Activating the Photography Archives

In the past few years, the Princeton University Art Museum has seen a surge in activity surrounding its extensive collections of archival materials related to the photographers Clarence H. White and Minor White, which were brought to the Museum through the curatorial and scholarly efforts of Peter C. Bunnell, David Hunter McAlpin Professor of Photography and Modern Art emeritus. The thousands of photographs and negatives by Clarence H. White and his students in the Museum’s collections have provided a wealth of material for scholarly endeavors. In fall 2017 archival holdings were showcased by Professor Anne McCauley in the four-hundred-page catalogue Clarence H. White and His World and exhibited as part of a highly successful touring exhibition that closed at the Cleveland Museum of Art this past January. At the same time, the Museum has been diligently working to expand the accessibility of its Minor White Archive.

Note from Minor White to Peter Bunnell, 1962. Index card, 7.6 x 12.7 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Minor White (1908–1976), one of the most important photographic artists active after World War II, helped to shape a singularly modern vision that challenged the definition of photography as a documentary medium and advocated for the photograph’s potential to embody multiple meanings, some personal and allusive. In 1976 White bequeathed his archive—a rich repository numbering nearly 20,000 prints, more than 19,000 black-and-white negatives, personal journals, correspondence, and more—to the Art Museum.

Last year Peter Bunnell generously donated his own papers to Princeton University, with his materials connected to Clarence H. White and Minor White coming to the Museum and the remainder going to the Library. Bunnell’s papers document his involvement with the work of both photographers over decades and include more than thirty years of correspondence with Minor White. Bunnell first met White as an undergraduate at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the 1950s. “I took his classes, and, as was his practice, he drew a group of students around him outside the Institute,” recalls Bunnell. “These were informal sessions where he explored in more depth his philosophy and attitudes toward photographing.” Bunnell soon became White’s assistant at Aperture magazine, which was quickly becoming one of the most influential voices for scholarship about the social and artistic significance of photography. Years of friendship and intellectual debate between Bunnell and White followed. In 1972 Bunnell became Princeton University’s first endowed professor in the history of photography. Throughout his tenure, he worked simultaneously as a curator at the Art Museum. At Bunnell’s invitation, Minor White made several visits to Princeton’s campus, where he lectured and conducted seminars. Pleased by how seriously photography was being taken here, White arranged for the bequest to the Art Museum before his death in 1976.

Paul J. Hoeffler (American, 1937–2005), Minor White (center), Peter Bunnell (seated), John Alsop, Les Fredricks, and JoAnn Taylor, ca. 1958. Gift of Joseph Bellows to the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art MuseumIn 2016, thanks to a generous grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Museum launched a website dedicated to the Minor White Archive. In addition to a biographical chronology for the artist and a history of the archive itself, the website offers a platform for searching more than 6,000 images by White. Since the launch of the website, the Museum has seen a steady interest in White, his life story, and his work, and we anticipate expanding the site to provide digital access to the entire archive. To that end, staff photographer Emile Askey photographed more than 2,000 previously unidentified photographs and nearly 15,000 of the artist’s negatives between 2017 and 2018. The Museum hired photo historian Kathryn Kaluzny to complete the cataloguing of more than 17,000 photographs in the archive and to create a finding aid of the 313 linear feet of paper archival materials, including the Peter C. Bunnell papers related to Minor White.

The Minor White Project Committee was formed in 2016 for the safekeeping of White’s legacy and to promote the use of the archive for artistic, curatorial, and scholarly opportunities to study the  photographer’s work. Since its formation, the committee has awarded annual short-term grants to facilitate research in the archive. Previous grant research has fueled scholarly papers at the College Art Association’s annual conference, the New York University symposium “Queering Art History,” and at a daylong symposium at the Portland Art Museum in April 2018 in conjunction with an exhibition of White’s early photographs.

Two grants, representing three art historians, were awarded for 2019. The first, a joint grant to Josh Ellenbogen from Florida State University and Adam Jolles from the University of Pittsburgh, was awarded for their work examining White’s aspirations to establish photo-criticism as a genre of writing while editor-in-chief at Aperture. The results of their research will be featured in an upcoming book on the institutional history of photography in the United States. The second grant was awarded to Catherine Barth, a doctoral candidate in art history at Emory University, who will focus on White’s advocacy for the work of the photographer Frederick Sommer. White featured Sommer's dense and highly personal imagery combining painting, drawing, photography, and collage in the pages of Aperture, provoking debate about the traditional emphasis in photography on clarity and legibility. We look forward to the important contributions these new interactions with the archive will bring.

Katherine A. Bussard
Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography

Elizabeth M. Gollnick
Curatorial Associate