FfPP Case Study: Morrie Camhi Archives by Virginia Bly Johnson

Morrie Camhi, a successful Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay area commercial photographer, was also a prolific writer and documentary photographer. ESPEJO: Reflections of the Mexican American, perhaps his best known project, was a deep survey of the Mexican-American people and culture which Morrie organized, directed and worked on with six other photographers. The project evolved out of Morrie’s earlier work documenting the demonstrations and strike actions of the United Farm Worker movement in California, and culminated in exhibitions at the Center for Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Oakland Museum.

Books were published from two of Morrie’s other projects. The Jews of Greece was a two-year project documenting in both photographs and text the Greek Jews in Thessaloniki who had escaped the Holocast. The Prison Experience, photographed over an 18-month period at California’s Vacaville Prison, documented inmates, their families and prison staff and included written statements by all groups in answer to the same question, “What do you want people to know about the prison experience.” The prison book is often used in colleges, is referred to by lawyers and social workers, and was used as a resource for two commercial films. Morrie produced other projects, such as AD:vantage and The Road, which were lesser known but equally powerful in the depth of his approach.

Morrie Camhi passed away in 1999 at age 71. In 2005 some of Morrie’s photographs and negatives were selected for purchase by the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley but a great deal of the archive was not acquired. This included many photographs and negatives, published and unpublished manuscripts, personal notes and letters, and Morrie’s careful documentation of his projects.

Morrie’s widow, Lynn, wishing to downsize and sell her property, approached FfPP in 2011 for advice about what to do with the remainder of Morrie’s photographic and written work. My husband Reverdy and I met with Lynn at her home in October 2011 to discuss her objectives. We returned twice more before the end of the year to go through the contents of Morrie’s studio. Although the darkroom had been dismantled some years before, the cottage containing the studio had not been touched.

We first identified and set aside the extraneous material such as packing supplies, mat board, glass, etc. so Lynn could decide to either discard or recycle. As we came across loose photographs, handwritten notes, letters and text, we set them aside into groups that more or less corresponded with the projects. We did not attempt to further identify or count the numerous prints in these groups. We counted only the mounted or loose portfolio quality prints that we found in metal flat files or portfolio boxes and gave Lynn an inventory list of these.

During this process we also identified and placed in a separate group work prints or second quality prints (some of which Morrie had clearly labeled as such) along with many unsigned photographs from students in classes Morrie taught. We recommended to Lynn that these could be discarded.

Lynn told us when we first met in October that a representative of Duke University in Durham, NC, had recently expressed interest after seeing some of Morrie’s work at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. Lynn had attempted to follow up but had not yet made contact. She asked if Reverdy would pursue contact with Duke.
Over the next year inquiries were made on Lynn’s behalf at other institutions but Reverdy primarily worked with the Curator of Collections at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. By the end of 2012 he was successful in negotiating acquisition of the entire remainder of the Morrie Camhi archives by Duke. Lynn received compensation from Duke that was paid to her in two installments over two fiscal years. In early 2013 the archives were picked up by Duke staff for shipment to Durham.