Photo collecting is all in the Vernon family

Carol Vernon at LACMA. Photo by Iris Schneider.

On a recent morning, Carol Vernon strides into LACMA's Resnick Pavilion looking as comfortable as if she were in her own living room.

The photography exhibit we are soon standing in, "See the Light-Photography, Perception, and Cognition," explores parallels between photography and the science of vision. If Vernon feels at home it's because the images we are surrounded by were, for many years, part of her family's everyday life.

Drawn from the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, the exhibit gives museum-goers the chance to view 220 of the 3500 images collected by her late parents between 1976 and 2007. Acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008, the collection essentially tells the history of 19th and 20th century photography. It includes masterworks by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Man Ray, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. One of the finest private collections of photography assembled in the United States, it is notable for its variety and depth. "The scope of this collection is unparalleled," says LACMA photography curator Britt Salvesen. "The range of styles and balance of American and European photographers is incredibly interesting. Today you could never put together a collection like this."

"Magnolia Blossom," 1925 by Imogen Cunningham.

For Carol Vernon, to walk through the exhibit is clearly bittersweet. She was in her mid-20s and working with her dad, an industrial developer and builder, when her parents began to collect. "It's always nice to come and see these familiar images," she says. "For many years my office was in their house so I was surrounded by a lot of this. A lot of the collecting happened where I was able to go with them, so it was fun." The initial spark was a chance encounter between Leonard Vernon and Maggie Weston, Edward Weston's daughter-in-law, in her Carmel gallery on New Year's Eve in 1976. One thing led to another, and three months later Carol Vernon and her parents found themselves in a Westwood hotel room.

"There were images on the bed, on the floor, just kind of propped up. They were just gorgeous and we had a field day," Vernon recalls. Her parents bought 17 photographs, mostly dating from the 19th century. Their collection had its beginning. "This was not a studied thing..It really was very organic," Vernon says. "The more they looked at, the more they wanted to know. This was a time when there were only two photography galleries in Los Angeles [the LACMA photography department wasn't officially created until 1984] and there was a lot of learning going on."

The Vernons became well known to curators, dealers, scholars, and artists — struggling and established. "In those years, anybody who was a fine art photographer trying to sell their work would eventually hear somebody say, 'you need to go see the Vernon's'," Carol says. "My parents loved sharing what they had. Nothing would make my father happier than when someone would ask, for example, 'do you have any Weston, or Adams', or whatever it was, and he would pull out boxes and boxes for them to go through. They loved seeing what artists and dealers were bringing them, and learning about what was about to go up for auction. It was a very small community then and they loved having them all in the house."

"Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (née Julia Jackson)," circa 1867 by Julia Margaret Cameron; "Balance," 1942 by Gyorgy Kepe.

The couple formed relationships with many of the photographers they collected. "Max Yavno was one of the closest," Carol remembers. "He lived in town so we got to know him very well. Great photographer, total ladies man!" Ansel Adams was a frequent dinner guest. "It was really a treat to be sitting at the table with this master. The conversation was wide ranging. It was about photography, what he was doing, what was going on in the world, where he'd been traveling. They were very low-key family dinners."

When asked why her parents took so passionately to collecting photography, especially at a time when the art world was still debating whether photography could be considered art, Vernon is only able to speculate.

"My father had wanted to be a fashion photographer in his youth, though it was probably more about the women," she says. Later on he became an avid amateur, often using his camera while traveling and for family snapshots. The couple was well known among dealers for their ability to communicate without words what they wanted to purchase. "They were just so in tune that they just knew, and it was 'OK, we'll take these and that one over there, and that one's not part of the group," Vernon says.

"Pyramids of El-Geezeh from the Southwest," 1858 by Francis Frith; right, Vernon and Salvesen by Iris Schneider.

As in all families, things changed. Marjorie Vernon died in 1998, Leonard in 2007. When Carol starts to talk about the experience of moving the collection from her parents' Bel Air home, she sounds like any child who has had to deal with losing her parents. "The day they came and started packing everything up and it was all going into these boxes, and the walls were getting was a horrible day," she says. "It was the realization my parents were gone. This was the proof that this life was over." Vernon dealt with her grief by reminding herself that she was carrying out her parents' wish. They wanted the photo collection to stay together, preferably in Los Angeles.

The Vernon Collection at one point was in danger of going up for auction. A gift from Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation made it possible for LACMA to purchase the collection, according to Vernon and museum sources.

Carol Vernon has inherited her parents' love of collecting. She and her husband, Robert Turbin, adhere to her parents' philosophy of acquiring what you like, and what speaks to you. Their own collection includes paintings, drawings and ceramics, as well as photography. The difference, however, is that while her parents could agree on what to buy without speaking to each other, Vernon and Turbin readily acknowledge that "we actually have to talk about it."

See the Light--Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and 
Leonard Vernon Collection
 is on exhibit at LACMA until March 23, 2014.

LACMA photos: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, and acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin. Except for Julia Margaret Cameron: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin.

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