By Scott Meeker
Globe Enterprise Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The black-and-white prints that line the walls of the Regional Gallery at George A. Spiva Center for the Arts are a virtual treasure trove for photography lovers.
The photos span the decades — some images immediately familiar to visitors, and others that may not be but are no less attention-getting.
“There are some really famous images that people have seen reproduced in posters,” said Jo Mueller, Spiva’s director. “There’s the Dorothea Lange print ‘Migrant Mother.’ You may not know the title, but you’re going to instantly recognize it. It’s an original print from 1936.”
The 46 prints on display make up the “Masterpieces from the J. Armin Rust Collection.” They include works from acclaimed photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, and Paul Caponigro.
The Spiva exhibit, which opened earlier this month, marks the first time the prints have been put on public display.
“This is the first time I have ever shown any of my personal holdings,” said Rust, a Kansas City-area attorney who has amassed a collection of more than 600 prints over the years. “(Spiva member) David Davidson and I are really good friends, and he knew what I had hanging at my house. He asked me if I would be willing to show some of them at Spiva. He was the point man for the whole deal. He took two trips up here to help me frame them.”
Born in Columbus, Kan., Rust attended high school in Sarcoxie and began his college career in the fall of 1969 at what then was Missouri Southern State College. In 1972, he went to the University Missouri-Columbia to pursue a law degree.
“While I was in law school, I met this girl from Stephens College who showed me her portfolio,” he said. “It became apparent to me that there were still people out there teaching people how to make prints like Ansel Adams.
“When I got out of law school and made a little money, eight or 10 years later, I picked (photography) up myself. I went out and tried to learn how to make photographs.”
During his early days as a photographer, Rust was part of a group of Kansas City-area photographers who were “groupies” when it came to the long-running PhotoSpiva competition, which is now in its 37th year.
“Back in the day, when I was photographing, I once was in PhotoSpiva,” he said. “It was a photo of a wall in Mexico. It was the first photograph I ever took that did what I wanted it to.
“We all used to send our pictures in to try to get (in the show). We were disappointed when we didn’t and excited when we did.”
One of the first photo prints he purchased was in Santa Fe, N.M., where he found an iconic Ansel Adams photo taken at Death Valley.
“I started collecting (photographs) because I wanted to have photographs that were of a higher standard. It was probably dissatisfaction with my own efforts,” Rust said. “Then, I sort of got hooked. I’d see a print that I really wanted, and I’d figure out how to try to obtain it.”
He obtained some of the prints through professional relationships, such as doing legal work on behalf of Caponigro. Others were collected through more personal connections, including the image featured at Spiva of a slightly perplexed-looking Albert Einstein in his office at Princeton University, captured by Ernst Haas.
“I became friends with Haas’ daughter, who gave me the one of Einstein,” Rust said. “In New York and L.A., he was uber-famous. Back in the 1970s, he published his ‘Creation’ sequence of still photographs. It sold 350,000 copies.”
Mueller said Spiva hopes to bring Rust to Joplin soon to offer a talk about the exhibit from his personal collection.
“He has stories to tell,” she said of the collector.
Rust said he hopes visitors will look at the collection of prints and come away with the same kind of reaction and appreciation he has when viewing them.
“Art is a human activity out of which people express themselves,” he said. “I still get a rise when I see a good photograph. I think that happens when people see a great photograph. It pulls them in. They get a visceral, emotional response.
“I still do, and I’ve been dealing with this for a long time.”
Want to go?
“Masterpieces from the J. Armin Rust Collection” will run through May 5 at George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, 222 W. Third St. It is featured in conjunction with PhotoSpiva 2013. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.