University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ)

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Black and white photograph of a Spanish-style mission

Thunderstorm, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Arizona, ca. 1948, by Ansel Adams, one of the photographs being preserved through a Save America’s Treasures grant. Photo courtesy of Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. © Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Twentieth-century photography is fast becoming art history. In the digital age, archiving slides is no longer storage; it’s preservation. That’s why the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography applied for a Save America’s Treasures grant, a program offered jointly by the NEA and the National Park Service. In 2006, the university received a $270,000 Save America’s Treasure’s grant to conserve work by one of America’s most revered photographers: Ansel Adams.

The Center for Creative Photography was co-founded in 1975 by Adams and John P. Schaefer, the university’s president at the time, as a working institution for research in photography—a place that would not only give the public access to Adams’s prints, negatives, and personal items, but also collect the work of other significant and creative photographers. The Ansel Adams archive remains the center’s largest collection, containing approximately 2,500 fine prints, more than 40,000 negatives, and some 700 linear feet of archival boxes containing everything from Adams’s receipts to his signature Stetson hat.

Of chief concern to conservators are the 40,000 negatives made of unstable cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate film stock. Neither chemical ages well. With money from the Save America’s Treasures grant, the center plans to purchase a giant freezer that will safely store thousands of negatives. The grant is also funding a massive project that involves remounting 1,250 Adams’s prints to acid-free paper and cataloging them in an easy-access manner.

Adams’s photos of the American West remain more popular than ever—not only as iconic images, but as a testimony to what was possible before the digital age. “There’s an explosion of technical interest in how photographers achieved what they achieved,” explained Barbara Allen, assistant director at the center.

(From the NEA 2006 Annual Report)