The last weekend in July’s "Exhibit by the Bay" was a lot of fun and the attendance was young and healthy, but large-item buyers were few. Most of the pieces sold ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for most dealers. Despite the low average tickets, there were enough sales for most dealers to cover their expenses, plus a little. Not too bad for a first-time show.
While there were clearly fewer dealers than at show manager Stephen Cohen’s top flight LA Show, the booths at Photo San Francisco displayed as interesting a selection of material as at the Photo LA show, and most in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves—even seeming, at times, to be overwhelmed by the large selection of material.
The hall had great skylights, so lighting was less of a problem at this venue. But next time, might I suggest that the show management carpet those concrete floors, like the art fairs do. It would make the viewing (and exhibiting) experience less tiring and add a bit more elegance to the building.
I only got to hear part of a panel session on San Francisco photographers. William Hunt’s “dramatic reading” of his choice of images was great fun.
Deborah Klochko of Friends of Photography said, "Fifteen years ago we were at a stage where political agendas were important. Now photography seems to be revisiting more formal qualities with a beauty about them, but a beauty from very unlikely sources." And she wasn’t kidding, citing examples of subject matter like cotton candy. Actually the images of this spun sugar product were kind of interesting, believe it or not.
Bill Hunt seconded her idea, by noting, "Works seem to be less tense than they use to be, and there is more artfulness than there was five or ten years ago."
SF MoMA associate curator Doug Nickel talked about "diminished documentary styles." He used Nan Goldin as an example of a new documentary style that avoided "a sense of appropriation and speaking on behalf of cultures." Goldin’s documentary style was limited to "her own life and friends in a reduced anthropological way.” Nickel thought Goldin only wanted to “speak about her own group."
The idea was interesting but the photographers he chose would not be my choice of material. Most I found to be self-indulgent and simply silly.
I kept thinking to myself: how would any of this material hold up to any of the better 19th or 20th century images that were at all comparable? My answer was: they were very poor imitations for the most part. Yes, I actually enjoyed some of Bill and Deborah’s choices, but none could be remotely confused with a master of photography, although I thought Frank Yamrus’ portraits during orgasm were strong images.
I was sorry to have to miss panel presentations by Marni Gillette of SF Camerawork and Jo Leggett of Photo Metro. I think they may have been more grounded in what photographers were really doing in this town, given that they were representing local photographic media. From the images published in Photo Metro about these selections, I found two of Leggett’s choices to be fascinating: Deborah Hammond’s faces depicting emotions (shades of the 19th century’s Duchenne de Boulogne!) and Gabriella Hasbun’s double exposures using old album photos with new color images.
San Francisco is simply a great city and the weather cooperated making it sunny and moderate (even “cool” early in the week). The city and its people are also extremely hospitable, and I had more than a little evidence of that during my stay in San Francisco.
Dinner with Doris, Ruth and Chris
A few weeks before Photo San Francisco, I received an email invitation to dinner. The invite was from one of my favorite people, Doris Folberg.
Doris has had more than her fair share of trials. Her husband Joe Folberg, who founded Vision Gallery, died from cancer a number of years ago.
Joe had been a second father figure for me. Crusty, overweight (until his cancer) and usually crunching on a cigar, Joe was not your archetypal photo dealer. But under that rough façade was a generous and warm man whose passion for the medium and the art of the deal had no equal. His wife Doris always shared his enthusiasm for photography and his warmth for people.
At 80 years old, Doris herself has and is facing cancer with a straightforwardness that is disarming, to say the least. She maintains a wonderful sense of humor while facing things head-on. I only wish I had some of her sense of balance and courage, although Doris would never call it courage.
Doris and I have continued to stay in touch and always try to find time to get together. I was particularly pleased to have her email me. It was icing on the cake for her to also invite photographer extraordinaire Ruth Bernhard to join us.
For a woman with considerable fortitude, Doris is still a tiny and fragile-appearing individual (looks can be deceiving), who when driving her car always looks like she might need blocks on the pedals. Joe had bought her a huge boat of a Buick years ago that dwarfed her, but even in today’s smaller Infiniti she still looked somewhat out of place behind the wheel.
Doris picked me up at my hotel and we drove to Ruth Bernhard’s row home.
Ruth had just gotten back home and had actually forgotten about the dinner engagement, but after a quick change and application of make-up, she and her friend Chris, a nurse and fellow photographer, joined us for dinner at Fringales, one of San Francisco’s better new restaurants. The food and the service were excellent, but it was the company that was the real attraction.
Chris and I chatted about her interest in documenting the wonderful murals of the city, which were extremely ephemeral. Often only days would go by before graffiti covered these beautiful pieces. I remember Joe Folberg driving me in the Buick through a tiny alleyway in an Hispanic neighborhood, which had fabulous examples of these murals—all now gone.
I got a chance to talk with Ruth as well. In answering my questions about how she worked with her models, she told me that her models were all amateurs who did it because they wanted to work with her. She also feels that as a woman she could put her female models more at ease than any male photographer could.
She stunned me momentarily when she noted that "Two Forms, 1963," were two women. My own preconception had made the couple a man and woman. I asked her why she had changed her printing on this image so much over the years. Ruth replied it was simply because she thought "differently" about the image over time. Just differently–not better, not worse.
It is too bad that most museums and collectors don’t follow this idea up by collecting different prints of the same image. Usually the only time this happens is by accident, when an institution is given a photographer’s archive. And then rarely would the same image be shown in different printings. I can only recall one instance where I saw a museum do this: New York’s Metropolitan with the Flat Iron Building by Steichen during its awe-inspiring show on the Photo-Session.
We talked about Ruth’s love of natural history. She collected all those shells one sees in her images. "Only if the animal is still in the shell, is the shell beautiful," Ruth told me. In fact, she collected her shells in Sanibel, FL, not on the lovely beaches there, but off shore, trawling on boats. She then often kept live specimens in a salt-water aquarium. At that point in her career, time was spent shuffling back and forth between seasons and New York.
She later worked in New Mexico and finally met Georgia O’Keefe. Steiglitz had told her that her work reminded him of O’Keefe’s. Many of her unpublished pieces up on her walls at home are flowers, like O’Keefe’s, and her Rosary and Steer’s Head are similar to another O’Keefe icon.
Ruth is very energetic at 94 years old. Scott Nichols is planning a 95th birthday bash for Bernhard in October, and she says, "I’ll take all the birthdays celebrations that I can." Amen to that for the entire group of us.
Hospitality Overflows in San Francisco
This was indeed a week for overflowing hospitality.
Museum curator Robert Flynn Johnson hosted a small dinner party on Friday for a few dealers and friends. He and friend Josephine were very amiable hosts, and his collection of master drawings was a great diversion from the week’s photographic images. Robert pointed out a drawing of Julia Jackson on the dining room wall, a frequent model for Julia Margaret Cameron’s camera.
I find that discussing art in general gives you a fresh perspective when viewing photography. The genteel chatter in the Johnson household felt like what important salons of days-gone-by must have been like—perhaps even in Cameron’s own house, which featured many of the day’s great figures. My own conversation (perhaps dulled by good wine) wasn’t quite up to the comparison, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sparkling discussions and observations from around the table, as well as the great food.
The next night San Francisco dealers Paul Hertzmann and Susan Herzig graciously threw the doors of their home open wide to their fellow dealers at the show. The spread for the party was diverse, plentiful and downright delicious. A good time was, indeed, had by all.
Finally, the Johnsons had fellow dealer Dave Winter and me back over for a quick dinner on Sunday night, after David had gallantly helped me finish packing (I’m usually the last to leave because of the sheer quantity of material).
All in all, the week’s display of warmth and generosity was well appreciated by this observer and--I am certain--the rest of those involved, because we dealers usually have to eat in bad restaurants very late in the evening in order to accommodate the late hours of the typical exhibit show. My thanks to all of the above people for your very kind hospitality.
Let me recommend a photography show that is currently at the New York Metropolitan Museum (the one that ISN’T on strike) and will continue through September 3rd. World-class collector Thomas Walther has tapped his inventory of snap shots to put together an exhibit and a book that is both quirky and striking. He was nice enough to have me invited to the opening, which was held just two days after I got back from my last trip to France in June. And while my impressions were somewhat impacted by jet lag, I still found the exhibit rather fascinating.
Given that most of these images are probably the least expensive photographs in Walther’s vast collection, it was indeed a strange setting for them. But Thomas, more than a lot of collectors, has always had the courage of his own convictions, rather than depending on big names or high auction prices to validate his choices. Not to say that he hasn’t bought heavily at auction, or to say that his collection is not littered with top masters. But for him, the image has always come first.
What makes it interesting is that $50 prints (in some cases, perhaps even less, and in some, a bit more) are now on the walls of the prestigious (and often--in the past at least--overly prestige-conscious) Met and have been reviewed favorably in the New York Times.
Several dealers who had supplied some of the images were at the opening party (undoubtedly their first major museum opening), drinking a bit too much and mumbling about how they now felt themselves validated by the show. I am not sure that was the case, but perhaps now collectors and institutions will feel more comfortable making decisions based on image, instead of pedigree or just on the photographer’s name. Great photographers indeed take great photographs, but so do lesser lights on occasion. The only difference is that a great photographer has a strong BODY of work. Even great photographers take and make bad prints.
Buying by name alone is the worse form of naiveté, because it indicates a lack of education about photography (or any art, for that matter). And education is cheap to get. It just requires your time and disposition. You can start that education by visiting the Met and the Walther’s vernacular show.
By the way, I noticed that the Met’s able curator, Maria Morris Hambourg, took the selection process even one more step beyond Walther’s already fine eye, when she picked out the images which were clearly the most intriguing and complete for those "gifted" by Walther to the Met.
Having these images at this fine institution will help to unsettle a lot of people (a very positive outcome in my way of thinking), which should make for the best gift of all.