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Photo exhibit showcases work of notable photographers

Ansel Adams once said, “A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.”

By contrast, the dozens of photographs on view at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery through Sunday, December 15 are so compelling they bear the closest of examinations.

“Focus on Photographs: Building a Collection at Scripps” highlights the art form from its infancy to the present. It includes one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes and prints of compositions from wildly famous photographers like Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and Edward Weston. Subject matter ranges from natural and historic landmarks to Dust Bowl refugees, and from anonymous people to luminaries like Mark Twain, Joan Crawford and Martha Graham.

The commonalities in this diverse collection are that each image welcomes analysis and scrutiny along with evoking an initial aesthetic thrill, and each photograph is the property of Claremont’s historic women’s college.

The school came to be a rich repository of images by accident, according to the exhibit catalogue. Many Scripps alumni and well-wishers have bequeathed their book collections to the college over the years. In some cases, such gifts have included assorted photographs, drawings, letters, documents and ephemera. Many of these were filed in various cabinets until the 1980s, when a serious attempt was made to sort through them.

Nowadays, with Scripps becoming increasingly known for its photographic treasures, new additions arrive on a regular basis. In 2008, the college received 150 works by Andy Warhol from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, including 50 silver gelatin prints. Earlier this year, Scripps received an additional gift from the foundation of seven Warhol prints, including portraits, still lifes and architecture.

Mary Davis MacNaughton, a Scripps alumna and director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, collaborated with guest curator Heather Waldroup, associate professor of art history at Appalachian State University, in setting up the “Focus on Photographs” show. The women have done a masterful job, creating a space that is airy and yet dense with photographic history. The descriptions accompanying the images yield insight into their intent and resulting impact as well as factual details about the photographer and his or her chosen medium.

“Places we have never been, people we have never met, seem real to us through photographs,” Ms. Waldroup writes in the exhibit’s catalogue. “Memories of things we did not experience, but saw only in photographs, adhere themselves to our own memories. Perhaps because the technology used to produce the image—the camera itself—is usually invisible to viewers of the finished work, photographs seem more immediately real to us than a painting or a sculpture.”

One of the show’s highlights is a shimmering silver gelatin Ansel Adams print titled “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, CA, 1944.” Featuring a brooding sky and snow-tipped mountains looming over a foreground of a solitary cow grazing amid a vista of trees, it is notable for its ambitious scale as well as its startling beauty.

Another is “Young Couple on a Bench, 1965” by Diane Arbus, who is known for her representations of denizens of society’s counter-culture and for her gift for causing disquiet in viewers. The young, denim-clad man strikes a possessive, almost aggressive pose, with one leg swung over his girlfriend, who has her arm around his neck. And yet, despite their physical connection, the couple’s stares—which can be alternately interpreted as pensive or apathetic—suggest an emotional disconnect.

The show is a veritable walk through history. It spans from portraits and nudes with a pre-Raphaelite flair, embracing Greek myth and eastern exoticism, to a 1986 portrait of a body builder captured by Warhol. There are 19th century travel photos from exotic locales like Cairo and street scenes from the 1940s.

Want to see it for yourself? The Williamson gallery, which is free and open to the public, opens Wednesday-Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m., during exhibitions. It is located at 251 E. Eleventh St. in Claremont in the courtyard adjacent to Eleventh Street and Columbia Avenue.

For information, call (909) 607-4690 or visit http://rcwg.scrippscollege.edu.

—Sarah Torribio