Artist and educator, Carlotta Corpron (1901-1988) is the subject of one of the current exhibitions at the Meadows Museum. Process and Innovation: Carlotta Corpron and Janet Turner, on view through June 5, 2016, presents the art of two women who worked as both artists and professors at separate Texan universities during the twentieth century. Highly experimental, both artists would come into their maturity of style in their respective media of photography and printmaking while teaching in Texas.
Artists in their formative years typically seek out the media that best convey their mode of expression. For Corpron, however, photography found her—in a roundabout sort of way. Initially, the camera was to her simply a means to an end: while a faculty member of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Applied Arts, Corpron bought her first camera—a Voightlander—in 1933 as a teaching aid for her textile design class in hopes that capturing photographic images of botanical details might help her students inject more originality in their patterns. When Corpron moved to Denton in 1935 to teach advertising design and art history at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Women’s University), she was also charged with teaching a photography course. To hone her skills, Corpron enrolled at Los Angeles’s Art Center in the summer of 1936, but quickly became disenchanted with the utilitarian role the camera was forced to assume in such straightforward tasks as taking a picture of a bridge or a building.
Rather than capitulate to working in the vein of documentary photography, then prevalent during the Great Depression era—think of Dorothea Lange and her haunting images of migrant workers and their families—Corpron began to use her camera not to record reality but rather to capture light itself, and its relationship with the forms it encountered. Influenced by New Bauhaus director László Moholy-Nagy and his colleague György Kepes, both of whom taught briefly in Denton in the early 1940s, Corpron developed her own photographic language, investigating and modulating light and its effects to the point of abstraction. Kepes dubbed Corpron’s work “light poetry,” and she herself would eschew the term photographer when it came to her own work, preferring instead to be known as a “designer of light.”
One of Corpron’s most successful darkroom sessions took place in 1948. Under the light of a mere forty-watt bulb, Corpron placed before a curved iron plate six eggs that seemed to multiply and change shape on the ground glass of her four-by-five view camera. By the end of this session, Corpron had made thirty negatives, which she then further manipulated by either cropping or enlarging, or sometimes overlaying them. According to Corpron, “Kepes also liked the eggs, because he thought I was working in deep space.” Kepes thus dubbed the egg series “Space Compositions. ”
Corpron’s exploration of light continued only for about a decade; health problems forced her to concentrate on teaching and abandon the darkroom. But even during her years of intensive photographic experimentation, Corpron considered herself first and foremost a teacher; she stated that she loved teaching above all else. Although she had to give up her activity as a photographer, her innovation continued through her students’ contributions to the medium, evident in the images created by Barbara Maples and Beverly Wilgus on display at the Meadows Museum.
After Corpron exhibited her work at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art) in 1948 and subsequently at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1953, her photographic studies of light remained largely out of the public eye for over two decades. Finally in 1975, when Corpron was in her mid-seventies, the inclusion of her images at the San Francisco Museum of Art’s exhibition Women of Photography: A Historical Survey helped Corpron to gain broader recognition for her pioneering work in the medium at midcentury.
One year later, Marcuse Pfeifer, Corpron’s newly minted art dealer, encouraged Corpron to return to the darkroom, as Corpron had over fifty negatives made several decades earlier that had never been enlarged. Pfeifer thus dubbed images enlarged by Corpron in the 1940s and 1950s “vintage” prints, while those prints made by Corpron in the 1970s when she had access to a darkroom and felt sufficiently well enough to work were designated as “contemporary.” It should be noted that all seven of Corpron’s images held by Jerry Bywaters Special Collections at SMU—given to the university archive by artists Jerry Bywaters and Otis Dozier—are likely “vintage” prints from Corpron’s earlier days in Denton.
In 1980, Corpron was the subject of a monographic exhibition curated by Martha Sandweiss at what was then known as The Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, and in 1983, she was lauded as “the finest avant-garde photographer Texas has ever seen.” In spite of her late-won fame, Corpron made a lasting impact on future generations of photographers, and her influence on the medium of photography itself is immeasurable.
Thank you to Nicole Atzbach, Curator, Meadows Museum, for this guest blogpost!
Featured image: Carlotta Corpron (American, 1901-1988), Surly Faces. Gelatin silver print, c. 1948.Otis and Velma Davis Dozier Collection, Jerry Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University
Ken Barrow, “The Language of Light,” Texas Artist (n.d.) p. 134.
 Michael Ennis, “Lady on the Edge,” Texas Monthly (July 1983), p. 146.