Carlotta Corpron, a photographer whose work has been called "light-poetry," was born in Blue Earth, Minnesota, on December 9, 1901, the daughter of Dr. Alexander Corpron. In 1905 the family moved to India, where Dr. Corpron served as a medical missionary. While growing up, Carlotta attended a strict English boarding school in the Himalayan mountains. Although no art courses were taught at the school, the loneliness that she experienced there encouraged an independent spirit that later surfaced in the originality of her photographs. In 1920 she returned to the United States to study art at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) in Ypsilanti. She graduated in 1925 with a B.S. in art education, then attended the Teachers' College of Columbia University. There she studied art education and fabric design and was awarded her M.A. in 1926. From 1926 to 1928 she taught at the Women's College of Alabama (now Huntingdon College) in Montgomery. After a summer sojourn in Europe she accepted a teaching post at the University of Cincinnati School of Applied Arts, where she taught from 1928 to 1935. In 1933 she bought her first camera for use as a teaching aid in a textile design course.
In 1935 she moved to Denton, Texas, to teach advertising design and art history at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman's University), a post she held until her retirement in 1968. She spent the summer of 1936 refining her photographic technique at the Art Center in Los Angeles in order to prepare to teach a course in photography. She continued the experimentation begun in Cincinnati to produce her earliest group of photographs, her "Nature Studies" series. In such works as Coral and Starfish (1944) she focused on the abstract patterns of natural forms. She occasionally manipulated an image to accentuate geometric forms, as in Design with Oil Tank (1942), a print composed of two overlapping negatives. Encouraged by the progressive art department at TWU and by her own conviction that her experimental work prompted creativity in her students, Corpron began to produce even more inventive studies. In a series she called "Light Drawings" she captured linear patterns of light by swinging her camera in front of the moving lights of carnival rides. In A Walk in Fair Park, Dallas (1943), the original subject matter was dematerialized to a pattern of light and motion that anticipated her abstract work.
In 1942 Corpron led a light workshop at Texas Woman's University for photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Although he praised her rapport with her students, Moholy-Nagy did not encourage Corpron's independent photography. More influential on her work was the arrival of Gyorgy Kepes, who came to Denton to write a book in 1944. His interest in Corpron's work prompted her to produce several series of photographs that were the most original of her career. At his suggestion Corpron experimented by placing white paper cut in simple shapes within a perforated box that was open at one end. When flashlights were shined through the holes onto the paper shapes, interesting patterns of light and shadow were reflected. The resulting abstract photographs comprised Corpron's "Light Patterns" series. In her "Light Follows Form" series she extended her exploration of the modeling properties of light to three-dimensional form. In this series, she used light filtered through Venetian blinds or glass to dramatize a plaster cast of a Greek head.
She also experimented with solarization, a process in which already exposed negatives are exposed. Works such as Solarized Calla Lilies (1948) convey a surreal elegance, but Corpron favored more original methods of expression. She regarded her "Space Compositions" and "Fluid Light Designs" series as her best work. In the former she used still lifes composed of eggs, nautilus shells, or glass paperweights, usually combined with a curving reflective surface, to produce an illusion of receding three-dimensional space. She emphasized distortions of form that occurred in her egg photographs by experimentation during the development process. In Fun With Eggs (1948), for example, she combined vertical and horizontal negatives to achieve an ambiguous pictorial space. In her series "Fluid Light Designs," she produced her most fully abstract works by photographing the play of light on rippled plastic.
In 1945 Corpron met Alfred Stieglitz, a leader of avant-garde photography in the United States. He admired the beauty and strength of her work but died before he could mount an exhibition of her photographs. Corpron participated in more than five group exhibitions, including the 1952 Abstraction in Photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Dallas Museum of Art (1948), the Louisiana Art Commission in Baton Rouge (1952), the Art Institute of Chicago (1953), the University of Georgia in Athens (1953), the Woman's University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1954), and Ohio University in Athens (1955). In the late 1950s poor health and limited financial resources forced her to limit her hours in the darkroom in order to concentrate on teaching.
The inclusion of Corpron's photographs in the San Francisco Museum of Art's exhibition Women of Photography: An Historical Survey in 1975, followed by her first solo exhibition in a New York gallery in 1977, sparked a revival of interest in her work. Thereafter she was represented in important group exhibitions at the Dallas Museum of Art (1978), the International Center of Photography in New York (1979), the University of Missouri in St. Louis (1980), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1980). Solo exhibitions of her work were held at the Galleria del Milione in Milan, Italy (1978), Texas Woman's University (1980), and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth (1980). Carlotta Corpron died on April 17, 1988. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Paula E. Bennett, "Carlotta Corpron," Photographic Portfolio 2 (June 1979). Mabel E. Maxcy, "A Creative Approach to Photography," Texas Trends in Art Education, Autumn 1960. Margaretta Mitchell, Recollections: Ten Women of Photography (New York: Viking, 1979). Martha A. Sandweiss, Carlotta Corpron: Designer with Light (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980).
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