I visited Los Angeles for the first time this spring, which provided me with an opportunity to visit one of my SJSU professors and the museum where she works - the California Museum of Photography. I took her class the previous fall, and it was focused on managing photographic collections. This visit helped further contextualize everything we discussed, and it provided me an opportunity to see some of the materials she discussed in person!
We toured the collections storage areas first. It always feels like such a privilege being granted access to these spaces, and this visit was no exception. There are four total spaces - vaults - and we looked at two of these. The first housed prints, cameras, and other photography equipment. Prints were either stored in custom drawers (stereographs), or they were matted and housed in boxes (oversized prints). They were fortunate to receive grant funding several years prior in order to do some of this preventive conservation rehousing work. We also talked about collections care issues in this space. They have a sizable collection of 35mm, medium format, and large format cameras, most of which are made of a variety of types of materials. The 35mm cameras in particular may include various types of plastic, metal, and glass. Determining the optimal way of storing - bagging, boxing, no covering - and combating a less-than-optimal filtration system within the HVAC system poses an ongoing challenge. There is also an interesting room divider in the collection, which necessitates special storage and care. The screen has mounted mammoth albumen prints, which are light sensitive. The object must therefore be draped with light-blocking material, as even when the overhead lights are off, emergency lights stay on at all times.
The second storage space primarily houses negatives, though there is some additional photography equipment. The stereographic negative collection - both cut and uncut - comprises a large portion of this room. Some of these negatives are glass, and some are film, and they are organized by the code Keystone View company (one notable publisher) assigned them. What is notable about this space is the use of special seismic cabinets for glass plate negatives and fragile mechanical equipment. These units are designed such that they sit on metal plates, which in turn sit on metal bearings. The bearings allow the cabinets to move with vibrations, which helps protect the material inside.
We also spent some time in the library and viewing room, which is open to the public by appointment. They are currently working on cataloging all of the bound volumes, but it is challenging given current staffing levels and the demands of the UC (which the museum is part of) cataloging requirements. There is one collection manager, a registrar, and two curators who work with the collection. They do host student workers and interns and draw heavily on the undergraduate and graduate student body at UC. We talked about the value of this additional help, which can be tempered by the additional workload it creates for staff. Occasionally, the library space is also used to temporarily store large collections items, for which staff need to make additional space in their vaults and/or create custom housing enclosures. When I was visiting, I had the chance to see two such oversized cameras up-close: a custom machine-gun camera and a 24”x24” view camera.
The last several hours of my trip were dedicated to seeing the exhibitions at the museum. I visited when the galleries were closed to the public, and it was so pleasant to explore and enjoy the photographs alone. I first stopped at In the Sunshine of Neglect: Defining Photographs And Radical Experiments in Inland Southern California, 1950 To The Present. From the website for the exhibition: “the show presents the title’s territory on the eastern edge of the Los Angeles Basin as an experimental tabula rasa playground for photographers, where nothing was at stake, so everything was possible” (UCR Arts, 2019). Some of the inspiration for the exhibition was drawn from “the work of New Topographics photographers Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Joe Deal, who are well represented among the show’s 194 works” (UCR Arts, 2019). The photographs on display covered a wide range of themes - including social landscapes, environmental impacts, and photography as performance - while all still being centered in this specific geographic area. The curation was thoughtful and images thought-provoking.
The second exhibit I visited, entitled Collected, covered the theme of museum collections through the lens of this particular institution. From the website for the exhibition, the show: “examines the first photograph collectors, people in the 19th century who assembled images of loved ones or photographs of interest, and also features several modern collectors whose gifts helped to shape the California Museum of Photography’s collection… the museum’s collection has been made possible through donations from collectors, both the descendants of early photographic collectors and those who collect photographs and cameras today… these gifts have helped the museum expand the breadth and depth of its holdings, and have contributed to the museum’s success” (UCR Arts, 2018). The relationship between museums and donors is something I have been thinking about more frequently, especially as there is an increasing need for transparency and accountability in these partnerships. The exhibit featured a wonderful sampling of photographic technology and genres of images, and it felt at times like I was physically stepping into some of my course lectures.
I feel so fortunate to have, once again, toured the facilities of and talked with another professional whom I greatly respect. Museum collections managers and archivists are chronically overworked, so I truly appreciate the time every one of these individuals has set aside to meet with me in the last several years. This visit was a wonderful way to start the trip, and it helped provide some much-needed background information about the region itself.
UCR Arts. (2018). Collected. Retrieved from https://artsblock.ucr.edu/Exhibition/permanent-collection-gallery
UCR Arts. (2019). In the sunshine of neglect. Retrieved from https://artsblock.ucr.edu/Exhibition/in-the-sunshine-of-neglect