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Eye Spy: Photo Finds From 007's Man Vintage pictures are the private passion of a 'Bond' producer, Michael Wilson.

October 22, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

In his professional, very public life, Michael Wilson is a producer of James Bond films. Pictures are a big part of his private life as well, but not the flashy images of those over-the-top macho movies.

Over the past 12 years--after moving from his longtime home in Los Angeles to London--he has built a huge collection of photographs, primarily from the 19th century. Widely regarded as one of the world's best holdings of material from the dawning age of photography, the collection consists of 300 historic albums, 7,000 cataloged photographs encompassing a wide range of pioneering inventions and processes, and 5,000 uncataloged ethnographic and documentary images.

"I have a theory about critical mass," Wilson said of his private passion. "If you acquire enough things to get a critical mass, then lay them out, show them to other people and talk about them, you begin to see connections that you weren't aware of. If you follow your intuition and choose things that seem interesting, something will come out of it."

Several exhibitions and books already have emerged from the collection. But a new show, "Voyages and Visions: Early Photographs From the Wilson Family Collection," opening Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, will offer a fresh take on one aspect of the mass of images Wilson has acquired with his wife, Jane. The selection of about 100 photographs will examine early photographers' efforts to document the world as they took their newfangled equipment to distant places.

In one image, Roger Fenton, an English photographer who photographed soldiers in the Crimean War, is in the driver's seat of the cumbersome, horse-drawn van that carried his tools of the trade. There are also examples of mysterious marine studies made in the South of France by Gustave Le Gray, pictures of Mexican ruins by French photographer Desire Charnay, Paris scenes by British artist William Henry Fox Talbot and German photographer Ernest Benecke's studies of people in Egypt and Nubia.

Adding a layer of educational value to the theme, the final section of the four-gallery show will compare Wilson pictures with similar works in the Getty's collection. Another Getty treasure, a huge plate camera of the type used to make many of the exhibited prints, will also be on display. Roughly 2-feet square, the camera sits on a tripod and has a lens that extends an additional 2 feet.

The photographs represent an astonishing combination of artistry and wanderlust, occasionally laced with danger, so it's tempting to look for connections between Michael Wilson's photographic taste and his adventure films that take James Bond to one exotic location after another. "They are very different things," Wilson said, "but there are parallels between the processes of filmmaking and expeditionary photography."

Film crews search far and wide for the perfect location and shoot a lot of footage that never appears in the finished product, while the most enterprising and intrepid early photographers devoted an enormous amount of effort and money to record the wonders of far-flung places. In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge spent six months and the then-vast sum of $17,000 on a project in Yosemite that yielded 56 plates, Wilson noted.

That said, most of the quiet, black-and-white images in the Wilson collection are the antithesis of the fast-paced, vividly colored images in Bond movies. Spectacular as the photographers' shots of cathedrals, castles, monuments, landscapes and people in native dress may have appeared in the mid-19th century, they are now steeped in nostalgia.

"At its heart, the Wilson collection consists of pictures that combine a search for meaning with a sense of design and composition," said Weston Naef, the Getty's curator of photographs. "Michael has a great love of history in general, and a large part of his collection is history-centered. There's a lot of content in the photographs, but the figurative aspects overlap abstract elements."

Naef should know; he played a seminal role in the collection's inception and has been a close observer of its development. He and Wilson met as students in Claremont in the early 1960s. When Naef was at Claremont Men's College (now Claremont McKenna), Wilson was at Harvey Mudd and their future wives, Mary Meanor Naef and Jane Hurley Wilson, were at Scripps College. They reconnected a decade later in New York, where Naef was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 1970 to 1984, and Wilson was practicing law.

"I used to go to Weston's loft in SoHo, where I met photographers and got to know them," Wilson said, recalling sessions with artists Robert Mapplethorpe, Ralph Gibson and Hiroshi Sugimoto and collector Sam Wagstaff. At the time, Wilson was an avid collector of books, but he was being initiated in a new area.

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