E-Photo
Issue #199  11/4/2013
 
A Changing Of The Guard: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

By Alex Novak


More than a few things happened over the last months that gave me pause about where we are all going in terms of photo history and the market itself. These events had little to do with the economics of our market, but none-the-less have made an even bigger impression on me.

One of my least favorite things to do with this newsletter is writing up obituaries—understandably so, as I myself get older, and more and more I find myself writing about people who've become good friends over the years. But I feel that the contributions that many have made shouldn't go unnoticed. It is just too bad that it often seems like we celebrate people's accomplishments and contributions only after they pass away.

Worse, we often just lose their unique experience. There has to be some better ways that we can extract, utilize and save the information and experience of our pioneers in this relatively young field.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose

I thought about that when my friend Indianapolis dealer Stephen Rose died over the summer. Steve was an early photo dealer from the 1970s. I met him in the mid-1980s. He was one of those lovely people whom you just liked upon meeting them.

When he started out in 1974, he opened a photography gallery in Boston, one of the earliest in the U.S. Photographers like Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan and Duane Michaels would give talks in his gallery. Many of the top collectors and dealers in the world visited his gallery. He was a founding member of AIPAD (The Association of International Photography Art Dealers), and also helped start the photography departments at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well at The J. Paul Getty Museum. Later when he moved to Indiana, he sold privately and produced a sales catalog of fine books and photography.

The thing I loved about Steve was his openness and willingness to share information. Like many of those that I met early on, he realized that this was a necessity if we were to grow in our knowledge of photography, which was then only in its earliest stages of understanding. This openness and quest for knowledge appears to have marked many of those who pioneered our understanding of photography and it history. Friendship and sharing were the watchwords versus competitiveness and secrecy.

As with Steve Rose, I remember spending many an afternoon in the small Atlanta home of Robert Chaddell, who was first a sports photographer and then a camera dealer, but whose real passion was photographic images. I learned more with Bob than from any other source. The teaching was informal and very hands-on. Bob passed away a few years ago, but I will always remember his gruff kindness in sharing his knowledge of photography. I learned that helping others added to the richness of my experience with photography. His example, along with others' early help, pushed me to write this newsletter to help nascent and experienced collectors and curators alike.

Many of our early photography dealers are frankly aging, many now into their 70s and even 80s. Many influential dealers who would willingly share their knowledge, including Stephen Rose, Helen Gee, John Cleary, Carl Siembab and Gene Prakapas have passed away recently, even some at a relatively young age, such as Bonni Benrubi and Francisco Belchior. AIPAD mainstays such as Harry Lunn, probably the most influential force in making the photo market into today's powerhouse, have passed from the scene, and such losses still reverberate in the market. Many others have simply retired. The numbers over the last 15 years have been rather staggering when I went back and looked, and the future looks like we may see many other dealers exiting the scene one way or another just simply due to aging.

But let me be very clear: I have no concerns about this being a dying business or dead-end art medium. There is more youth and vitality in this field of photography than virtually any other art form. My only concern is about what we might lose in this process of transition.

I have been fortunate to be a part of the photography field instead of many other areas of art or business. I get to do something that I love. My colleagues and clients all share that common and genuine passion—no small thing. Watching the literature grow from a few dozen basic photo books to the many tens of thousands of such books over just a 40-year period of time, I have found my sense of wonder and understanding continuing that same exponential ascent. That's truly what I love about photography: the constant learning process that never really ends and the camaraderie of like fellows willing to share in the knowledge.

But it is clearly a time of great change in the photography field: some of those giants that helped explore and provide the platform for so much in photography—literally saving photo history and images from garbage dumps--are beginning to fade from the scene, either through retirement or through more unpleasant circumstances. Curators, photographers, dealers and even some collectors are in a process of flux.

As I noted, not all is for the worse. Change is always present, and good and necessary. It refreshes and brings new life to the field, new perspectives. But it is important to preserve and even build on that wonderful, rich experience of these pioneers, rather than lose it all to the sands of time. There now seems to be a generational shift of major significance. Losing the knowledge, real-world experience and vision of those who pioneered photography would simply be a disaster. Losing the experiential history to purely academic or economic approaches would be downright sad, as well as losing its richness and important subtlety. It is a vital lesson, especially for curators to learn.

Two of the photography curators that I most admire will soon be working together, so that little will be lost in the transition: Anne Wilkes Tucker and Malcolm Daniel. The Houston Museum of Art just announced an important curatorial hand-off: Tucker, founding curator of the department of photography, will retire in June 2015, having led the department since 1976. Malcolm Daniel, longtime curator and former head of the department of photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has been appointed to succeed her. They will have 18 months to work together to preserve the curatorial chain of information. If only all such institutions could work out such a succession plan and have two such experienced and committed curators working together for such an extended period of time!

Over the last few years just while I've been writing this newsletter, on the curatorial side we've already seen the institutional loss of such major players (although some are still active as private curators and/or educators), such as: John Szarkowski, Robert Sobieszek, Ted Hartwell, Barbara McCandless, Van Deren Coke and Terry Toedtemier (all of whom passed away); Peter Bunnell, David Travis, Maria Hambourg, Tom Hinson, Robert Flynn Johnson, Weston Naef, Gordon Baldwin, Peter Galassi, Mark Haworth-Booth, Pool Andries, Tony Bannon, Nissan Perez, Arthur Ollman, Roy Flukinger, Steve Yates, Tom Southall, Urs Stahel and Carol Johnson, (all of whom left their positions for retirement but have oh-so-much more to offer).

There is an additional group of influential curators who are planning or contemplating near-term retirement. Some pioneered the photography programs in their institutions. Although I am sure that some succession planning is going on in most of these museums (many have some great second-level people), all of these top curators would still leave their institutions with major holes in their photography expertise, and even more, will leave photography that much poorer if they don't maintain active curatorial roles after they retire. Their association groups should be focusing attention on how to develop and continue to use this important pool of unique expertise and connection to early photo curating and discovery.

The influential photographers who have passed from the scene just over the last few years is a very long list indeed. Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold, Bernd Becher, Bert Stern, Helmut Newton, Lillian Bassman, Yashuhiro Ishimoto, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, Larry Sultan, Roy DeCarava, Robert Heinecken, Helen Levitt, Martine Franck, Julius Shulman, Eudora Welty, William Claxton, Joe Rosenthal, Philip Jone Griffiths, Ruth Bernhard, Claude Berri, Bill Eppridge, Ted Jones, Dennis Stock, James Fee, Willy Ronis, Cole Weston, Miroslav Tichy, Jack Welpott, Wayne Miller, Janine Niepce, Walter Rosenblum and Cornell Capa are just--unfortunately--a few of the photographers that we've lost only since I began to write this newsletter. Fortunately, there is a wealth of talent coming up; unfortunately, many young photographers don't have the same sense of history that these past masters did.

There are also those whose work was ground-breaking in other ways, such as conservator Jose Orraca, educators Bill Jay and Jerry Burchfield, and researchers/historians Heinz Henisch, John Craig and Peter Palmquist, whose losses are only tempered by the preservation of their past work.

Some major collectors have passed on as can sometimes be seen in the auction catalogue sales of their collections, although other collectors have found other places for those collections to be maintain in full. Howard Stein, Jack Naylor, Julian Baker, Dr. William Ehrenfeld, Leonard Vernon, Marion Rinhardt and Roger Therond are just a few of those collectors whom I have written obituaries for. Other collectors have given up their collections voluntarily, like Matt Isenberg, and have found private buyers or institutions to take their collections.

Others, like my good friend and fellow dealer, Martin Weinstein, have been gifting work for many years. Martin has quietly given over 500 photographs, as well as numerous prints, paintings and sculptures to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts over this time (more on that in a story below). The museum is currently exhibiting "31 Years of Gifts from Martin Weinstein".

I encourage others of my readers to help support the many non-profit institutions that are so in need right now, given the lack of support from our own government in the U.S., which has been cut dramatically over the last few years.

But I digress just a bit. However, my point is continuity and salvaging important knowledge and experience during what looks like a generational shift.

My concern isn't that there aren't young, talented people out there to replace this older generation. There definitely are. But I sometimes worry that historical perspective and plain real-world sensibility may be jeopardized during this transitional time. Often in the rush to capture the new, the historical framework that it is built on is forgotten in the process by some younger dealers, collectors, artists and curators.

So, I am heartened when I see younger members of the photo community who cherish a sense of history and who take the time to develop a deeper understanding that goes well beyond the academic. Interestingly—and not surprisingly--many have served their apprenticeships with older, more experienced hands.

On the dealer side of the equation, here are only a sampling of some of the younger creative dealers who have struck out on their own after working for others:
--Tom Gitterman, New York
--Catherine Couturier, Houston
--L. Parker Stephenson, New York
--Paul Berlanga, Chicago
--Kim Bourus, New York
--Joe Bellows, La Jolla, CA
--Richard Moore, Oakland, CA
--Bryce Wolkowitz, New York
--David Guiraud, Paris
--Serge Plantureux, Paris
--Carole Thompson, Montecito, CA
--Charles Hartman, Portland, OR
--Katrina Doerner, Brooklyn, NY
--Santa Bannon, Bethlehem, PA
Just to mention a few.

Add to them a new generation that has come into the family business:
--Michael Lee and Erica Lee with Lee Gallery, Winchester, MA
--Wendy Halsted with Halsted Gallery, Birmingham, MI
--Andra Russek with Scheinbaum & Russek, Ltd., Santa Fe, NM
--Neil Folberg with Vision Gallery, Jerusalem
--Christophe Lunn and Alexandra Lunn, Paris and Brooklyn

It would not surprise me to see several other children of dealers taking over the reins of the business in the future; it would not surprise me to see additional gallery associates breaking off to start their own businesses. It is the natural progression of things.

These are a relatively young, highly intelligent and creative group of photo dealers who are adding to the richness of the photo gallery and private dealer scene. There are many others, especially in the contemporary market, or those that are currently private dealers (sometimes a jumping off point to owning a gallery) that should also be included. They all make up the future of the photography market. They are certainly proportionally a bigger group of younger dealers than in any other art field. Older dealers naturally form a major chunk of any expensive marketplace. It takes time to accumulate the resources and experience that make up a successful dealer.

Some observations:
--There is a much higher percentage of women dealers coming into the market now. The chauvinism of the past is falling quickly.
--Newer dealers are more apt and open to using newer technologies, but often have less knowledge of real-world basics.
--It is considerably more difficult and expensive today for new dealers/galleries to start up than in the past. Inventory, personnel and gallery space are a lot more expensive than in the past—even related to inflation. Inventory and locked-in artists and estates have positioned some of the older dealers to be successful—despite themselves sometimes. Because of this they tend to focus on representing contemporary artists. Often historical perspective goes by the wayside.
--The competitive environment is much larger and different today. Not only are there a lot more dealers and galleries, auctions have taken over the biggest chunk of the retail market. But auctions can never take the place of the photography dealer completely (thank goodness).
--Except for family businesses, there is little in the way of available mentoring going on, although many, if not most, who have opened their own businesses have worked for a gallery or dealer.
--The photography dealer business has been marked by many poor business practices because most such dealers came in the field with little or no business/budgeting/marketing skills or knowledge. New dealers have not improved on this situation unfortunately.

AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) has begun to offer fall programs to its dealers that help them understand some of the market issues, and I applaud the association for doing this. I would suggest that more basic business information on an on-going basis needs to be added. Usually by the time a dealer gets to join AIPAD they already have gone through the start-up experience, although they can hardly be called seasoned business people. Is there a way to reach such dealers so that they have a better chance to survive to join the association—even if there is a charge for such service?

Research has shown that the best education is one provided at the point the knowledge is needed. I would suggest to AIPAD that it offer a vetted mentoring program to younger dealers, or even to older ones that need more help in a specific area. This can lead to great friendships and allowing older veterans to pass on some of their unique knowledge and help. Even retired dealers could and should get into the act. While I don't plan to list the dealers with this kind of background/experience (there are just too many of them), AIPAD could build and vet a skills list for contact and mentoring.

I would suggest that some business fundamentals also be offered during AIPAD's fall education session, such as one or two on accounting and taxes. It is scary to think about how even some experienced dealers view certain tax issues. There is also a need to make this a more bi-coastal educational opportunity. Perhaps another session could be added in mid-January when many of the dealers are in Los Angeles for shows there. Or in Paris around Paris Photo. White papers on certain issues could be circulated to members, adding value to membership beyond just the exhibit fair.

AIPAD might also consider integrating the "cabinet" idea into the fair. This is an idea that Art Basel created and adds an educational and interesting element to the exhibition. Promoting a special section of a dealer's booth who chooses to add this section on some element of the history of photography. Some dealers do that today in their booth. Rudolph Kicken, who is severely missed here at the New York show, always has a section of his booth devoted to a school or approach, as does Stephen Daiter. They are two of the most successful such examples. My kind thoughts to Rudy who has gone through his share of recent health issues.

I think some of these same ideas can be used by curator, educator and conservation associations, so that the knowledge and experience of its older community can continue to temper and develop its younger members. Retired curators, such as the ones I mentioned above, would be great resources if the mentoring programs were well-defined.

All three—curator, educator and conservator--also need some real-world knowledge and approaches. Too often a purely academic education leaves huge gaps in abilities and understanding. What's the "right" price for photographs and how do you determine it? How do you approach auctions, dealers or collectors? What's rare and what's not? Where do you go for certain types of material or research? How can you tell earlier work from later work? Where do you start in another country? How do you negotiate? What do their audiences or clients really need and want? What should you look for and how should you really examine a photograph? How are photographers and their work connected through the centuries and how do you incorporate this information into today's exhibitions, even those focused on contemporary artists or other media?

I could go on for days with these kinds of basic issues that rarely or never get addressed by these groups. Perhaps AIPAD and its members can be of some help on this too. I've taken a few curators and collectors under my wing and shown them around Paris, or even just the auctions in New York. It is always an eye-opener for them—that's for sure. My own company's associates who've come out of academia and then gone back to curating and teaching roles have each told me that they felt that they learned as much with me in months than they learned in the years of their academic education—mostly from seeing and handling work that is top museum level. OK, that sometimes happens when you leave a university setting, but there's no real reason that actual world experience can't be introduced to such photography curatorial/educational programs. Perhaps intern programs at experienced dealers/galleries might be of help, as well as at museums. Travel internationally also helps to connect to history in a real way.

My concern for some—not all, of course—of these younger curators is that in their haste to make their mark on the photography world, they reach for the latest hot trend without trying to place it in historical perspective, or to exhibit contemporary artists to the exclusion of other work. Even some major contemporary photographers understand the influence that historical work has had on them. Artists, such as Adam Fuss, Vik Muniz, Vera Luter, Joel-Peter Witkin and James Fee (when the latter was still alive), all collect 19th-century photography and cite this influence on their work. And many more understand and appreciate the influence of 20th-century movements that have played such an important part in their development.

There a number of younger curators who have impressed me with their sense of intelligence, balance and history. This is hardly a comprehensive list of such names and I am sure that I will leave out people that I should know better than to leave out (my apologies now):
--Phillip Prodger (Peabody Essex Museum)
--Cory Keller and Erin O’Toole (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
--Jane Aspinwall and April Watson (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
--Katherine Ware (New Mexico Museum of Art)
--Peter Barberie (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
--Jim Gantz (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)
--Russell Lord (New Orleans Museum of Art)
--Liz Siegel (Art Institute of Chicago)
--Julia Dolan (Portland Art Museum)
--Joel Smith (The Morgan Library and Museum)
--Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (Qatar National Museum of Photography)
--Katherine Bussard (Princeton University Art Museum)

The following are top curators with maybe just a little more seasoning, but still relatively young and very impressive (I have had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know many of them):
--Isobel Crombie (National Gallery of Victoria)
--Hans Rooseboom (Rijks Museum)
--Sarah Kennel (National Gallery of Art)
--Tim Wride (Norton Museum of Art)
--Julian Cox (De Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)
--Barbara Tannenbaum (Cleveland Museum of Art)
--Virginia Heckert (J. Paul Getty Museum)
--Malcolm Daniel (as noted above on his way to Houston)
--Sarah Greenough (National Gallery of Art)
--Quentin Bajac (MoMA, New York)
--Simon Baker (Tate Modern)
--Charlotte Cotton (Media Space)
--Britt Salvesen (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
--Jeff Rosenheim (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)
--Matt Witkovsky (Art Institute of Chicago)
--Carol McCusker (Harn Museum of Art/Univ. of Florida)
--Brett Abbott (High Museum of Art)
--William Williams (Haverford College)
--Sophie Hackett (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Since I have no sense of how to judge people's ages, I will plead stupidity now for those improperly on any of my lists or omitted from them.

My point in this article is really a simple one: we should all be working to make sure that we don't lose the fabulous knowledge, experience and humanity of an entire generation of dealers, collectors and curators who literally created the photography market. And we should do it now.

There is a sense of magic in the immediacy of learning first hand instead of academically. As any older photographer will tell you, seeing the image of a silver print put in the developing tray appearing that first time is an experience that made them believe they were a part of something special. Likewise, those of us who have found a bit of photography history directly ourselves feel the connection and enchantment more viscerally. Besides the knowledge and experience, I want to find a way of passing on that sense of magic to the generations behind us.

Responses are welcomed.