Peter C. Bunnell, former director of Princeton University art museum, dies at 83
Peter C. Bunnell, “one of the most essential figures in the history of photography”, died on September 20, after a long battle with melanoma, in his Princeton home. He was 83 years old.
Bunnell worked at the University for decades as a David Hunter McAlpin professor of the history of photography and modern art and a professor of art and archeology. He was also the Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum from 1972 until his retirement in 2002 and served two terms as director of the museum.
âNo one did more than he did to shape the field of photography or our collections at Princeton – but his national and international influence was also immense,â said James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, in a written statement.
âPeter has taught, mentored and shaped generations of students, academics, curators and others,â he said. âStories of him mesmerizing students in class, surrounded by original artwork, are legion. He was also one of the nicest people you could hope to know.
Bunnell attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he pursued photography despite his father’s intention to study engineering. There he took lessons with and established a relationship with Minor White, the eminent photographer.
White became Bunnell’s mentor; Bunnell liked to note in interviews that his first camera and White’s was an Argus C3. White edited Aperture magazine, which Bunnell wrote for many years.
In an interview with Aperture magazine, Bunnell said that as an undergraduate student studying photography, âfor the first two years you studied physics, sensitometry, photochemistry; so maybe you could take a few pictures, but not a lot, because you were always busy in a lab somewhere. Then all of a sudden there was Minorâ¦ We did everything in this class, including learning to âreadâ photographs. It was very revealing. “
After graduating from RIT, Bunnell received an MA from Ohio University in 1961 and Yale in 1965. He continued his doctorate at Yale in 1966 and was the first student to attempt to write a thesis on photography. . He never finished his doctorate.
Bunnell was hired in 1966 at the Museum of Modern Art to examine and catalog his collection of photographs on a temporary assignment. In 1970 he was the curator of the museum’s photography department.
His most famous work as a curator was the 1970 exhibition âPhotography in Sculptureâ. The exhibition portrays the physical nature of the photographs, displaying them in plastic bags, embossed, molded on other objects and in other unconventional ways. Bunnell said that understanding art as a two-dimensional object has not “exhausted the complexities of contemporary photography.”
A review of the show in the New York Times praised the way it challenged the medium and Bunnell’s art history prowess.
âMr. Bunnell knows the history and aesthetics of photography much better than anyone except a small handful of people in the field,â he said. âHe’s a real connoisseur.
He was hired as a teacher in 1972. Often the majority of the audience for his lectures were listeners, visitors and sometimes city dwellers. He never worked with slides, but used real photographs and artifacts from the University’s collection – of which he was the curator.
Emmet Gowin, a former teacher and photographer, taught a class that was often scheduled after Bunnell’s. Gowin was invited to teach fine art photography at the University by Bunnell.
âOver and over, my students would come to class raving about the course they had just taken,â he said in an interview with The Times. âHe was able to open minds and hearts to the viability of photography as something transcendent. Gowin also recalled Bunnell’s “ability to connect and support students who are trying to practice the art of photography on their own.”
One of these students, Sarah Meister, noted how he made the story real.
“He brought this whole story to life with insight and anecdotes,” she wrote in Bunnell’s Aperture magazine obituary.
âEdward Weston was not just a legendary name from the past; he was someone Bunnell corresponded with in 1956, âshe said. âIf I remember the story correctly, my esteemed professor was a sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology studying with Minor White and he wrote a letter to Weston asking for two prints and enclosing a check. $ 30. Weston responded by attaching two fingerprints!
As curator of the Princeton University Art Museum, Bunnell secured the collections of Minor White and Clarence H. White, who taught Bunnell at Ohio University. During Bunnell’s time as director, the museum became a center for research and scholarship in photography. The Minor White Project, led by Bunnell, encourages research into the artist’s career and influence through grants and support to researchers. For his work, a group of former students endowed his position as Curator of Photography Peter C. Bunnell.
Bunnell’s students have been curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the MusÃ©e d’Orsay, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
During his career, Bunnell has lectured at Bryn Mawr University, Harvard, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Pennsylvania State University, Smith University, University of Texas and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has taught at New York University, Dartmouth, Yale, and the University of Florida. He was also chairman of the board of the Amis de la photographie.
Bunnell’s book, “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes,” won the George Wittenborn Memorial Award from the Art Libraries Society of North America in 1989. He published dozens of essays on photography and photographers during his career in numerous publications. He curated the Henry Callahan exhibition at the United States Pavilion at the 38th Venice Biennale.
In 1979, Bunnell received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation; in 1984 he received a scholarship from the Asian Cultural Council, with which he studied and lectured in Japan. He has been an honorary member of the Royal Photographic Society and has served on the advisory boards of numerous museums and publications.
Peter Curtis Bunnell was born October 25, 1937 in Poughkeepsie, NY. Her father, Harold C. Bunnell, was a mechanical engineer with a local instrument maker, and her mother, Ruth L. (Buckhout) Bunnell, was a housewife. He left no immediate survivors.
Gabriel Robare is a news contributor, as well as the co-head of the puzzle editor, for The “Prince”. He can be reached at [email protected] or on social networks @gabrielrobare.