Peter C. Bunnell, who during a 35-year career at the Museum of Modern Art and Princeton University transformed the history of photography from a secondary interest among professional photographers into a rigorous academic discipline, died on September 20 at his home in Princeton, NJ He was 83 years old.
Malcolm Daniel, an executor of his estate who studied under Professor Bunnell and is now a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, said the cause was melanoma.
It is a measure of Professor Bunnell’s success that today photography is unquestionably accepted as both an art and a discipline worthy of historical scholarship. Things were different in the late 1950s when he entered college: he struggled to find professors, let alone programs, who took the subject seriously.
“There were a lot of schools where you could learn to take pictures,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1972. “But despite a growing awareness of the importance of photography, there was no program to study its aesthetics and history. “
At Yale, he was the first student in the art history department to work on a thesis on photography. When he left the Museum of Modern Art in New York for Princeton in 1972, he assumed the country’s first endowed chair in the history of photography.
By the time he retired in 2002, things had changed: any valid art history program had a concentration in photography, while collections of photographs grew dramatically in museums and libraries. And in so many cases, the curators and professors who oversaw these efforts had been trained by Professor Bunnell.
“We were won over by his charisma, his energy and his knowledge of the discipline,” said Mr. Daniel.
Unlike many leading art historians, Professor Bunnell never wrote a landmark book or created a pioneering theory. His importance lay in his vision of his field and his ability to show his students how to achieve it.
He has helped them get the right scholarships, produce the right theses and find the right associate curator positions, all by drawing on his vast network of artists and academics.
“He put them on a professional track as much as he did on an intellectual track,” said Joel Smith, another former student who is now at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, in an interview.
Professor Bunnell’s passion was not limited to graduate seminars. Many of its students came to the field for the first time after taking one of its still-oversubscribed investigative courses, in which the number of students enrolled was often matched by listeners, visitors and even locals. the city who had heard of his lectures.
Emmet Gowin, photographer and colleague, recalled the excitement that sprang up in his afternoon studio from Professor Bunnell’s class, which often met in the late morning.
“Over and over, my students would come to class raving about the course they had just taken,” he said. “He was able to open minds and hearts to the viability of photography as something transcendent. “
Peter Curtis Bunnell was born December 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.
His interest in photography developed early on, as much out of a love for the medium as a desire to escape his father’s insistence on pursuing engineering, he told Aperture magazine. As a teenager, he bought his first camera, an Argus C3, and requisitioned a closet at his home for his darkroom.
Aspiring to become a fashion photographer, he enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which had started offering a four-year degree in photography, one of the first institutions in the country to do so.
His classes had a strong focus on chemistry and technology, but one stood out: a studio class with acclaimed modernist photographer Minor White (who, Professor Bunnell liked to note, had also shot with an Argus C3 ).
The two have formed a mentor-mentee relationship. Among other things, Mr. White edited Aperture, the first magazine devoted to photography as art, and he asked Mr. Bunnell to write articles, correspond with photographers and organize his personal collection. .
Mr. Bunnell received an MA in Fine Arts from Ohio University in 1961 and another MA in Art History from Yale in 1965, after which he began working on a thesis on photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
He never finished his doctorate; it was difficult to find support from institutions that still refused to consider photography as an art, and he had other opportunities. He joined the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 and, in four years, was the curator of its photography department, working under the direction of the museum’s renowned cinematographer, John Szarkowski.
Professor Bunnell produced a number of groundbreaking exhibits at the museum, including ‘Photography in Sculpture’ (1970), which featured photographs as three-dimensional objects, forcing viewers to view them as something more than reproducible images, and more like physical artefacts that occupied the same space as the people looking at them.
“The photographs claimed the space that was once claimed only by sculpture and painting,” said another former student, Sarah Meister, now executive director of the Aperture Foundation, in an interview.
He brought the same approach with him to his teaching at Princeton. Refusing to work with slides, he taps into the university’s ever-growing collection of photographs – one of its many initiatives – to show students negatives, prints and other artifacts.
Professor Bunnell retired in 2002, the same year he served as a senior consultant to the US Postal Service on a series of stamps featuring famous photographs.
“I feel like kind of a celebrity,” he told a reporter from US 1, a Princeton newspaper. “They printed 10 million sheets, and people send them to me for autographs.”