Museum of Photographic Arts marks a picture-perfect 50th anniversary

"Robert Downey Jr.," a 2004 high definition video from "Video Portraits: Robert Wilson."
“Robert Downey Jr.,” a 2004 high definition video from “Video Portraits: Robert Wilson,” on exhibit through Sept. 24 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
(Courtesy of Robert Wilson)

Three spring and summer feature portraiture by Robert Wilson, Suda House and Julia Margaret Cameron


Deborah Klochko remembers a time, not so long ago, when she would have to walk to the neighborhood drugstore to get her film developed. The executive director and chief curator at the Museum of Photographic Arts says photography has always been her passion.

“Even as a child, I had cameras,” Klochko says. “I had (Kodak) Brownies (cameras), the little tiny miniature ones, and you would take the film to the drugstore to get developed.”

Even then, however, she says she took a more artistic approach to taking pictures.

“My father would always say things like, ‘why do you always cut the heads off of the people,’ ” she says, laughing. “And I’d just tell him I like it that way. Photography for me was always a means of self-expression.”

This creative approach to recorded images remains her approach and is still at the heart of the museum’s mission as it begins to celebrate two important milestones. Dubbed the “40/50 anniversary,” it commemorates the 40th anniversary of the opening of the museum’s “permanent home,” as Klochko puts it, as well as the 50th anniversary of the organization that was instrumental in creating what would eventually become MOPA.

“Both anniversaries are important. I think most people understand and recognize the Museum of Photographic Arts as being located in Balboa Park and being a museum devoted to photography,” Klochko explains. “But I think what’s surprising to people is that there was a 10-year history of a non-profit devoted to photography before it was located in Balboa Park.”

That nonprofit was called the Center for Photographic Arts. Klochko goes on to explain that the organization hosted a variety of photographic exhibitions in a number of locations including Grossmont College. Eventually, the organization transitioned from what Klochko describes as a “museum without walls” to moving into Balboa Park in 1983. And while she adds that it’s a history that isn’t particularly well-documented in writing, the photographic proof is abundant.

A person swims underwater in goggles in this photographic portrait by Suda House.
“Juno Lucia from The Aqueous Myths,” a photograph in the exhibit “The Water Holds Me: Photographs by Suda House,” on exhibit through Oct. 15 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

“There was a strong enough commitment and, working with the city, they were given 9,000 square feet in what I believe was the original (San Diego) Hall of Champions,” says Klochko, referring to the sports museum that was once located in the Casa de Balboa building in the park. “They also changed the name to the Museum of Photographic Arts and began actively collecting and adding to the permanent collection.

When the Hall of Champions moved its location in 1999, MOPA tripled its amount of space, which afforded it more galleries and the ability to add things such as classrooms and a 22,000-volume library. After a year-long renovation, the museum also added a 226-seat theater (the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater) in 2001, where it hosts film screenings and annual film festivals.

“It just made a big difference in terms of the presence that the organization brought to Balboa Park,” Klochko says.

To celebrate the concurrent anniversaries, MOPA has three photographic exhibitions that should give patrons a sense that, while the technologies that drive the medium have changed, the imaginative and discerning approaches to artistic photography remains the same.

First, there’s the recently opened exhibitions, “The Water Holds Me” by Suda House and “Video Portraits” by Robert Wilson. House is a local photographer who has perfected a vibrant, awe-inspiring blend of portraiture and nature photography. The MOPA exhibition features work from two series, “Aqueous Myths” and “Seven Sisters of the Pleiades.” While the series are separated by nearly 40 years, both dutifully deal in themes of environmentalism and women’s rights.

“She talks about her photographs as being a form of self-portraiture,” says Klochko, adding that it’s only fitting that House’s work is being displayed for the 40th anniversary since the genesis of “Aqueous Myths” began at MOPA’s grand opening in 1983 where House set up a large Polaroid camera to take pictures. “She uses models in both series, but they are embodying who she is as an artist and as a woman.”

Lady Gaga re-creates a French 19th-century painting in video portrait by Robert Wilson.
“Lady Gaga: Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere,” a 2013 high-definition video by Robert Wilson, featured in “Video Portraits: Robert Wilson,” on exhibit through Sept. 24 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
(Courtesy of MOPA)

“Video Portraits” is a multi-decade, career-spanning exhibition from the multitalented Wilson. Also known for this large-scale theatrical productions, Wilson’s series of animal and celebrity portraits (think Lady Gaga, Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt) blends still-based photography with sound and chirographical components, which results in a transfixing, almost hallucinatory high-definition video. Each portrait can take up to 30 people to produce, and they are often directly influenced by everything from Renaissance art to iconic cinematic moments.

“There’s a real precision that he requires in terms of lighting, in terms of color, movement, dress and sound,” says Noah Khoshbin, the chief curator of the “Video Portraits” exhibitions, which have been shown at museums and galleries all over the world. He goes on to compare the process to a cross between a fashion photography and TV commercial shoot.

“Each one is a work of art at the end of the day,” Khoshbin adds. “Each one has its own power and while the technology he’s used has changed over time, we just continue to make them. Nothing has changed as far as how we approach the subjects.”

"The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty," an 1866 portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron.
“The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty,” an 1866 portrait by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron featured in “Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron,” a touring exhibit of portraits from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, on display April 29-Sept. 3 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
(George Eksts)

Equally powerful, albeit analog in nature, is “Arresting Beauty,” an exhibition from pioneering close-up photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, which opens April 29. Working in mid-1800s Great Britain at the advent of the photographic medium and using a collodion wet plate process, Cameron took long exposure portraits of people and children. Klochko says Cameron’s pictures are “the essence of what art photography is” and while Cameron’s work was dismissed in her time, it is now seen as both technically innovative and creatively pioneering.

“She made works that were exquisite,” says Klochko, adding that Cameron didn’t even begin shooting photography until she was given a camera in her 40s. “She liked the blurred quality of the portraits. These were not documents, this was artistic expression.”

On the surface, patrons might not immediately see similarities between the three MOPA exhibitions given that the respective works were created centuries apart. In the case of Cameron and Wilson, this assessment is understandable. One was working with photographs while the medium was still in its infancy while the other uses the latest in digital technologies. Look closer, however, and the viewer begins to see the similarities in each of the exhibitions; that while they are, as Klochko puts it, “three completely different approaches to portraiture,” they are all attempting to capture that ineffable essence of the subject.

“There’s a connection all the way through and with all three exhibitions,” says Klochko, adding that she sees all three as “technology-driven” in their own ways or, rather, an artful form of portraiture that is driven by the technology the photographer used at the time.

What’s more, all three exhibitions, while portraiture-based, are excellent encapsulations of the spirit of MOPA itself. The medium has grown and changed over the centuries, both aesthetically and technologically, but whether someone is shooting on an iPhone or a bulbous tintype camera, the results can be magical and inspiring. Those results, says Klochko, will always have a home at MOPA.

“I think MOPA’s history is one that deserves to be recognized,” Klochko says. “Really, we wanted to make a statement this year.”

She pauses before adding, “Well, we make a statement every year really, but this year, the kind of thinking that went into the selection of exhibitions was very deliberate and works on multiple levels.”

The Museum of Photographic Arts

“Video Portraits: Robert Wilson” — Through Sept. 24
“The Water Holds Me,” Photographs by Suda House — Through Oct. 15
“Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron” — April 29 through Sept. 3

Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays

Where: 1659 El Prado, Balboa Park

Admission: Pay what you wish

Phone: (619) 238-7559