The Photos of the Wittliff Gallery & Mariana Yampolsky
Marco Antonio Cruz, "Ciegos en Mexico," 1990 (The Blind in Mexico)
At the ceremony in San Marcos celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Southwestern Writers Collection and the inauguration of the new Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography, Dr. Jerome Supple distinguished between "taking" and "making" photos. The photographers whose art appears in the Wittliff Gallery, said the President of Southwest Texas State University, don't "take" pictures, they "make" pictures. They possess technical skill, a trained eye, and great deal of patience. Most of us take pictures to document a memory, save a moment in our life, but fine art photographers create something entirely new. The objects they make sometimes bear witness to things the rest of us have missed or taken for granted. The photographs in the gallery transcend the experience of a specific individual, family, or culture, while at the same time commenting on just those things. They teach, they shock, they illuminate, they surprise, they delight, they befuddle, they titillate. The party on October 5, on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library where both collections are housed, was the university's way of saying thank you to Bill and Sally Wittliff, who donated the photography collection and, earlier, the writers collection to Southwest Texas State. Roughly 2,500 photographs, representing work by more than 60 different artists, comprise the collection, which contains "a vast array of images ranging from historical records of life in the Old West to works by 20th-century masters."
It is through Bill Wittliff's eyes that we see these things. He says he set aside his Mickey Mouse camera, the one his mom gave him when he was little, bought some good equipment, and took his first serious photographs after his son was born. He made his first serious photography purchase at roughly the same time, about 25 years ago. It was a Manuel Alvarez Bravo print and cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200, more than he'd ever paid for a photo. That's when he knew he was hooked. The collection of photographs grew concurrently with his writers collection materials, one reflecting though never quite illustrating or explaining the other.
Graciela Iturbide, Mexico, D.F. 1972
The 87 photographs in this inaugural exhibition are hung in an intuitive rather than an academic style. The arrangement of images echoes the manner in which the work was collected by Wittliff who, according to Connie Todd, his longtime assistant, works from his gut most of the time. Selections appear from a collection of border town brothel pictures taken by anonymous bar photographers. Wittliff purchased the negatives, smuggled them across the border, and has subsequently printed a number of them himself. They hang next to prints by acclaimed Mexican photographers Mariana Yampolsky, Graciela Iturbide, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Lola Alvarez Bravo. These are displayed in the same room with images taken by Americans Michael David Kennedy and Ave Bonar, and a little gem by Laura Gilpin. In the next room is a representative sampling of work by Russell Lee (Wittliff has an extensive collection of the Texas photographer's work), an exquisite portrait of Georgia O'Keefe by Yousuf Karsh, and some of my favorite Keith Carter images. Despite erratic leaps in time and geography -- not to mention constant travel back and forth across the Texas/Mexico border -- there is a smooth visual transition from photo to photo. The subtle spaces left between groups of pictures are like deep breaths during a monologue, pauses between riffs in a jazz composition. They make all the difference in the way the audience perceives the work. I think the installation is a good one, and not just because I'm the co-curator's mom.
José Angel Rodríguez, La Fundación de Tenochtitlán, Mexico City, Mexico, 1985 (Founding of Tenochtitlán)
There are even more prints in the back room that are available for viewing by students and serious photography aficionados. I asked my daughter, Mara Levy, who has worked for the Wittliff Gallery since this past summer, who I should ask if I wanted to see more. "That would be me," she answered. Mara worked with Bill Wittliff in choosing, framing, and installing the works in this show. My preview visit to the gallery was fraught with tension, as you might expect. Mara was looking for an instantaneous (and positive) response, while I, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and quality of the prints, needed to walk away and return before I could organize my thoughts. The exhibition beautifully represents the breadth of the collection as well as the point of view of the collectors. It also leaves me with a hunger for future shows which will explore particular photographers or subjects in depth. Perhaps there will be even be collaborations between writers and photographers -- past and present -- whose visions overlap. I tried to explain to my daughter how exciting it was to witness a collection that's still growing, how it's like watching a volcano erupt, an island being formed in the middle of the sea. I could tell she would rather have heard, "Great show. Good job." For the record then, Mara: Great show. Good job.
Bill Wittliff thanked his mom during the opening ceremonies for setting high standards and for sacrificing on his and his brother's behalf. He says she called later to chide him for the public acknowledgment. "I'm going to spank you! I told you not to do that," she said. But her son was unrepentant. He should have thanked her, as well, for staying in Texas, for providing such a firm sense of place. Whether he works with words or with images, Wittliff's vision is the clear result of his roots in the region. Keith Carter, a photographer whose work is well-represented in the inaugural exhibition and central to the collection, said that Bill Wittliff has "that vision thing," referring to his gift for choosing photographs and willingness to share his passion with the community. As part of the dedication ceremony, Carter was tapped to deliver a few remarks on photography in general and the Wittliff collection in particular. He left much of the audience chattering with amazement that an artist/photographer could be so articulate. I believe the ability is not as rare as some might think.
Antonio Turok, Espejo de la vida, 1978 (Mirror of life)
Concurrent with the opening of the Wittliff Gallery, Stephen L. Clark Photographs gallery in Austin is hosting an exhibition of photographs by Mariana Yampolsky, another of the eloquent stars in the Wittliff collection and soon to be the focus of a book to be published in conjunction with UT Press. Wittliff Gallery has made a substantial commitment to her work.
I had the opportunity to visit with Yampolsky several days after the opening of her exhibition, which was attended by more than 300 people. They had to take turns squeezing into the two rooms in Wittliff's historic house at Sixth & Baylor where the gallery is located. Mariana Yampolsky was born in Illinois in 1925 and moved to Mexico in the mid-Forties. Now a citizen of that country, she has worked as an engraver, a curator of exhibitions, photographer, book designer and editor, and educator. When asked if she is an artist, Yampolsky replies, "I don't like the word `artist.' I just work with a camera. Everyone has their own definition of art anyway." She is quoted by Elena Poniatowska, a leading Mexican writer, as saying:
I can't stand the word "artistic" -- it's not important to me if something is art or not. When I see a photograph that moves me, I don't wonder if it's art but rather how wonderfully alive these people are, captured by the wizardry of someone like Cartier-Bresson or Eugene Smith. It doesn't occur to me to ask whether or not something is documentary or any of the other labels people tend to put on photography.
Certainly Yampolsky's own photographs make their subjects appear wonderfully alive. Mexico's men, women, and children, draped in traditional garb, look toward the camera (or away), each with his or her own story to tell: a distracted woman with a baby lying across her lap; four old women seated together on a bench; a somber, dark-faced young girl in a white dress. "I try to be as unobtrusive as I can," Yampolsky says of her method for taking pictures. "If someone notices and says `No,' I don't try to fool them [and pretend to be shooting something behind them] -- out of respect. The good [photographs] sometimes get away."
Mariana Yampolsky, La Doncella, 1992 (The Bull and The Maiden)
I ask if this is true as well for her photographs of architecture. She's produced photographs for several books on the topic and a number of photographs of architecture are on view in her exhibition, including the minimalist "Upon the edge of time" for which the exhibition (The Edge of Time) is named. With buildings, do the "good ones" get away?
"You have to be interested in whatever you're [photographing]. If I'm not pleased with something about the building, it's as if it's saying, `Uh-uh. No.' Like a person!"
Mariana Yampolsky is a small, rounded, energetic presence. Her excitement about taking pictures in her country is palpable.
"I'm Mexican. I've not photographed outside of there. It's such a fabulous country." She praises the strong roots of Mexican culture, the people's unique mode of expression. She also worries that the "McDonald's/Kentucky Fried Chicken/Coca-Cola culture" is taking over, killing the very thing that she loves about that place.
"There is a need in Mexico to put your own feelings on view. You have to be blind not to find examples of the imprint of man's fingerprints wherever you turn," she says of Mexico at its best.
Photographer Unknown, La Zona, c. 1974-75 (Boystown)
Yampolsky is not talking about creative effort that comes in response to external approval, but about the will to make everyday objects personal. Through words and photographs, she describes how in rural villages people use the same materials, but each house reveals the unique imprint of its creator. "Rural buses take on a personality Chrysler never intended," she says. "They become an expression of the chauffeur, not the factory where the car was made."
That this tradition is declining in the face of an invasion by multi-national business ("What is Taco Bell doing in Mexico City?") makes her sad. "There is a trend to make everything the same," she says finally. "And there's nothing I can do about it."
And yet she continues to try. She has a substantial number of photographs prepared on one topic and another, each waiting to become a book, an exhibition, a vehicle for making clear her particular vision. The photographer, now over 70, has enough ideas and work in progress to keep her busy for the next 70 years. The air around her crackles with positive energy. I found myself begging her to stay in Austin; I gushed with praise for her as our interview neared an end.
"Humans need to make artists larger than life," she said. "Why is that?"
And then she told me a story about traveling on horseback years ago to a remote village to take photographs. She met a group of youngsters who had obviously never seen a blond woman with pale green eyes ride into their midst. They eventually sat with her and agreed to let her take their picture. As she was working with the camera, they talked amongst themselves. "With those green eyes, she can see all the way to the next town," said one boy.
She likes to remember that day.
"Do you `make' a picture or `take' pictures?" I asked, thinking about President Supple's theory on artist/photographers. Her pale eyes lit up.
"I steal a picture!" she said with a giggle.
The opening exhibition of the Wittliff Gallery shows through January on the Southwest Texas State University campus.
The Edge of Time shows through November at Stephen L. Clark Photographs, 1101 W. Sixth.
Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.