Dallas gallery focuses on trailblazing TWU professor who left an indelible mark on photography
Burt and Missy Finger have long been fans of Carlotta Corpron, a modernist photographer who developed a couple of quiet but committed proteges in Denton.
Corpron’s influence in Texas started just ahead of midcentury and was still palpable when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980.
The late Texas Woman’s University professor’s work anchors “Denton Modernism: 1940-1980,” the current exhibit at the Fingers’ gallery, Photographs Do Not Bend, in the Dallas Design District. The exhibit ends Saturday.
“This started to germinate many years ago,” Missy Finger said.
She and her husband, Burt, have lived in Denton but now live in Dallas. Missy Finger is a Denton High School graduate. Burt Finger has contributed to the Denton arts scene, including a highlight titled “Shine,” an exhibit of his collection of antique shoeshine boxes and vintage shoeshine-themed photographs that spent time in the Meadows Gallery at the local Patterson-Appleton Arts Center. At one point, Burt Finger lived close to Corpron in Denton, but didn’t know it.
“Given that our connection with that and the fact that we specialize in photography and photo-based works, we are very familiar with Carlotta, who taught photography at Texas Woman’s University,” Missy Finger said. “She, in her own right, has made a name for herself in the world of photography.”
The Fingers opened their gallery in 1995, and the couple was already pursuing Corpron’s abstract photography.
Corpron was a student of modernism at Columbia University before she joined the art faculty at what was then Texas State College for Women, now TWU. Corpron and her peers at TWU helped launch the first studio art program taught in a public Texas college. Most of the faculty who taught in that program studied under painter and photographer Arthur Wesley Dow, who is also known for his mentoring of Georgia O’Keeffe. He was the head of the art department at Columbia, where TWU’s studio art faculty studied.
Corpron’s photographs have long been documented in the history of photography. Her archive is now housed at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
Corpron put TWU on the map, Burt Finger said. She studied under the esteemed Bauhaus artists László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes.
“Both of those photographers came to Denton as artists-in-residence,” Burt Finger said. “They had an impact on students, but they had a huge impact on Carlotta.”
Corpron blazed a trail for herself and for women in photography. She landed a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1953, a move that brought her some of the limelight for being one of a handful of women photographers working in abstraction. Her work was exhibited in New York, one of the country’s long-standing art centers, and her work has been published in books about photography.
The Fingers said Corpron’s curiosity about light, and how to use it abstractly, distinguished her as a photographer. One of her best-known photographs is a reference to one of the most famous spots in Dallas. A Walk Through Fair Park uses streaks and slopes of art to suggest a landscape and an energy.
“So we became very interested in Carlotta and finding her work locally. We were very interested in that history,” Missy Finger said. “And we learned things along the way about the school, the studio art program and how innovative they were. We learned how important some of the features that came out of that program were for her contemporaries, so to speak.”
The Fingers said they have long appreciated the way Corpron uses light, shadow, depth and composition in her photographs.
“Carlotta was doing work that really was based on a European thought and European vision,” Burt Finger said. “And it was very rare in the United States. I think her students were just enamored with a new way of using photography. You know, most photography courses were more toward portraiture. Or trees or rocks, or trees or landscapes. This completely turned the whole world upside down.”
While the exhibit centers on Corpron’s art, the Fingers discovered the work of two of her students — Margaret Hicks-Havins and Ida Lansky.
Hicks-Havins took a photography class with Corpron in 1967, and the Fingers included a photograph she took that year in the exhibit, along with some of her paintings. Hicks-Havins earned art degrees at both TWU and the University of North Texas, and then became the director of the Navarro College art department in Corsicana.
Lansky eventually stopped making art to study nursing and later library science. But she held onto her photographs, which the Fingers discovered about a year after Lansky died. The show also includes work by Barbara Maples, a contemporary of Corpron’s, TWU teacher Edith Brisac, Clarence Tripp and more. The Fingers also include photographs by Kepes, the Bauhaus artist and Institute of Design teacher who was a friend and mentor of Corpron’s
The work exhibited shows the thread of abstraction that Carlotta wove into her own art and teaching.
“Carlotta, as a teacher, has used this way of thinking, this dialogue that she’s having with light and experiments and all of these things there,” Missy Finger said. “She’s influencing her students. So you can see in the show how this thread is going, throughout the exhibition. We’re also showing early Bauhaus photographs in the exhibition to show the comparison of what was happening in that early part of the 20th century.”