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Peter C. Bunnell, 83, Dies; Brought Academic Rigor to History of Photography

Peter C. Bunnell, who over a 35-year career at the Museum of Modern Art and Princeton University transformed the history of photography from a side interest among professional photographers to a rigorous academic discipline, died on Sept. 20 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 83.

Malcolm Daniel, an executor of his estate who studied under Professor Bunnell and is now a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said the cause was melanoma.

It is a measure of Professor Bunnell’s success that today photography is unquestionably accepted as both a fine art and a discipline worthy of historical scholarship. Things were different in the late 1950s, when he entered college: He had to struggle to find professors, let alone programs, that took the subject seriously.

“There were lots of schools where you could learn to take pictures,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1972. “But despite a growing awareness of still photography’s importance, there was no program anywhere to study its aesthetics and history.”

At Yale, he was the first student in the art history department to work on a dissertation about photography. When he moved from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Princeton, in 1972, he assumed the country’s first endowed chair in the history of photography.

By the time he retired, in 2002, things had changed: Any worthwhile art history program had a photography concentration, while the photography collections grew dramatically at museums and libraries. And in many, many cases, the curators and professors who oversaw those efforts had trained under Professor Bunnell.

“We were seduced by his charisma and energy and knowledge of the discipline,” Mr. Daniel said.

Unlike many leading art historians, Professor Bunnell never wrote a landmark book or created a pioneering theory. His significance lay in his vision for his field and his ability to show his students how to get there.

He helped them get the right fellowships, produce the right dissertations and find the right associate curator positions — all drawing on his thick network of artists and scholars.

“He set them on a professional track as much as he did on an intellectual track,” Joel Smith, another former student who is now at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, said in an interview.

Professor Bunnell’s passion was not confined to graduate seminars. Many of his students first came to the field after taking one of his always oversubscribed survey courses, in which the number of registered students was frequently matched by auditors, drop-ins and even townspeople who had heard about his lectures.

Emmet Gowin, a photographer and colleague, recalled the ebullience that bubbled into his afternoon studio from Professor Bunnell’s class, which often met in the late morning.

“Again and again, my students would come to class raving about the course they were just in,” he said. “He was able to open minds and hearts to the viability of photography as being something transcendent.”

Peter Curtis Bunnell was born on Oct. 25, 1937, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His father, Harold C. Bunnell, was a mechanical engineer with a local instrument manufacturer, and his mother, Ruth L. (Buckhout) Bunnell, was a homemaker. He left no immediate survivors.

His interest in photography developed early, as much out of a love for the medium as a desire to escape his father’s insistence that he pursue engineering, he told Aperture magazine. He bought his first camera, an Argus C3, as a teenager and commandeered a closet at home for his darkroom.

Aspiring to be a fashion photographer, he enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which had begun offering a four-year degree in photography, one of the first institutions in the country to do so.

His courses were heavy on chemistry and technology, but one stood out: a studio class with the acclaimed modernist photographer Minor White (who, Professor Bunnell liked to note, also shot with an Argus C3).

The two struck up a mentor-mentee relationship. Among other things, Mr. White edited Aperture, the first magazine dedicated to photography as an art, and he had Mr. Bunnell write articles, correspond with photographers and organize his personal collection.

Mr. Bunnell received a master’s degree in fine arts from Ohio University in 1961 and another master’s, in art history, from Yale in 1965, after which he began working on a dissertation about the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

He never completed his doctorate; it was hard to find support from institutions that still refused to see photography as a fine art, and he had other opportunities. He joined the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 and within four years was the curator for its department of photography, working under the museum’s renowned director of photography John Szarkowski.

Professor Bunnell produced a number of groundbreaking shows at the museum, including “Photography Into Sculpture” (1970), which presented photographs as three-dimensional objects, forcing viewers to consider them as something more than reproducible images, and rather as physical artifacts that occupied the same space as the people looking at them.

“The photographs were claiming the space that had once been claimed only by sculpture and painting,” another of his former students, Sarah Meister, now the executive director of the Aperture Foundation, said in an interview.

He brought the same approach with him to his teaching at Princeton. Refusing to work with slides, he would draw from the university’s ever-growing photography collection — one of his many initiatives — to show students negatives, prints and other artifacts.

Professor Bunnell retired in 2002, the same year he served as a lead consultant to the U.S. Postal Service on a series of stamps featuring famous photographs.

“I feel like some sort of celebrity,” he told a reporter for U.S. 1, a newspaper in Princeton. “They printed 10 million sheets, and people are sending them to me to autograph.”