Anonymous but unforgettable: the collections of Robert Flynn Johnson, opening at Petaluma Arts Center Saturday, talk Sunday
If you love compelling photography, drop by the Petaluma Arts Center this weekend for its latest fête – an exquisite and intriguing selection of photographs from unknown photographers from the private collection of Robert Flynn Johnson. Johnson, recently retired as curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is a consummate collector of many things and, along with these photographs, 12 of his 19th century quilts are on display. The exhibition is aptly named “Anonymous: 19th and 20th Century Photographs and Quilts by Unknown Artists from the Collection of Robert Flynn Johnson.” Flynn bought most of these exquisite photos years ago and for a song, before they became collectible. He frequented estate sales and flea markets all over the world and acquired some through serendipitous channels in his day job as a curator for the Achenbach Foundation. Several of the photographs will pull their weight along side the photos of the great masters and the collection, in its entirety, has a solid place in the history of photography.
The images assembled at the Petaluma Arts Center make the cut for their formal and aesthetic qualities as well as visually exciting bizarreness, and social interest. The take-away depends entirely upon your taste, but there is something for everyone. Along with stunning Victorian portraits, whose soft lighting evokes the romanticism of Julia Margaret Cameron, there is a diptych of a bullfight in a stadium somewhere in Spain and the audience is a dizzying sea of Nazi soldiers enmeshed in the spectacle of a slow blood fight. And if you’re intrigued by bravado bordering on foolhardiness, Johnson’s grouping of photographs of gravity-defying balancing acts from NY rooftops will leave you utterly queasy.
Several of the photographs convey a special emotional or spiritual aura and others are special because their compositions are interrupted by some unforeseen but gripping action, such as a cat racing through just as the photo was snapped, leaving a streak across the foreground. And, if you love dogs, be prepared to be charmed by some stunning old portraits, in particular a Victorian-era portrait evoking pure love between a woman and her dog, both seated on her velvet couch. All of the works on display are portals to the lyrical, humorous, sad and transcendent aspects of our humanity. Oddly, not knowing who took these photos or why, doesn’t strip them of any of their poignancy, it seems to enhance our access to deeply-held, even repressed, sentiments.
The hand-made quilts too are fabulous and the few on display, excellent examples of abstraction, speak to Johnson’s fine collecting eye. Often velvety with wear and pieced together from family clothing and cherished fabrics, they play well with overall theme of memory-gathering coming through in the photos.
Johnson is an informative and engaging speaker. On Sunday he will be in conversation with prominent vernacular photography collector Robert E. Jackson, who is coming from Seattle for the talk, and San Francisco gallerist and collector, Robert Tat, owner of Robert Tat Gallery. In 2007, Robert E. Jackson’s collection of anonymous snapshots was the subject of an important exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, the first major exhibition, accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, to examine the evolution of snapshot imagery in America. That show began with the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 and extended through the 1970s, tracing a rich vocabulary of shared subjects, approaches, and styles.
ARThound will soon be publishing a full interview with Robert Flynn Johnson but is waiting for permissions to reprint the accompanying photos.
Saturday, August 13, 2011, 4-7 p.m. opening reception to coincide with Petaluma Downtown Art Walk
Sunday, August 14, 2011, 2-4 p.m., Panel Discussion—Robert Flynn Johnson in conversation with vernacular photography collector Robert E. Jackson and gallery owner and collector Robert Tat.
Details: The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, Petaluma, CA 94952. (707) 762-5600. “Anonymous” ends September 18, 2011.
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