Celebrating Our Centennial: Iconic Arizona in Photographs

Ansel Adams, courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

For decades, photographers have flocked to Arizona to document the state’s stunning vistas, unique natural wonders and striking saguaros. Iconic Arizona: Celebrating the Centennial with Photographs from the Center for Creative Photography at the Phoenix Art Museum provides a visual tour of the places and landmarks that make Arizona unique.

Pulled from the Center for Creative Photography’s vast archives, this stunning exhibition visits 13 different sites including the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Monument Valley through the lens of 40 noteworthy photographers.

We spoke to Rebecca Senf, the exhibit’s curator, about this wonderful show that’s taking place now through March 4, 2012.

Check out our interview below:

How did you select the photographs?
We were trying to figure out a photography show that would celebrate the Arizona state centennial. As we looked through the Center’s large collection of Arizona images, the idea of making the exhibition a tour of the state’s great places sprung up. It seemed like a fun way to organize the show and to draw in a range of great pictures of Arizona. We pushed that idea by creating a brochure that is written like a travel guide, extolling the virtues and tourist attractions at each of the 13 sites and symbols I chose for the show.

Were there any locations chosen that one may not consider “Iconic?”
Yes, there are! We started with a group of locations and symbols that are very much associated with the state — the Grand Canyon, the Mission at San Xavier del Bac, Monument Valley and the saguaro. But I was also influenced by the great photographs in our collection. When I saw the stunning photograph by 1940s fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe that included Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pauson house as a backdrop, I had to include it. And so the Pauson House became one of my iconic locations.

What was the overall criteria for choosing an image? I’m sure you had tons of Grand Canyon and Monument Valley images to choose from.
When looking at pictures of a particular site, my primary concern was to show a range of photographers’ perspectives. For instance, photographers have looked at the saguaro in so many ways — some are interested in its texture, others its color, some in the unique personalities of different cacti, and others in the iconic shape it creates against the sky. Demonstrating all those various approaches to the same subject matter illustrates how photographers use their subject matter to express their interests and visual concerns. 

These images are “iconic,” does that mean we’ve all seen these photographs before? Are there any surprises?
Actually, it’s not the images that are iconic, but the locations. The pictures are very diverse — there are iconic looking views from Ansel Adams, but there are lots of surprising approaches to famous sites. The Chinese-Canadian conceptual artist Tseng Kwong Chi put himself into his views of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, and Aaron Siskind made abstract photographs in Bisbee and Jerome. The Arizona artist Dick Arentz made sumptuous platinum prints focused on unexpected details at San Xavier Mission and in Canyon de Chelly, and we’ve really searched the depths of the Center for Creative Photography’s vast collection for wonderful, beautiful, and intriguing examples of Arizona photographs! 

What was the catalyst for this project?
The collaboration between the Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography, which started six years ago, has allowed the Phoenix Art Museum to present as many as three photography exhibitions drawn from the Center’s collection each year. It’s been an incredibly successful relationship and is beneficial to the Center as well, because it provides more visibility to the richness and breadth of the collection (which numbers nearly 100,000 fine prints and millions of archival objects). With the coming of Arizona’s Centennial, the Center’s collection seemed a great way for the Phoenix Art Museum to highlight one of the state’s treasures (the Center for Creative Photography) and to show the legacy of Arizona photography. 

What do you hope museum goers take away from this exhibit?
I think that museum-goers can experience this exhibition on a number of different levels. It’s a collection of seventy fabulous photographs by a diverse group of twentieth century artists. The photographs span the 20th century and include pictures from the 21st century as well, so it can be seen as a survey of the photographic styles and processes that have been used in the last 100 years. It gives a tour of some of the state’s great places and encourages us to think about tourism and travel. And it makes us think about how given very similar subject matter, different photographers see dramatically different things and present dramatically different photographs.

There’s also another element that is really special about this exhibition and that’s an audience participation component. We have created a website where anyone can upload their photographs of Arizona. We’ve asked the question, “What’s your iconic Arizona?” and have gotten over 400 image submissions in response! The submitted images appear on the website and on touch-screen monitors right in the gallery. This allows Arizonans (and people who love the state, but live elsewhere) to help define what is unique about the state. This creates a very dynamic collection of images including rodeos, javalina, local bands, Day of the Dead ceremonies, Indian dancers, favorite hiking spots, and sunsets. It’s been such a pleasure seeing what a wide range of pictures people have submitted, and watching this gallery of Arizona pictures grow. It’s been so popular that we’re limiting people to just ten pictures each.

Why is it important to honor our state’s Centennial?
Having an opportunity to reflect on where the state has been and where we are now allows us to appreciate our heritage. Certainly, taking this opportunity to survey the over 3000 Arizona photographs in the Center’s collection has made me realize what an important role photography has played in shaping an understanding of the state. Many photographers have taken advantage of the distinctive landscape, the spectacular light and the dramatic weather, and will certainly continue to do so for many years to come. Photography is pivotal for our state — indeed, Arizona Highways has played a large part in making it so — and this moment of celebration helps us remember and enjoy that fact.

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