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The Arts: International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Grand Center

Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico." Courtesy of the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum

In February, five semis hauled out of Oklahoma City, rolling down Interstate 44 toward St. Louis. They weren’t carrying the usual stuff—aluminum extrusion or bags of lawn chemicals—but rather more than 30,000 photographs and 6,000 historical cameras, including a print of Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (seen above) and a prototype for a Hasselblad, the camera NASA sent to the moon.

“We worked out a system, so each pallet had a tag describing where it came from, which translates from our database, and then where it was going,” explains John Nagel, executive director of the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, when asked how the staff got this dizzying amount of stuff from point A to point B, not only unharmed, but also not in a big jumble. The crew palletized decades’ worth of material—IPHF was founded in 1965—in less than a week, a process for which Nagel was personally on hand. The collection, which includes work from some of the most iconic photographers in history, including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Margaret Bourke-White, then headed for its new home, a warehouse on the Martiz corporate campus. “It looks like the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in there,” he chuckles.

Now, after months of fundraising and construction, IPHF’s public museum will open this month in Grand Center, above the Triumph Grill on Olive Street. Nagel says the museum will “be unlike any other in the world,” with an interior designed by the Lawrence Group; it features movable panels so the middle space can be configured as needed, and its walls are strung with taut wires for hanging framed photographs, something you often see in French museums, but not so much in Missouri.

“It will be a very clean and modern-looking museum space,” Nagel says. In addition to the art on the walls, “we’ll have a number of our vintage cameras on display, which will be in cabinets… And on the second floor, there will be several independent vitrines, or illuminated cases.” The idea, he says, is to help people draw connections between technologies and the images they produce.

The grand-opening show, scheduled for early October, is a nature-photography exhibit featuring the work of the late Peter Dombrovskis. “I like to refer to him as Ansel Adams in color, in Tasmania. So it’s very dramatic color images of landscapes,” Nagel explains. (IPHF development director Lucy Morros notes that Dombrovskis’ powerful images were crucial in conserving the wildlife areas he documented.) Showing concurrently will be several younger, emerging photographers, many of whom shoot for National Geographic. The show will also feature work by Noppadol Paothong, staff photographer with the Missouri Department of Conservation, whose photos appear in National Wildlife, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, and Field & Stream. His new book, Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse, is unexpectedly dramatic, capturing male prairie chickens during their odd, percussive mating dances—images Paothong was only able to capture by spending hours crouched in hunting blinds, often in inclement weather.

IPHF is forging common-sense connections with other arts organizations in Grand Center, including the Sheldon and Craft Alliance, and it’s reaching out to the St. Louis Camera Club and local universities and colleges. But because photography appeals beyond just fine art, the museum is also forging connections with organizations like the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is bringing National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg to St. Louis on September 20. (IPHF is also working on a project with the Saint Louis Zoo, but it can’t release any details yet, other than that the project will involve fish.)

Mostly, IPHF wants the space to be activated by people, whether researchers, experts, students, art lovers, or curious visitors who walk in off the street. Future plans include not just exhibits (the history of the flashbulb is one that’s planned), but also lectures and workshops, including classes on archaic processes like cyanotyping.

But Nagel, who was one of the first local photography educators to embrace digital technology, sees the museum encompassing the future as well as the past. IPHF celebrates Instagram and the daguerreotype, the talented unknown grad students as well as the legends of photography. In fact, Nagel says photography is as vibrant a medium as it’s been in his lifetime, which makes IPHF’s move to Grand Center a timely one. At a conference in Chicago this spring, he says he was almost overwhelmed by the portfolios.

“I could have picked three years’ worth of exhibitions from that show!” he says, sighing. “There were just so many young, emerging, exciting photographers.” But if you are running a photography museum, that’s a terrific problem to have.

Nature Photography: Past, Present and Future opens in early October and runs through December. The International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 3415 Olive. For more information, call 314-535-1999, or visit iphf.org.

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