrise available for the outrageous price of $800, [and] a Weston Pepper for something like $600.
All of which is to say that Peter was the spark that ignited a passion for collecting that extended over 40 years and eventually led to a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, curated by Liz Siegal, who is here today.
I talked to him the year before he died. I had sent him a book of our show and called him afterwards. With that familiar voice and inflections, he said had no idea how deeply my wife and I had gotten into photography.
But that was the point. Although today we will hear many testimonials as to his impact on his students’ lives, for every distinguished scholar, collector, or curator he nurtured, there are former students like me, who, touched by Peter’s particular magic during their undergraduate years, went on to an ever-deepening relationship with photography, like a print in the developer from pre-digital days, emerging out of a blank, light-sensitive sheet to become a rich print whose tones and textures trace straight back to the man who first opened our minds to the history and possibilities of this always-fascinating medium. Thank you, Peter, for the gift of that spark.
Alexander “Sandy” Stuart, Class of 1972, was in the first seminar that Peter taught at Princeton on the history of photography. Following Princeton, he graduated from Harvard Business School, wrote for Fortune magazine, led the development of Conway Farms—a golf course and residential community in Lake Forest, Illinois—and has been active on the boards of schools, endowments, and not-for-profits. He also plays an active role as a director of a publicly traded oil and gas minerals and royalty company. He lives in Lake Forest with his wife Robin. Their two kids, Annie and Douglas ’14, are based in New York and Denver.
I have Jonathan Brown, bless him, to thank for recommending me to Peter, then director of the museum, for the position of assistant director. Happily, I got the job. As I was trained in Renaissance and other historical fields, I was hired to complement Peter’s expertise in photography and modern art. As many of you know, David McAlpin’s initial offering of his collection to Princeton was rejected because photography wasn’t considered art. Princeton was lucky, he came back, but Dave was determined to integrate photography into Art History. Thus, Peter’s appointment. Even though he was the director, given the skepticism about photography, it was important that Peter be supported. I could never have anticipated, however, the generosity with which I was treated and the extent to which I was given a free hand to make acquisitions, especially in Old Master paintings. It’s hard to imagine another situation in which a director was so selfless, and gave an assistant director or curator such opportunities, except perhaps in the case of Anne d’Harnoncourt and Joe Rishel—and they were married.
But Peter and I were partners and friends and, despite our differences, did complement each other. He recognized my strengths and also my weaknesses. He always said he would teach me how to do spreadsheets and other business matters but realized I was hopeless and never did, and just as well. Everything on Peter’s sparsely covered desk was always neatly squared and he was visibly pained looking at my desk when we met in my office.
Peter was a sweet and affectionate man, and one remembers little expressions of his concern, his kindness and thoughtfulness. It still makes me laugh remembering that he told someone he was worried that I might not know that I shouldn’t put metal in a microwave oven I had acquired during a convalescence. Actually, I didn’t know that. Despite his hale and hearty bluster and seeming gregariousness, Peter was extremely shy and dreaded public events. Even teaching, at which he was so brilliant—witness the positions in the field held by his students—had become painful for him. I was deeply saddened when he decided to retire as I felt he was most comfortable and happiest with his students, and, of course, with artists, and their admiration for Peter accrued to the benefit of the museum. Peter was a teacher to me, too. I once sat in on a class given by Peter and Emmet Gowin that was a revelation, as I never imagined that there was such a thing as connoisseurship in the “mechanical” art of photography.
I was, needless to say, very proud of Peter. His standing in the field brought stature to the museum as did the collection he built, and the exhibitions he organized. And he was a magnet for students. Peter was also very independent. The collection was his baby, and surprisingly he didn’t seek or readily accept financial help when offered for acquisitions. Except for one instance: A Le Gray seascape came up, and I said Princeton couldn’t be a serious collection without a Le Gray, and when it passed muster with Marni Sandweiss, he did accede to support from museum funds. I meddled shamelessly in all fields to the dismay of the curators, but apart from the Le Gray, not in photography, although Peter did indulge me in one recommendation, the sculptor Kenneth Snelson’s photograph The Brooklyn Bridge.
There is one memory I treasure above all. I wasn’t there when Peter spoke on his retirement, I was having my gall bladder out, but I was told, and I hope on good authority, that he named me along with Dave McAlpin as the two people important to his career. Imagine being mentioned with David McAlpin. Peter was generous to the end.
Allen Rosenbaum holds a master’s degree from The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He served as Assistant Director of the Princeton University Art Museum during the Bunnell years and later as Director from 1980 until his retirement in 1998.
In short, Peter changed my life—setting me on an unexpected path that has been richly rewarding, and I suspect that many of you feel the same.
Unlike some of his students, I did not come to Princeton to study with Peter—never heard of him, to be honest. He was on sabbatical my first year, but he had a reputation and I remember graduate secretary June Bliss telling me not to miss the chance to take his seminar. And so, at the start of my second year I signed up for Peter’s seminar—on the place of photography at the various nineteenth-century exhibitions—1851 in London’s Crystal Palace, the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris, the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures exhibition—and this was the start of the seduction, pulling me into the world of photography. Without hesitation, I signed up for his second semester seminar—this time focused on Minor White—and here Peter’s deep personal knowledge of the artist, his profound understanding of the work, his irrepressible enthusiasm lifted our study from a merely academic realm into something more alive. And the opportunity to do primary research in the archive that he had brought to Princeton, with prints, negatives, newspaper clippings, daybooks—all of this was a type of art history that felt—to me—infinitely more attractive than looking at reproductions of Renaissance chapel frescoes or German architecture. And so, I was an official convert into the photo world, won over, in part by the opportunity to explore what was still, in many ways, virgin territory, but equally won over by the force of Peter’s knowledge and his devotion to his students.
I don’t know if Peter actually had office hours. His office door was always open, and if he wasn’t there, it probably meant that he was at his other office. And for those of us who, like me, had always envisioned a museum career rather than an academic one, Peter’s insistence on teaching with actual works of art in-hand—drawn from the collection he had carefully built—rather than merely delivering slide lectures, was both inspiring and instructive. At a time when many people felt a deep divide between the museum and the academy, Peter was an example of a bridge between the two.
In later years, of course, Peter followed my progress, encouraged me, and expressed pride in what I accomplished; and my admiration and respect and friendship remained strong, so I felt honored to have been asked to serve as one of his executors (a task I naively underestimated, I might add), and to see that his library and collection would be sold to maximize the benefit to the six institutions he designated as his beneficiaries: RIT, Ohio University, and Yale; MoMA, Eastman House, and the Princeton University Art Museum, in each case to establish a named endowment in support of photography.
In the course of clearing his house at 40 McCosh Circle alongside fellow executor Jill Guthrie, I caught a glimpse into Peter’s life through childhood photographs, pictures of a dashing and distinguished MoMA curator and Princeton professor, and beach snapshots with Jerry Uelsmann down at Longboat Key, some of which you’ll see on the looping slide show.
And I got a fuller appreciation of Peter’s persona. I knew what an inveterate notetaker Peter was, and what a rich resource was contained in the file cabinets lining his home office (now a resource for future scholars at the Art Museum and Firestone). Like other students, I had received Peter’s neatly typed comments about my seminar papers, typed like just about every letter I received in later years. But still, Jill Guthrie and I were surprised to find seven typewriters at the house—practically a museum of typewriter technology from a portable manual model to an IBM selectric—this last with a note—typewritten, of course—that read: “This IBM typewriter is NOT in working order. It was serviced a few years ago and I was told new parts for it were no longer available; so it is beyond repair. I have set it aside in June 2020.” True to the historian that he was—it seemed baked into his personality—everything was to be documented neatly and preserved for future reference. His attention to detail was apparent too in the stack of index cards (again typed, of course) on a table by the thermostat, recording since 2005 each year’s firing up of the furnace, the date, the starting room temperature, the setting, how long it took to raise the temperature to the proper level, when the filter was changed, and such. Clearly this was a man who could be trusted to organize and preserve the archives of a few great photographers.
My relationship with Peter was not one of home-cooked dinners, late-night drinks, and confidences, as some others enjoyed. I wish it had been.
Yes, I did enjoy a few dinners at Peter’s home—usually after a visiting artist or scholar’s talk, and the comradery and warmth of those evenings remain more vivid in my memory than the food. . . but there on the kitchen counter were eight thick numbered looseleaf notebooks filled with recipes clipped from the New York Times, shared by friends, or xeroxed out of cookbooks (organized of course by subject—one binder for general sauces and salads, one for vegetables, one for baking and eggs, etc.), all of these now in the care of his longtime friend Martha Strawn. He was a meticulous researcher, archivist, curator. . . beyond the museum.
My debt to Peter is enormous, my affection for him true. We miss hearing his jovial, booming voice, miss the chance to pump him for information, miss the friendship and encouragement. There are stacks of books with Peter’s writing (and I think you will be encouraged to select a few as a keepsake), but I believe he considered us, gathered here, his most important accomplishment.
A graduate student of Peter’s, Malcolm Daniel received his PhD from Princeton in 1990. After twenty-three years in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs, including nine as Curator-in-Charge, Daniel moved in 2013 to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where he leads the Photography Department as the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator. He is an executor of Peter’s estate.
Friends, doesn’t it somehow seem as though really we should be gathered here today to choose an image to render in frosting for Peter’s annual photo-themed birthday cake? I wish so much that were the case.
As I listen to everyone speak, I find it so hard to believe that Peter is not just about to come around that corner and say, “Well, what have we here? Look at all of you! It’s extraordinary!” Peter was such a large presence—a large man with a large voice and enormous energy. His particular turns of phrase echo indelibly in memory—not just that trademark “extraordinary” but also his “incredible”—reiterated words that themselves are expansive and dramatic. He used to talk about “the objecthood of the object,” a curiously evocative and seriously memorable phrase . . . which I tried to slip into the essay I wrote for the Museum’s Photography at Princeton catalog in homage to Peter . . . though sadly it was edited out for its apparent redundancy!
From the very big Moonrise print hanging in his home, and his giant hand chair, to the way he used to hoist his prominent gold Pierre Cardin—that’s PC—logo belt up over his stomach, to his emphasis in saying, “That’s how we deal with that situation,” about pretty much any issue that arose—everything about Peter was somehow larger than life, and intensely imbued with elan vital.
To me, the greatest gift he shared was not his encyclopedic fund of intriguing anecdotes about great photographers, or anything properly academic, but rather his exuberant presence in the world, his energetic pragmatism, his engagement with . . . well, whatever it was that he was engaged in at the moment. He found not just art and photographs but the world itself, and the people in it, all intensely interesting, urgent and important, and requiring his personal response. What a wonderful way that is to be in life, what a wonderful gift that was for him to share with us.
I want to say a bit about Peter as a teacher—I think he was most influential actually not for how he taught so many of us gathered here as his doctoral students, but rather for his teaching of the undergraduates who packed into McCormick 101 for his lectures, and who hung on to his words during the precepts when he showed original prints, as Sandy so beautifully described. Many of them had little previous involvement with art (I seem to remember an awful lot of economics majors, come to think to it) but some nevertheless went on to become collectors, inspired by the images they saw in his class and by his insistence that owning works of art was a possibility in reach of anyone. Peter taught from the conviction that the individual’s relation to the work of art was one of love, of desire, of identification, of curiosity, of growth, of need—and never of critique. What he conveyed was that photographs are powerful because they give pleasure, they open universes, they challenge, they inspire, they intensify the experience of life. That certitude is the legacy we’ve received from him, one which I cherish and hope to perpetuate, one which I think has shaped all of us and the work we do in the world in different ways. Thank you for that, Peter.
Ellen Handy teaches the history of photography at the City College of New York and was formerly Executive Curator of Art at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, and Curator of Collections at the International Center of Photography in New York. A student of Peter’s in the 1980s, she was also briefly his research assistant in those years, and later curated an exhibition of the work of Henry Peach Robinson and Peter Henry Emerson which traveled to the Princeton University Art Museum.
However much Peter gave me intellectually–and he opened my eyes to photography–he meant even more as a model of energy: of application. He had come from nowhere into the world of what totally fascinated him. You could tell that vigor had got him where he was.
To meet him was to impersonate him. He bounded into rooms, and his voice rang out, he pounded out letters and zipped them out of the Selectric. In the stories he told, he was forever “amazed.” Virtually anyone he knew was greeted, upon arrival, with a “There she is!” At the end of a snack break, we’d file back into the seminar room to the cry of “We’re doin’ it!”
No novelist could have invented a better character for the underdog role of photography in the house Panofsky built. Loveably, Peter used the word “positivism” to mean adopting a charitable attitude. He was his own brand of positivist, and the climate he generated freed us to pose questions about the field that led straight out of his comfort zone.
Several of us called him Dad—not to his face—and the label made sense, because he clearly expected us to outgrow him. Being, now, a few years older than he was then, I appreciate how challenging it is to watch the young pick at the plate of your best efforts, leaving most of it untouched. That’s the soul of a real teacher: accepting that the next generation is hearing you from a different place than you’ve ever stood, and is going to take your lessons to places you’ll never begin to appreciate.
One signal gap between Peter and (I think) just about all of his advisees, in the ’90s, was the attraction of snapshots. For reasons that were probably as Freudian as they were aesthetic, those of us born in the ’60s were drawn to personal photos from the era of our parents’ youths, and our grandparents’. Even if Peter could give a baffled smile for some odd example that one of us brought in, fresh from the weekend’s flea market, the ordinariness of the motives behind such images left him cold. Peter truly lived a perspective that Minor White had lived before him, and Alfred Stieglitz before Minor: a photograph that wasn’t after transcendence of some kind could not enthrall him.
I wrote my dissertation about a body of work by Stieglitz. Naturally I was conscious that Peter had abandoned a Stieglitz dissertation, at Yale, to take his first job at MoMA. But he never mistook my project for finishing something he’d started. So later, when I came back to Princeton to take the curatorial position he retired from, I had no anxiety about occupying what was, obviously, his space. I’d already been there and known it as a space of freedom. He told us all the story about how John Szarkowski, at MoMA, finally had to ask his predecessor, Edward Steichen, to stop coming in and hanging out in the offices. I never asked Peter to stop coming in, which he did once a week. Peter knew he had created something here and evolved it—and because of how much he cared about creating and evolving, he respected the spirit of not-knowing and the spirit of change. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Joel Smith came from California to enroll in graduate study at Princeton in 1991. Nine years later he submitted a dissertation on the late cityscapes of Alfred Stieglitz. In 2005, after five years in a generalist curatorial position at Vassar College, he returned to Princeton to take the position that became, during his seven-year tenure, the Peter C. Bunnell Curatorship in Photography. In 2012 he was invited to launch a photography department at the Morgan Library & Museum, where he continues to serve today as Richard L. Menschel Curator and department head.
Patricia Fontini Brown
When James Steward asked whether I would like to share a few words in memory of Peter Bunnell, I immediately said yes. I remember Peter best, not just as a colleague, but as a mentor of graduate students, even though his undergraduate students loved him too. When I joined the faculty in 1983, women were few and far between. It was intimidating for me, from Oakland, California, and many of the male faculty didn’t really know how to deal with us, but I remember Peter as unfailingly gallant and generous. He ran his own show, and let you run yours.
Like myself and a few of our colleagues Peter started out as a practicing artist—a photographer—and then went on to become an art historian. I think that his early engagement with the practice of photography gave him a certain eye for the materiality and technical challenges of the photograph, not just as family memento, but as an art form. Although he became too busy to complete his PhD at Yale, he can rightly be considered one of the founding fathers of the academic discipline of the history of photography.
When I was putting together this tribute, I was surprised to discover that Peter had retired way back in 2002, because he was always around McCormick Hall until my own retirement in 2010. I knew when Peter was in the building, picking up his mail, going in and out of the art museum—always a voluble presence.
One place that I rarely saw Peter before he retired was in the slide room, which was one of the centers of faculty activity before digital images. I’m sure that Peter did use some slides like the rest of us, but he was hands-on with the photographs themselves. His students engaged directly with the works of art rather than with surrogate images of varying quality projected upon the screen. That was what made Peter’s courses so special. By contrast, I should note here that some of my colleagues in those days insisted on using black and white lantern slides instead of images of paintings and frescoes in living color, however imperfect, because they were deemed to have better definition. In sum, like a photograph!
Peter produced an extraordinary cadre of historians of photography who fill the curatorial ranks of the best museums in the country and the faculty ranks in a number of colleges and universities. Yes, he wrote a number of important books, but I dare say that students like Malcolm Daniel and Joel Smith and Peter Barberie and Ellen Handy—and that’s only a partial list—are his real legacy. Peter was, indeed, one of a kind, and we won’t see his likes again.
Patricia Fortini Brown was a professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University from 1983 to 2010 and Peter’s colleague until his retirement in 2002. An Italian Renaissance specialist and author of five books on Venetian art, she served as department chair from 1999 to 2005. As a member of the graduate studies committee from 1983 to 1992 and director of graduate studies from 1993 to 1998, she had the privilege of following the academic careers of Peter’s students.
Let me begin with a candid observation. For all his joviality, Peter was a singularly private man. I benefited enormously from his kindness, yet I often felt that I didn’t know him terribly well. I’m quite certain that others felt this way, too. At moments I was bewildered by him. But in time I grew to respect his unique way of navigating the world. Some of his later graduate students had an affectionate nickname for him. Peter’s initials, PCB, were translated as the “Planet Called Bunnell.” This encapsulated both his truly independent way of seeing and doing things, and something of his physical presence in space.
More about Peter’s way of seeing things. His private nature was balanced by his open mind. People didn’t always see this, or perhaps they understood his aversion to intellectual partisanship as an absence of intellectual rigor. But that would be a mistake. Rooted in his training as a photographer and curator, Peter approached photographs first as objects, and then as images or ideas. (He applied this approach of course to unique creations, but also, when appropriate, to the pages of magazines and books.) He was genuinely interested in understanding the artistic motivations for objects that held his interest. We see this in his various writings and projects about Pictorialism, perhaps especially Gertrude Kasebier, and also in quite different curatorial efforts such Photography Into Sculpture, the exhibition he mounted at MoMA in 1970.
As my references to some of Peter projects demonstrate, he was drawn to artists and movements outside the main narratives of modernist art history. For a graduate student, this was sometimes confounding. But in retrospect, I think of it as akin to having all the windows open in the seminar room. There were always other things going on in the world, and we should be aware of them. So, when a student would mention Cindy Sherman or Sarah Charlesworth, Peter might bring up other names: Eileen Cowin or Susan Rankaitis. Today, in my own work as a curator, these are all artists whose work I care about. And I credit Peter for that.
Now, I really learned that Peter was open-minded because he often disagreed with me. This happened from the first time we met during my application interview to come to Princeton, until our last phone conversation, when I told him about my latest project. He would always disagree with me gently, unless he thought I had my facts wrong. That brings me to the final thing I want to say, and something that I think all his students will recognize. Peter was sometimes hard to know, but his support for us was constant and clear, even when we pursued topics and ideas far from his own interests. He championed us within the department; he guided us through the steps of finishing our dissertations; he connected us with the whole world of curators and historians. I can say that even when he disagreed with me, he was deeply supportive of what I was trying to do. That is a unique kind of generosity, and something else that I hope I learned from him.
Having come to Princeton to study the history of photography with Peter, Peter Barberie received his PhD in 2007. In 2003 he began work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, where since 2008 he has been the Brodsky Curator of Photographs, Alfred Stieglitz Center.
Katherine A. Bussard
I first met Peter during my interview on campus almost exactly ten years ago. By some stroke of very bad luck, I had not by that time crossed paths with Peter, nor had I heard one of the lectures for which he was famous—a sense of which I’d absorbed only through the anthology Inside the Photograph, with its wonderful, insightful foreword by Malcolm Daniel.
And so it was that upon receiving my interview schedule that I realized how ridiculous it would be to enter the room and mistake which man of a certain age was the legendary Peter Bunnell. Google to the rescue! I entered his name in the search bar, filtered for images and there, in the top row of results—amidst his book covers and standard-issue headshots—was a black-and-white image of Peter perhaps in the late 1970s, perhaps poolside, but definitely smiling broadly, shirtless, with a cigar in one hand and a martini in the other.
It was not an image I would soon forget—nor was it one that would help me upon entering the interview—but I was charmed. I knew Peter’s impressive publication and exhibition record, that is his voluminous work as a scholar, but here was an image that suggested someone who had a real zest for life.
It was this engagement and passion of his that inspired me, when he stopped coming to campus, to bring the University to him. On a practical level, I kept him supplied with typewriters and all the latest acquisition reports (which would often lead to fun chats about when photos cost hundreds, not thousands, of dollars).
On a more substantial level, he let me stubbornly insist friendship would come to him even if he was house bound. He would, naturally, resist setting a date, but eventually, he would concede that a lunch gathering could be arranged. Whatever anxiety there had been, it was replaced with smiles and laughter, stories and questions, as these lunches unfolded over multiple hours, always anchored by Edith, Emmet, and Jill at the table with others rounding it out as they could. We even managed to celebrate his eightieth birthday this way, complete with a banner made by my daughter and, Peter’s grad students may be happy to hear, a birthday cake bearing Clarence White’s Morning in all its digital icing glory.
Those treasured lunches all took place before the pandemic, and I wish dearly I could have orchestrated just one more lunch for him. . .
It has been one of the greatest honors of my career to hold the position bearing his name, to get to know and share in Peter’s world this past decade, and to help champion and realize projects that were beyond his reach in later years.
Many of you, of course, knew Peter better than I—and in earlier decades and in different roles. I am so grateful for your willingness to share memories and stories today. My role here is really to stand in for all those who continue to regularly benefit from Peter’s legacy, whether as a student learning and practicing close looking in front of a photograph Peter acquired for the Museum, or a researcher visiting the Minor White Archive, or even as future visitors, those I hold in my mind’s eye as we plan for the new building.
Peter’s role as a teacher and his embodiment of the teaching mission of the museum remains paramount today. Indeed, in the records I’ve seen over the past several years, we’ve consistently pulled between 600 and 1,000 photographs from the collections each academic year for study—second only to Prints and Drawings (which I’d point out spans many more centuries than Photography).
Photography beckons, as Peter knew it did, and I regularly watch docents, faculty, students, visitors, schoolchildren, and our own Museum team feel its pull. Photography has a relatability that catapults all kinds of interest and conversations, because so many people feel a comfort talking about and engaging with photographs in ways they might not with other art forms. One of Peter’s greatest gifts was perceiving this and then building a collection guided by his visionary openness to what photography has been and could be. With great indebtedness to Peter, the breadth and depth of our collection offers the kind of variety that can delight and surprise time and time again.
Thanks to Peter’s openminded eye for collecting and engaged relationships with artists, the collection he built allows us to marvel at “What Photographs Look Like.”
Thanks to Peter’s intellect and instruction, the field of photography has been forever changed. Many of you here today (and many who could not attend) are proof of that and continue to shape the field today.
Thanks to Peter’s vision, training, and passion, Princeton became a pioneer in the study of photography. Our new building will ensure this continues to be the case for decades to come, and his spirit will live on in its galleries, study rooms, and exhibitions.
Katherine A. Bussard came to Princeton in 2013 as the second Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography. Continuing in that role today, she strives to ensure that the archives of Minor White and Clarence H. White, held so dear by Peter, have been and will continue to be newly accessible and the basis for multiple books, exhibitions, and other projects.