Corcoran Gallery of Art

Washington, DC



Strange But True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton

September 9 - November 13, 2000


In the late 1970s, Allen Dutton bought an 8 x 10-inch view camera and began to systematically photograph the state of Arizona, from desert to mountain, from suburb to city. The extraordinary body of work he has created in the intervening years ranks among the most unusual and interesting documents of America's heartland. Comprising thousands of images taken over 20 years, Dutton's project offers a poignant chronicle of the growing American West and reflects changing attitudes toward the natural world. Organized by independent curator Jane Livingston, Strange But True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton features 76 examples of this work and is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through November 13, 2000. (left: Phoenix, Camelback Mountain, from the Arizona Then and Now Rephotographic Survey, 1910, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the artist (Historic image from a private collection)

"I want to leave as complete a document as I can of every community in Arizona," Dutton has said. "People don't realize that the only historical document they will have of the present is what they preserve today." Long interested in the pioneering survey photography of William Henry Jackson, Dutton began to research historical photographs of Arizona from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to see how the land looked when first populated. Fascinated, he traveled to the same locations from which the photographers had captured these images, and made new pictures as close as possible in angle, perspective, and orientation to the earlier views. Dutton then began to pair these old scenes with his own "re-photographed" images.

The resulting visual juxtapositions between past and present yield surprising revelations about the effects of development and domestication on the wilds of the American West. Recently, Dutton has begun to re-photograph his own first views of Arizona from the late 1970s and early 1980s. (left: Sun City, 9425 Arrowhead Drive, from the Sun City Rephotographic Survey, May, 1999, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the artist)

Since the late 1970s, Dutton has also made single straightforward views of people, their homes and vehicles, and the desert landscapes that surround them. Traveling the back roads, he sets up his large-format camera in the bed of his pickup truck, working slowly to compose the scene in front of his lens. He often poses people before their homes. These images dryly document man's fragile existence within the harsh climes of the arid Sonoran Desert. Beyond their informational value as images of the shifting boundaries between city, suburban development and the untamed desert, they also illuminate, with great sensitivity, the tenuous relationship between man and nature.

Like many great photographers, Dutton's pictures have the quality of being both specific and universal. While they are important as records of the changing face of one state, they convey something more profound about how urban areas evolve across the United States. Because photography allows artists to record events and locations in a single slice of time, the comparison of two detailed images made over a period of decades offers an extraordinary means of witnessing how development of the land can affect the lives of its inhabitants. The extraordinary thing about these images is that they could convey such truth and beauty while being so exact.

According to exhibition curator Jane Livingston, "Dutton's photographic explorations of his beloved native Arizona take their place among the finest images produced in the long tradition of American Western photography. Aside from their artistry, they constitute what may be a unique record of any place in the late twentieth century." (left: Sun City, Eva Williamson, 9425 Arrowhead Drive, from the Sun City Rephotographic Survey, February 1985, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the artist)

Born in Phoenix in 1922, Dutton served in World War II. After three years overseas, he returned to Arizona, where he earned a master's degree in education from Arizona State University and began a career as a high school art teacher. A painter and sculptor by training, he increasingly found himself turning to photography as a means of expression, and soon began to teach the medium as well.

In 1960, Dutton accepted a position at Phoenix College as a professor of photography. During his 22-year tenure at the College, he was an influential and beloved mentor to a number of art students, including future Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker and famed actor Nick Nolte. As a photographer, Dutton studied the work of his eminent contemporaries Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander.

During the early 1960s, Dutton attended a workshop with photographer and educator Minor White and became a lifelong student. During one summer hiatus from teaching, he lived and worked with White in Utah, absorbing his teachings. White's famous theories of the conscious discovery and use of symbolism in a photographed scene, and the connection between nature and spirituality, had a profound effect on Dutton. He decided from this point forward to make black and white photographs of the strange desert landscapes of central Arizona.

For several years, Dutton experimented with Surrealist montages, often posing nudes among unusual cacti formations. He received his first widespread recognition for these works, exhibiting them throughout Europe and Japan. But gradually Dutton began to turn toward a more literal documentation of the Arizona landscape.

The Curator

Jane Livingston, a well-known and respected curator, has organized and participated in exhibitions across the country at many of the nation's top museums. Livingston was Chief Curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1975-1978, and from 1978-1990 was both the Museum's Chief Curator and an Associate Director. She has been a Professor of Art History at George Mason University and a Consultant for Museum and Art Projects for Eastman Kodak Company. Currently an Adjunct Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Livingston continues to consult, write, and curate exhibitions.

Exhibition Catalog

A 64-page, fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition. Featuring an introductory essay by co-curator Jane Livingston and 48 duotone reproductions, this volume will explore in greater depth the critical significance of Dutton's work and make explicit his connections to a classic tradition of documentary photography.

Strange But True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton is part of an ongoing exhibition series presented through the generous support of Evelyn Stefansson Nef. This series is intended to highlight the work of mature artists whose life's work and ongoing achievements merit greater recognition. Additional support is provided by Anne and Ronald Abramson, the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Women's Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the President's Exhibition Fund, and the Estate of John M. Clements.

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Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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