‘Photography’s consummate gardener’ shares insights at Rice

Famed photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker captivates during Campbell Lecture Series  

The pointed insights and observations of Anne Wilkes Tucker, who built one of the nation’s great photography collections during nearly 40 years with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), took center stage in the Rice Media Center during the School of Humanities’ 2016 Campbell Lecture Series March 15-17.

Over the course of three evening lectures, Tucker, the Baton Rouge, La.,-born curator emerita of photography at MFAH, displayed a passion for history, a belief in photography’s critical and cultural influences and a delight in discovery.

Tucker

Anne Wilkes Tucker, who built one of the nation’s great photography collections during nearly 40 years with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, addressed the audience on the 2016 Campbell Lecture Series’ opening night March 15. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

On opening night, Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway highlighted the importance of the series to the school. “One of the great pleasures of my job is that I’m able to welcome people to the Campbell Lecture,” Shumway said. “(It) is the most prestigious series that we have in the School of Humanities … and always consists of three lectures … by an eminent scholar or artist or writer.”

Tucker was introduced by friend Geoff Winningham, an accomplished photographer and the Lynette S. Autrey Chair in the Humanities at Rice, who called her “a Houston treasure” and “photography’s consummate gardener” and underscored the fact that it’s hard not to talk numbers when talking about her. “Anyone who is fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to introduce Anne Tucker will soon find themselves facing a major challenge. You might even call it a curatorial challenge: the problem of looking at a 40-page resume and an enormous and impressive body of work and trying to decide, ‘What must I mention? What can I possibly leave out? How do I proceed?’”

Indeed, during 39 years, as MFAH grew from a modest provincial institution, Tucker built a collection that is the envy of arts institutions around the world. When she arrived in 1976, the museum owned 141 images, half of which had just been donated by Target. Today the collection holds more than 30,000 works representing 4,000 artists and encompassing the history of the medium across every continent – and into space. Many of the more than 40 exhibitions Tucker organized broke new ground, one of the reasons Time magazine named her the nation’s best curator in 2001.

In her first talk, titled “Looking, Not Seeing,” Tucker set out, as she said, to “deprive” the audience of the illusions that seeing is “easy, automatic, natural” and that “sight is primarily a documentary moment of recording data with your eyes.”

She talked about the mechanics of how people see and use their eyes and discussed how completely personal and individual people’s perceptions are. “Once cognitive and emotional responses enter the process, ‘projection’ is a more appropriate word than ‘perception,’” Tucker said.

“At the most initial stage, what we ultimately perceive depends in small but significant part on the health of our eyes and how they function,” Tucker said. “Light is converted into electrical signals that go through our eyes to our brain, and the quality of that input depends in part on the situation and in part on our visual acuity,” she said. “One must also consider individual variations in peripheral vision, depth perception, color perception, the ability to perceive contrast.”

It’s therefore common that two people looking at a piece of art or photograph do not “see” the same thing, she said.

Various other factors also affect perception. “How many in this room have seen the same work of art multiple times and remembered it differently?” Tucker asked. “Our impressions can shift if the works on either side of it are changed or if we’re in a different mood.”

Tucker voiced concern with certain contemporary experiences of art in an age of social media and selfies, showing a photo depicting a mass of tourists scrambling to take a photo of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. “What can the viewers possibly be seeing, much less perceiving?” she asked. “Even if desired, they could not study the enigmatic smile, the curl of her hair, the tones and fold of her gown … all of which da Vinci painted with minute consideration. Are they aware of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius in other disciplines beside art? I think they primarily care that the painting is famous and that they can photograph it, or, even better, can frame themselves in the painting in a selfie.”

Wednesday’s talk, “Title or Caption? And Why Does That Matter,” focused on the powerful, potential impact of words on people’s perceptions of pictures. Tucker discussed what is gained and what is lost when words are stripped away and a picture speaks for itself.

She finished Thursday with “Teaching Empathy With Photographs,” in which she discussed whether photographs can be effective in creating empathy by exposing people to experiences, often horrific, of others.

The Campbell Lecture Series was made possible by a gift from Rice alumnus T.C. Campbell ’34 through the Campbell Fund. Campbell’s daughter and two granddaughters were in attendance at Tuesday’s lecture. Each year, the series brings a distinguished humanities scholar to campus to give lectures on a topic of broad humanistic interest. Through special arrangements with the University of Chicago Press, each lecture is later published as a book. Previous Campbell lecturers include Robert Pinsky (2005), Ha Jin (2006), Alix Ohlin (2007), Stephen Greenblatt (2008), James Cuno (2009), Zadie Smith (2010), Stanley Fish (2012), Patrick Summers (2013), Robert Wilson (2014) and Michael Petry (2015).

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.