Photography scholar and former Princeton University Art Museum Director Peter Bunnell dies at 83

Peter C. Bunnell. Photo: Princeton University.

Legendary photography scholar and curator Peter C. Bunnell died on Sept. 20 following a lengthy illness. He was 83.

A curator, professor, and museum director, Bunnell is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of photography.

“It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of our wonderful friend and colleague Peter Bunnell—one of the most essential figures in the history of photography and in the history of our museum,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward in a written statement. “No one did more than Peter to shape the field of photography or our collections at Princeton—but equally his national and international influence was immense. He taught, mentored, and shaped generations of students, scholars, curators, and others. He was also one of the kindest people you could hope to know.”

Born in 1937 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bunnell earned his undergraduate degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he met the American photographer Minor White, whose classes nurtured his passion for photography. He went on to earn a master’s of fine arts degree in photography from Ohio University, where he studied with Clarence H. White Jr., the son of American photographer Clarence Hudson White. He then earned a master’s degree in art history from Yale University in 1965.

From 1966 to 1972, Bunnell was the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, where he curated several important exhibitions, including the first survey of the work of Clarence H. White and the seminal “Photography into Sculpture,” which offered new avenues to analyze and understand photography.

Bunnell then came to Princeton University, serving as the inaugural David Hunter McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art. The position was established in 1971 by Princeton University alumnus and photography collector David McAlpin. It was the first endowed professorship in the field in the United States. Bunnell retired from the position in 2002.

In addition to his role on the Princeton faculty, Bunnell also worked at the Princeton University Art Museum for more than 30 years, first as the curator of photography, then as the museum director from 1973 to 1978. He also served as the acting director of the museum from 1998 to 2000. Thanks to Bunnell’s visionary leadership, the Princeton University Art Museum holds one of North America’s most important repositories of historical photographs, including modern Japanese photography. In 2011, the museum’s curatorship of photography was named in Bunnell’s honor.

Over the course of his long career, Bunnell wrote and edited many books, including “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes”, which won the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award of the Art Libraries Society of North America, “A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography, 1889–1923”, “Edward Weston on Photography”, “Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976”, and “Photography at Princeton”, which was published in 1998 on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Princeton University Art Museum’s photography collection.

Among other honors, Bunnell was a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in 1979 and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. 

A celebration of Bunnell’s life will be held at a later date.


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