Mary Statzer on Photography into Sculpture, New York, 1970

Mary Statzer on Peter Bunnell’s 1970 MoMA exhibition, Photography into Sculpture.

Installation view of Photography into Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, 1970

The current notion of what a photograph looks like is that it is a piece of paper on which there is a more-or-less recognizable image which is interpreted in terms of two dimensions standing for three, picture size representing life size, and a variety of grays representing colors. All of these conceptions are perfectly adequate as far as they go, but they do not exhaust the complexities of contemporary photography.

—Peter C. Bunnell, Museum of Modern Art Members’ Newsletter, Spring 1970

Peter C. Bunnell, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote this straightforward assessment of conventional views of the medium in a brief article promoting his 1970 exhibition Photography into Sculpture. The first sentence would have aptly described any one of the photographs selected by his boss, John Szarkowski, for The Photographer’s Eye (1964), New Documents (1967), or nearly any other exhibition he organized as director of MoMA’s department of photography from 1962 to 1991. The second sentence, however, would have been encouraging to an emergent group of artists interested in expanding the medium and challenging modernist ideals of what a photograph should be.

Bunnell was hired by Szarkowski in the fall of 1965 and was expected to be the museum’s resident photography historian. Classically trained as a photographer (at Rochester Institute of Technology and Ohio University) and an art historian (at Yale), Bunnell learned the history of photography while working with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall at George Eastman House and Minor White at Aperture. While he gladly took on his share of historical shows and rotations of the permanent collection, Bunnell switched course to organize Photography into Sculpture. Described by him as the “first comprehensive survey of photographically formed images used in a sculptural or fully dimensional manner,” the list of materials employed (photo linen, light bulbs, film, cardboard, wood, Astroturf, and plastics among them) and the manner in which they were handled (vacuum-molded, layered, stuffed, stitched, and hand-colored) read like no other exhibition of photography at the time.

Bunnell traveled across the country lecturing about photography and meeting artists who were experimenting with photographic hybrids. The twenty-three artists selected for the exhibition included Ellen Brooks, Robert Brown and James Pennuto (working collaboratively), Carl Cheng, Darryl Curran, Michael de Courcy, Jack Dale, Andre Haluska, Robert Heinecken, Richard Jackson, Jerry McMillan, Bea Nettles, Giuseppe Pirone, Dale Quarterman, Charles Roitz, Michael Stone, Theodosius Victoria, Robert Watts, and Lyn Wells. Their diverse backgrounds were noteworthy. Some had a deep historical and technical understanding of the medium while others had never taken a course in photography. Well over half had ties to the West Coast—both California and Vancouver —and only two of them were over forty years old. Nine were students when the show opened at MoMA, and five were currently or had recently studied with Heinecken at UCLA. While subject matter was varied, and included the body, sexuality, the landscape, media, and politics, all of the works posed the question, “What is a photograph?”

Installation view of Photography into Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, 1970, Photographs by and courtesy Peter C. Bunnell

The radicality of Photography into Sculpture is best understood through its particular brand of hybridization, in which the accurate depiction of space in the photograph is combined with the tangible space occupied by sculptural objects. The transgression of photo sculpture is set apart from previous photographic hybrids wherein the image and surface of the photograph were violated by drawing, painting, or printmaking. In Photography into Sculpture the primacy of the image was traded for the primacy of the object, where each work was “not a picture of, but an object about something,” to borrow a phrase from Heinecken. Bunnell noted that “materials are also incorporated as content” in Photography into Sculpture, a strategy more readily deployed by conceptual artists. By virtue of his position at MoMA, he brought together photographers as well as non-photographers who were challenging the medium, and promoted their work in the context of the larger conversation about media purity then taking place in contemporary art.

Detail of Michael Stone, Channel 5 News KTLA Los Angeles, California USA (California Highway Patrol), 1970, and Channel 5 News KTLA Los Angeles, California USA (Tom Reddin), 1970

Reconsideration of Photography into Sculpture, which appeared at eight additional venues in the United States and Canada, delivers revelations. The dominance of the East Coast art establishment over the West Coast was inverted in this exhibition. Bunnell’s emphasis on the photographic object and embrace of strategies and practices associated with other forms of contemporary art reflected his desire to incite change in the medium—in particular Szarkowski’s modernist approach to the photograph. Today there is an easy exchange between photography and all media, a condition clearly catalyzed by Heinecken’s early practice and pedagogy. One measure of the success of Bunnell’s exhibition is that we now take its works’ most radical characteristics for granted.

Mary Statzer is a PhD candidate in history and theory of art at the University of Arizona. She is editor of the forthcoming book The Photographic Object 1970 (University of California Press), due out in fall 2014.