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Peter C. Bunnell, former Princeton University Art Museum director, dies at 83

<h6>Courtesy of the <a href="https://artandarchaeology.princeton.edu/people/peter-c-bunnell" target="_self">Princeton University Department of Art and Archaeology</a></h6>

Peter C. Bunnell, “one of the most essential figures in the history of photography,” died on Sept. 20, after a long battle with melanoma, in his home in Princeton. He was 83 years old.

Bunnell worked at the University for decades as the David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art and as a professor of art and archaeology. He also was the Princeton University Art Museum’s curator of photography from 1972 to his retirement in 2002 and served two terms as the director of the museum.

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“No one did more than he to shape the field of photography or our collections at Princeton — but equally his national and international influence was immense,” said James Steward, the director of the Princeton University Art Museum, in a written statement.

“Peter taught, mentored and shaped generations of students, scholars, curators, and others,” he said. “The stories of him bewitching students in the classroom, surrounded by original works of art, are legion. He was also one of the kindest people you could hope to know.”

Bunnell attended Rochester Institute of Technology, where he pursued photography despite his father’s intentions that he study engineering. There, he took classes with and established a relationship with Minor White, the eminent photographer.

White became Bunnell’s mentor; Bunnell liked to note in interviews that both his and White’s first camera was an Argus C3. White edited Aperture magazine, for which Bunnell wrote for many years.

In an interview with Aperture magazine, Bunnell said that as an undergraduate studying photography, “for the first two years you studied physics, sensitometry, photochemistry; then maybe you could take a few pictures, but not many, because you were always busy in a lab someplace. Then, all of a sudden, there was Minor … We did everything in that class — including learning how to ‘read’ photographs. It was very eye-opening.”

After graduating from RIT, Bunnell received master’s degrees from Ohio University in 1961 and Yale in 1965. He pursued his doctorate at Yale in 1966 and was the first student to attempt to write a dissertation about photography. He never finished his doctorate.

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Bunnell was hired in 1966 at the Museum of Modern Art to review and catalog its collection of photographs on a temporary assignment. By 1970, he was the Curator of the Department of Photography at the museum.

His most famous work as curator was the 1970 show “Photography into Sculpture.” The show depicted the physical nature of photographs, displaying them in plastic bags, in relief, molded onto other objects, and in other unconventional ways. Bunnell said that to understand art as a two-dimensional object did not “exhaust the complexities of contemporary photography.”

A review of the show in The New York Times commended how it challenged the medium and Bunnell’s art-historical prowess.

“Mr. Bunnell is far more knowledgeable about the history and the esthetics of photography than all but a small handful of specialists in this field,” it said. “He is a true connoisseur.”

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He was hired as a professor in 1972. Often, the majority of the audience of his lectures were auditors, drop-ins, and sometimes townspeople. He never worked with slides, but used real photographs and artifacts from the University’s collection — which he was curating.

Emmet Gowin, a former professor and photographer, taught a class that was often scheduled after Bunnell’s. Gowin was invited to teach art photography at the University by Bunnell.

“Again and again, my students would come to class raving about the course they were just in,” he said in an interview with the Times. “He was able to open minds and hearts to the viability of photography as being something transcendent.” Gowin also recalled Bunnell’s “ability to connect with and support students attempting to practice the art of photography themselves.”

One of those students, Sarah Meister, noted how he made history real.

“He animated the full sweep of this history with insight and anecdote,” she wrote in the Aperture magazine’s obituary of Bunnell.

“Edward Weston wasn’t simply a legendary name from the past; he was someone with whom Bunnell had corresponded in 1956,“ she said. “As I recall the story, my esteemed professor was a sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology, studying with Minor White, and he wrote a letter to Weston requesting two prints and enclosing a check for $30. Weston wrote back, enclosing two prints!”

As a 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 of research and scholarship on photography. The Minor White Project, spearheaded by Bunnell, fosters research into the artist’s career and influence through grants and support for scholars. For his work, a group of former students endowed his position as the Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography.

Bunnell’s students have curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

During his career, Bunnell gave lectures at Bryn Mawr University, Harvard, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Pennsylvania State University, Smith University, the University of Texas, and the University of California at Los Angeles. He taught at New York University, Dartmouth, Yale, and the University of Florida. He was also the chairman of the board of the Friends of Photography.

Bunnell’s book “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes,” won the George Wittenborn Memorial Award of the Art Libraries Society of North America in 1989. He published dozens of essays on photography and photographers over his career in many publications. He curated the Henry Callahan exhibition at the United States Pavilion at the 38th Biennale di Venezia.

In 1979, Bunnell received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation; in 1984 he received a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council, with which he studied and lectured in Japan. He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and was on advisory committees to numerous museums and publications.

Peter Curtis Bunnell was born on Oct. 25, 1937, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His father, Harold C. Bunnell, was a mechanical engineer with a local instrument manufacturer, and his mother, Ruth L. (Buckhout) Bunnell, was a homemaker. He left no immediate survivors.

Gabriel Robare is a news contributor, as well as the Co-Head Puzzles Editor, for the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at grobare@princeton.edu or on social @gabrielrobare.

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