Through a Bold Lens

Ansel Adams, 1980. Photograph by John P. Schaefer © 1980 John P. Schaefer, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
March 15, 2011

Welcome to the middle of the semester. Students in an undergraduate literature class are having a hard time relating to the strident tone of the writings from the Civil Rights era. Their professor walks them over to the Print Study Room at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), where the curator for education has assembled a special exhibit of photographs from the 1960s, just for the class. As they gaze at the images, the students are shocked and moved by what they see: riots and protests; children terrified, but determined, to go to school; crosses burning on lawns. The literature they have been reading is put into context and they can understand it on a new level.

Classes from every department—science, math, the arts—come through CCP every week for specially curated exhibits that relate to their subject matter. This is just one of the ways that CCP serves as a rich resource on campus. Ongoing, free exhibits in the 5,000-square-foot gallery draw from a world-class collection of fine photographs. Here, researchers have access to more than 4.2 million archived artifacts. Wearing special protective gloves, scholars can hold a camera Ansel Adams used, or flip through Edward Weston’s day book and read his margin notes, or study landscape photographer Linda Connor’s contact sheets.

“What’s special about how the Center for Creative Photography collects is that the fine photographs and the archival materials are together under one roof,” says CCP Norton Family Curator Becky Senf, who did her undergraduate work at the University of Arizona and wrote her doctoral dissertation on Ansel Adams. “Researchers come from all over the world to study the archives to discover the inspiration and intention behind the famous photographs.”

The Center was co-founded in 1975 by Ansel Adams. He and four of his fellow photographers—Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer and Wynn Bullock—entrusted their archives to the CCP. Today, the Center houses the archives of more than 200 American photographers such as LIFE magazine photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, fashion photographers Richard Avedon and Louse Dahl-Wolf, and archives from galleries, photo historians and photographic institutions such as the Society for Photographic Education. The CCP’s fine photographs collection includes the work of over 2,200 photographers. Recent additions even include digital work and images made in Photoshop.

The goal of CCP is not just to collect photos, but to share them with the community and the world. “In founding the Center, it was important to Ansel Adams that the photographs be accessible to as many people as possible,” says Senf. “It’s part of our mission. We take them out all the time for exhibits, to lend to other institutions or for publication.”

Senf not only curates exhibits at CCP, but she also curates exhibitions of the Center’s collection for the Phoenix Art Museum. “When CCP was founded, the Phoenix Art Museum made a decision not to collect photography so they wouldn’t compete,” says Senf. “Today, we collaborate with the museum to exhibit photographs from our collection in their institution,” says Senf. “All of Arizona benefits. We’re delighted to reach an even broader audience.”

The Center for Creative Photography is housed in a custom-built space within the Arts complex on the University of Arizona campus. The building includes vaults for the fine photography collection and archival materials. A newly built conservation lab preserves the collection for the future, and a library of rare photography books—some of which come from the personal collections of the photographers whose work is archived by CCP—serves as a resource for students and researchers alike.

“It brings students into the building who might not normally spend time in the Arts Complex,” says Senf. “When they walk in here to take their class, they often stop in their tracks to look at a photograph on the wall,” says Senf. “I look at them, and I remember coming to classes in this building as an undergraduate and being exposed to the photography here. It changed my life.” 

Visit the UA Center for Creative Photography at http://www.creativephotography.org/.

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