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ESSAY: Man Ray: Surrealism and Photography

While working as a doctor in a military psychiatric hospital during World War I, Frenchman André Breton experienced disturbed soldiers discussing “bizarre images as if they had taken dictation from a genius who had possessed them while reason slept.” In a seemingly parallel universe, one far from the destruction of the war, the art world was turning its back on Dadaism. It had become too academic, too much a part of the bourgeois mainstream it had by definition rebelled against. Dadaism soon morphed into surrealism, spearheaded by Breton and influenced by what he – and the world – had seen during a war that killed sixteen million people. Breton became obsessed with the idea of unconscious autonomy, free association, and the “irrational as the source of creativity and of freedom from any kind of restraint.” In 1924, he wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto. “Completely against the tide… in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally,” he declared, birthing a movement.

Just as the movement’s literature ignored traditional techniques and opted for unstructured, “automatic” writing, as surrealist painters explored illusions and dreams and twisted the idea of everyday normality, photographers scorned the idea that the camera created the final word. They incorporated the primary topics of surrealist focus – dreams, illusions, mystery, eroticism – into photography. By using unconventional techniques, like multiple exposures, solarization, distortion, and montage, these surrealist photographers turned a previously mechanical tool into a medium via which they could express the avant-garde framework of the surrealist movement. The visual language of the camera had been transformed from an instrument of representation to a medium of artistic creation not unlike its supposed “higher-up,” painting.

Few artists exemplified this new photographic structure better than Man Ray. Born in Pennsylvania and raised just outside New York City, he began using the camera as, ironically, a mechanical tool to photograph his paintings and mixed media artworks. In 1921, he moved to Paris and set up a photography studio. There, he met Pablo Picasso and was introduced to Dadaism through another close friend, Tristan Tzara. Man Ray’s process, which he named after himself (Rayographs), involved an already progressive method utilizing objects placed directly on gelatin silver paper to produce an abstracted representation of everyday items. It was only fitting, then, that he’d be swept away by the surrealist movement just a few years later. He had already challenged the notion of photography and the creative, mechanical possibilities of the camera. This would be pushed even further after 1924’s Surrealist Manifesto and the official establishment of such an innovative movement.

Man Ray’s most famous photographs combined non-traditional photographic techniques with surrealist principles. As a result, he created images that bridge the line between photographs, which were seen as inherently truthful, and otherworldly dreams. For example, in “Observatory Time: The Lovers,” he utilizes a montage technique that combines his own painting with a photograph of his lover, Lee Miller. There is seemingly no context or logic to the image – the female subject is naked and faceless, next to a chessboard; in the sky over a body of water, floats a giant pair of lips. Here, Man Ray truly creates an imaginative, dreamlike world using unconventional photographic processes, combining his own colorless painting with multiple other photos. The resulting work is almost nightmarish and confusing, the woman in a mysterious world entirely unlike our own.

Man Ray confronts the surrealist focus on eroticism more directly with works like “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” Utilizing another non-traditional technique, the image is made up of multiple exposures depicting a nude female with her arms raised over her head. Again, there is an otherworldly element to this image. The face is partly obscured, proportions are distorted, and the solid black background forces the viewer to directly experience the overlapping line and shape of the body; special attention is drawn to the exaggerated breasts and contrasted genitals. The nude form, nearly always female, appears regularly through Man Ray’s and other surrealist works. In his image “The Violin of Ingres,” a nude woman is painted to resemble a violin. Her body, quite plainly, becomes an instrument to be used and played like an object.

Solarization was another experimental technique that frequently appears in Man Ray’s photographs; the photographer would intentionally reverse the light and dark tones on his negatives. In his portraits of, Gertrude Stein, Lee Miller, and Jacqueline Goddard, Man Ray photographs in a very traditional and straightforward style and only later adds a distorting twist to the image through the process of solarization. The surrealist obsession with visions and reveries is also very much a part of these images. The viewer is left entirely alone to determine the circumstance of the photograph. Attempts to unravel details in order to decipher a narrative – the identity of the woman, her thoughts, her mental state – are entirely useless. Man Ray, in line with the other surrealists of his time, had no qualms about potential confusion in the viewer. Surrealism rejected any traditional notion of right or wrong, normality, reality, in use of the camera itself as well as in the images created through it. This was all ignored in favor of alternative photographic methods that assisted Man Ray’s creation of illusions and hallucinations. These, in turn, reflected the movement’s obsession with the subconscious, Freud, and imagination.

The Surrealist community was slowed in the wake of the political turmoil following the Second World War, however, the surrealist movement fully unraveled in 1966 when Breton died. The photography world had all but exploded when surrealism was fading, with the rise of commercial and fashion markets and an increased respect for fine art photography. Yet the avant-garde nature of surrealist photography remained timeless, allowing photographers like Man Ray to publish books, work as a fashion photographer for the likes of Vogue, and be continually exhibited beyond his death in 1976. His lifetime body of work displays a combination of experimental techniques and overarching surrealist principles, making him a chief contributor to both photography as an artistic medium and the surrealist movement. Breton had said surrealism was complete nonconformity. “The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful,” he wrote in 1924. It was a fitting statement for a movement that utilized photography as an art form in a way that had never been done before, creating nonrepresentational images of dreams and nightmares.

 

Meghan Garven is a second year student at the School of Visual Arts, studying photography with honors. She is a freelance photographer who also works part-time at Sasha Wolf Gallery and her research interests include Fauvism and Modernist photography.

ESSAY: Alexey Titarenko, St Petersburg

In 1991, when the Soviet Union was coming apart, Alexey Titarenko was out in his native Saint Petersburg, trying to make sense of what he saw—a surge of people outside a steep entrance to the subway. “I was walking on the street, absorbing what’s happening. And passing by a subway station I see this sea—this ocean of desperate people trying to get inside,” he recalls in his strong accent, carefully enunciating his words. Although street photography was not his usual approach, Titarenko had had a long-standing interest in making art with his camera. In his head, he heard the somber music of Dmitri Shostakovich, a favorite composer. “The beginning of the Second Cello Concerto is like a long-exposure image by itself,” he says, “and the melody of the cello is so long and so tired.” Together the sight and sound suggested a way to make a photograph that reflected the slow-moving gravitas of the scene. He decided to take photos of it using a shutter speed several minutes long.

In the resulting images, the crowd blurs into a ghostly mass, but certain forms remain visible. A sense of weight and darkness emerges, and the world is transformed into something metaphoric. A hand appears at intervals along the metal subway railing, hinting at the plodding rhythm of the crowd, while behind it, the city is gray and leafless. A pair of shoes sits forlornly at the bottom of the frame, as if their owner had dematerialized.

Those photographs, which initiated Titarenko’s “St. Petersburg” series in 1991, marked the beginning of his interest in the expressive potential of photography and grew into “City of Shadows,” a suite of haunting images of Saint Petersburg crowds that occupied him until 1994. The series won him acclaim in his hometown and convinced him that this kind of photography was worth exploring. “I began to take images because I felt that it was my mission,” he remembers. As the economy collapsed, “the changes happened so quickly and so dramatically, and it was so huge a shock, that it changed me internally. It made me a different person. I said to myself, I can’t stay inside of my room when disaster is happening. I have a good camera, a lot of film.”

But Titarenko was not interested in making images that recorded only the surface of what he saw. “What is important is how we feel,” he says. Since “City of Shadows,” he has produced a series of emotionally intense, painstakingly printed black-and-white photographs of several cities. His work has been shown in festivals and museums around the world, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. Recently he had a solo exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore. In New York he is represented by Nailya Alexander Gallery (run by his wife), where his work sells for between $2,500 and $6,000.

Above the sound of water running in washing trays in his Harlem basement darkroom, Titarenko, 51 [update] years old but boyish, with a shaggy, gray-tinged bowl cut, explains that city photography did not always appeal to him. Growing up in the Soviet Union, he says, “I hated street photography because for me it was always a tool of propaganda,” which depicted only sanitized, government-approved scenes. But an interest in photomontage, Dadaism, and Constructivism drew him as a teenager to the underground photo clubs of the 1970s. There he began to see that this method could have an honest critical voice. “People in these clubs were taking pictures that were not allowed to be published,” he recalls.

Collage offered Titarenko a way to make art that might be obliquely critical but still approved by censors. He began incorporating tissue paper and images torn from magazines and newspapers into his photographs, and photographing the results. In the mid-’80s, after studying photography in school and fulfilling his military service, he was still interested in the idea of collage, and he began sandwiching together his negatives so that photographs of public statues often ended up superimposed onto the text printed on street signs. “I loved this project. But at my happiest time at work on the series, the Soviet Union collapsed,” he says ruefully. “It’s like for people who worked all their life to fight the Franco regime in Spain, and then Franco just died. All these artists became obsolete. Nothing to fight.”

Not all of Titarenko’s images are as bleak as his earliest. In the series that followed “City of Shadows,” the artist explored a more light-filled cosmopolitan vision titled “Black and White Magic of St. Petersburg,” inspired by a short story by Dostoyevsky. He has also photographed the intensely romantic cities of Venice and Havana, both of which relate to Saint Petersburg, in his view, since the former was an architectural model for the Russian city and the latter was frozen in the 1950s by economic sanctions, like the Soviet Union. In 2007 Titarenko moved to New York, and he has spent the years since coming to terms with the logistics of making photographs here. “The difference is that there is more density in New York, so I try to create different colors,” he says. Using multiple chemical processes that add warm and cool tones to his gelatin silver prints, he creates an illusion of color. In a shot of Fifth Avenue, American flags stand out at every corner, whispering red, white, and blue. A show of images from his new hometown, “Alexey Titarenko: New York,” is on view at Nailya Alexander gallery until May 16,

Whatever his subject, Titarenko seems to deeply enjoy printing his work, spending hours in his red-lit darkroom listening to classical music. By burning, dodging, solarizing, bleaching, and toning sections of each print, he highlights different details and produces versions of the same negative with slightly varying resonances. Reprinting older negatives, he says, “I’m actually apprehending the image more and more. I see more there, because the negative has thousands of details. It pushes me to emphasize something I just didn’t see in the first place”.

 

Portrait-150x150Rebecca Robertson is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is a freelance writer, curator and photo editor in Queens. She studied photography and art history at Bryn Mawr College and received her MFA in photography and related media from the School of Visual Arts. She has worked in the New York art world for more than 10 years. She has written about photography for ARTnews magazine and curated shows, most recently a series of benefit exhibitions for UNICEF.

 

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews.
Images ©Alexey Titarenko/Nailya Alexander Gallery

ESSAY: Anne Collier’s “Woman with a Camera”

Here is Faye Dunaway shot in black and white, holding a weighty Nikon to her eye, and adjusting the focus ring; here she is again, this time in color, the camera pulled back and uncertainty clouding her stare. The pair of prints—which show publicity photos from the 1978 thriller Eyes of Laura Mars—are from Anne Collier’s ongoing series “Woman with a Camera,” which explores the power dynamics of taking pictures. Photographed on a plain white background, the text accompanying one press photo reports that the movie is about the vision of a woman who foresees murders and that it was produced, directed, and written by men. In Collier’s coolly expressive work, on view in her first career retrospective that opened last fall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and travels next to the Aspen Art Museum, she exposes the sometimes sexist or sublime patterns lurking in popular culture.

Using the slick mechanisms of advertising, she isolates old forms of media—photos, pages from books, cassette tapes, and record albums—and reshoots them. Her own photographs draw attention to the assumptions embedded in these artifacts, often about what it means for women to look and be looked at.

“Her work feels timely and relevant because we’re so photo-obsessed right now,” says Michael Darling, chief curator at MCA Chicago, who organized the recently closed show. “Taking a retrospective look at these technologies and how women have been portrayed in them prepares you to think about how photos are being used today,” says Darling. While Collier digs through older analog media, her work is useful for thinking about contemporary depictions of women, such as iPhone selfies of Kim Kardashian. “It’s the same kind of woman with a camera,” says Darling. “In many ways we haven’t come that far from these seemingly super-sexist pictures that Anne has uncovered in her photo archeology. I’m excited about how her work can create visual literacy and inspire critical thinking in our audiences.”

 

Portrait-150x150Rebecca Robertson is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is a freelance writer, curator and photo editor in Queens. She studied photography and art history at Bryn Mawr College and received her MFA in photography and related media from the School of Visual Arts. She has worked in the New York art world for more than 10 years. She has written about photography for ARTnews magazine and curated shows, most recently a series of benefit exhibitions for UNICEF.

 

A version of this article appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews. “Anne Collier” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum from April 10 to June 28, 2015.

Images ©Anne Collier/Anton Kern Gallery/MCA Chicago

ESSAY: Are We a Culture That Produces Artworks or Things?

The influence of capitalism on the art market seems to be stronger than ever. Holland Cotter’s New York Times piece on the current state of the art industry repeated this statement time and time again. The pressure of the art market – who’s buying, what’s selling – is influencing many artists, especially those just beginning a long career, to the point of adapting an almost universal aesthetic that’s easy to market and sell. His view, though reasonably negative, is realistic in arguing that most artwork is now made in order to be sold. Yet, not every artist creates pieces that are things before they are works. The idea of an art object as a work of art versus a thing to be bought and sold is somewhat dependent on factors like location and age, but most of all on the thing that most drives the art market today anyway: money.

It is arguable that many works of art not produced with this ‘commercial intention’ but rather for the sake of creating are done by a younger set of artists, due to their possession of the freedom to experiment and create that is so elusive for older artists concerned with the industry and a career. Pre-art school and before a career-oriented, professional standard of creating, teenagers have the luxury of creating for creation’s sake. Teenage photographers and other artists still living with their parents, financially supported and often living removed from a major art market, are left with a non-commercial method of production far removed from the overhang influence of the art industry. There is no need to earn money from their art, and so work is created almost entirely separately from the financial pressures of an art market. In spite of the mostly-amateur nature of the work being created, this time period may in fact be the only time when artists are free to create almost entirely detached from the influence of a career; there is no need to create commodities or to work within a marketable aesthetic.

Once the young artist grows, perhaps attends art school and enters the professional art market, the line between works and things blurs significantly. (Art school, regardless, is mostly a privilege afforded to those with at least some semblance of financial stability and a support system. In this sense, art schools are already churning out somewhat privileged and industry-ready workers to then be picked apart and narrowed down by a more powerful elite group.) Unless the artist is financially stable and relatively unconcerned with achieving professional success, it is nearly impossible to create without at least considering the sway of the art industry (‘Is this marketable?’). For the rookie working artist or even the experienced careerist, nothing happens in a vacuum. Art is an industry, for better or worse, and is therefore inextricably tied to capitalism – which then determines nearly all other practical factors for living and working in this postmodern economy. Outside of the hobbyist and the youngest group of artists involved in work production, nearly all working professional artists are somewhat tied to creating things that will fit within the art industry’s marketable, capitalist standard. Money creates artists that create more money for a group that already controls a mass amount of finances in the art world.

Most professional artists do not enter the process of art creation with the intention of creating a product: something that is reduced, at face value, to a price tag. However, as previously stated, capitalism is constant background noise. Do artists want to reject the traditional artwork to create things? No, and most of the time their intentions stray far from that objective. However, the capitalist market, a pressure for financial stability, and the current state of the art industry render many, if not most, complicit anyway.

 

MMeghan Garven is a second year student at the School of Visual Arts, studying photography with honors. She is a freelance photographer who also works part-time at Sasha Wolf Gallery and her research interests include Fauvism and Modernist photography.

Review: Thomas Struth at the Metropolitan Museum

Struth PantheonThomas Struth (German, born 1954) is widely recognized as one of the most important photographers from the second half of the 20th century. In this exhibition, one can discover the Metropolitan Museum’s unparalleled holdings of photographs from this master photographer. An intimate exhibition in size, it nevertheless allows visitors to gauge Struth’s absolute grandeur.

The life-size photographs are an almost recursive encounter. Struth presents groups of captivated tourists, embraced by art and architecture that seem to devour them with their magnitude. This can be said of the resounding presence of Milan Cathedral, the Pantheon in Rome or the Imperial City in Tiananmen Square. The NASDAQ may be another face of the great forces that deceitfully invade our space. However, unlike the other monuments, its presence does not gather much notice, admiration or celebration, despite its immensity.

The exhibition is also an opportunity to discover or re-discover the series of street scenes – mostly from the late 1970s – from New York, Venice or Chicago. Although these scenes are an ode to global architecture (or its globalization), they leave the viewer unsettled due to the striking absence of human figures. Unless united by a devotional gaze, people only appear in Struth’s universe in intimate settings, for example Eleonor and Giles Robertson, both historians, in their Edinburgh home or the Restorers in their studio at San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples.

The exhibition manages to be compelling and comprehensive with only 25 images from the late 1970s to 2013.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, until February 16, 2015

Reine Ullmann Okuliar

 

Credit: Thomas Struth, Pantheon, Rome (1990), via MetMuseum.org

Interview: Sasha Wolf, Director of Sasha Wolf Gallery

 New York Photography Diary met with Sasha Wolf, director of Sasha Wolf Gallery at 70 Orchard Street, to discuss her experience, her gallery and how being a gallery owner is changing in contemporary culture.

Catherine Troiano: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started out.

Sasha Wolf: I did a lot of photography when I was young in high school. My father made television commercials and taught me how to use a camera – he was actually a very good photographer. When I was in college I thought I wanted to be a writer, but then I’ve always been in love with film. When I was growing up there were more independent theatres than there are now. I loved old movies, so I would to go to a theatre that would show double bills of old Humphrey Bogart or John Huston films.
When I was in college, a real turning point for me was seeing a John Sayles film called Return of the Secaucus 7. It’s funny, because sometimes I think in retrospect you create narratives of how things happened, but this is really how it happened to me. It was one of those films that was shot with no budget, nor really any plot. It was about old friends getting together over a weekend and was almost like the precursor to the film The Big Chill – but a low budget version with a bunch of actors who weren’t particularly great.
I remember that it was a lightening bolt moment for me because it felt like real life. It was poignant, I was very moved by it compared to how I felt about Hollywood films. I was too young in the so-called great age of American cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s where people like Terrence Malick and Mike Nichols were making films like The Graduate or Bad Lands, so I grew up with the bigger films like Star Wars. When I saw that you could actually make a film that was more about real life, I felt I wanted to be a filmmaker, which was good because I wasn’t a very good writer. So, I started getting involved in filmmaking.
I supported myself with jobs in the production world and working at production houses, and I wound up in a very expensive, intensive program at NYU for filmmaking. But, I also worked for my dad over the summers, so I was learning a lot about photography too. Eventually, I got really burnt out in filmmaking because, in order to support a very expensive habit of actually making the films, I worked in the film and television industry, which I hated. It just wasn’t for me, and I got to the point where I couldn’t go on in that industry any more.
The last film I made was a short film nominated for a Palm D’Or at Cannes, so I thought ‘this is a good place to stop!’. I’d had a wonderful time, I was really proud of all the work I had done and I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I was still making a lot of photographs. I’d actually built a dark room in my apartment so I was still very involved in photography and it just sort of came to me. The truth is sort of fantastical, again, but I was lying in bed at around 3am and I thought ‘aren’t there something called private dealers?’.
I had no experience in the art world so I jumped up, googled it, started learning about it and decided that’s what I was going to do. For five years, I found artists who’s work I liked and, because I had a lot of connections in the film and television world (I had spent a lot of time in LA), I would go out to the west coast, almost like a travelling salesperson, with photographs and sell work. I’d have pop up shows in my apartment and five years later I had enough financial, moral and intellectual support to open a gallery. I didn’t really want to open a gallery; I didn’t really want the overhead and the having to get up at a certain time every day, but I did it. It was a really bizarre entrance to the industry because I had never worked in a gallery. So, when I first started I had to call people I’d met, like Tom Gitterman or Michael Foley and ask ‘how do you write an invoice?’. I didn’t know anything! ‘How do you pack a print?’. I appreciate the support I got from people I had been introduced to.

CT: How do you decide what to show and who to represent?

SW: I show work that I feel the most passionately about. People misunderstand and think that because I don’t show any highly conceptual (first of all, I think all work is conceptual, but just to stick with the terms that we use) work or work that’s made on a computer or that has been highly manipulated, that I somehow have disdain or a lack of respect for that type of work – that’s really not true. There are artists whom I love working in that way, but it’s not my passion.
My passion is for work that is of the physical world and where I feel that for me as a viewer there is an easier entrée into that work. I always say, with work that that I would call new documentary or post-documentary, that there’s more room for my fantasies if I’m not overly concerned with what the artist was intending. Having said that, it is incredibly important to me that all the work that I show is very authored, that it has a strong point of view and that it feels very much like it’s coming from the deep recesses of their psyche. But, I do find that when it is work that is of the material world and when it’s something I really recognize, that there’s more room for my own fantasies. I think it’s important to specialize in something and it’s a no-brainer for me to specialize in these things that I feel most connected to and passionately about.

CT: How important is it to you that your artists have had a formal education in photography?

SW: It’s not. I don’t care whether my artists have been to the best schools or no schools. What’s important to me is that they have incredible depth of knowledge of the history of photography. Whether they learned that themselves or whether they learned that in school, it doesn’t matter to me. I think that all work at this point is riffing off other work. I’m not that interested in people reinventing the wheel; I think that when people get too preoccupied with doing something totally new it can lead them astray from their own voice.
But, it is important that if their work is part of a genre or similar to an artist that came before them, that they somehow incorporate that as a riff. Almost like if you listen to someone like Dave Brubeck or a lot of great jazz musicians, they often incorporate other songs into the songs that they’re playing. It will have little flurries and parts of other songs, and I think that’s more or less the way I think of what I want from my artists. If I say to them, oh my gosh, this has Harry Callahan in it, I don’t want them to say ‘really?’, I want them to say ‘Oh, that’s so great that you noticed, because I definitely look to Callahan as an inspiration’ – I think that’s great.

CT: Do you ever have to negotiate your own taste with the needs of the gallery or do the two usually align?

SW: I only show what I love, and for sure there have been times when that has been detrimental. I could be showing work that’s easier, but I don’t have any interest in owning a business so there’s no gain for me in working with anything that I don’t love. There’s plenty of work involved in running a business that is not fun, from picking insurance companies to figuring out gallery software systems, so I’m not going to compromise on the work I show. It’s also really important to me that when I talk to potential and existing clients that my enthusiasm is real, I don’t want to be acting. I think it’s important for me to be as authentic as the work that I’m showing.

CT: Your shows are always impeccably edited, is this process something that you enjoy doing or do you approach it with apprehension?

SW: I love editing. If I had my way, all I would be doing is looking for new artists, editing work, curating shows and working on book projects. I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I’d be working with my favourite clients because they’re like me, obsessed with photography. It’s fun when you have great clients who are photo-junkies, it’s great to talk with them about what they’re seeing in the gallery that they love, what I love and which my favourite pieces are. I feel blessed to have a lot of clients who feel like I do.
I consider myself a photo-addict. If I was wealthy, my collection would be out of control because I fall in love with at least one photograph a day. But, I love editing and I consider myself a pretty ruthless editor. I have a philosophy which is that when you look at bodies of work, whether in gallery shows or whether in books (and this is where a lot of people and I part ways), if you fell in love with something at the beginning you should remember it at the end. It’s not my intention to overwhelm someone or to be repetitious unless the repetition is integral to the body of work.
I love being ruthless. All the work has got to be great. There’s no reason for it to just be good, unless it’s really informing something, in which case including it makes sense. Otherwise, it doesn’t need to be there. And I’m perfectly comfortable with shows or books that have 15 photographs. That doesn’t mean that the artist doesn’t have a larger body of work that’s incredibly comprehensive, it just means that for this experience I don’t want to overwhelm you. I want you to be able to stand in front of an image, take your time and know that you’ll be able to get to the end of the show and still remember the first thing that you fell in love with.

CT: The gallery has been in several different locations, including your own apartment. Has the art or your clients changed or been influenced by the various locations?

SW: I don’t think so. I don’t think location has really had much effect. I know that the location that I’m in now on the lower east side feels the most aligned with my own sensibilities. It feels like a very nice, clean show space in some ways – it’s very white – but in other ways it feels like a salon. I feel like myself, the people who work with me in the gallery and clients are all very comfortable here. I think they’ve been comfortable at every space, I think every space has been quite elegant and warm at the same time – it’s always what I’m trying to achieve. But, I think this space is a very comfortable space, which is important. I want people to look forward to coming to see me.

CT: How are the day-to-day operations different on the LES in comparison to, for example TriBeCa, or your more recent location in Chelsea?

SW: I don’t think there’s anything different about being on the Lower East Side as far as the gallery goes. I think that my experience is very different because it’s extremely collegiate down here, I’m located on a street made up of many small businesses about which their owners feel very passionately about.
On one side, we have a vintage clothing store that is very high end and impeccably curated, on the other side we have a jewellery store where all the jewellery is made by the store’s owner, a couple of doors down is a men’s clothing store where all of the clothing is made by the owner Robert James, and on and on it goes down the block. There’s something that’s extremely energizing and wonderful about a very collegiate location, where you can talk to each other about your woes, your high points, low points – everyone’s really pulling for each other and that’s a very different experience for me.

CT: How do you make sense of the ever-growing art fair circuit?

SW: I think in general, like everything else in life, things change. When I first opened the gallery almost 8 years ago, I made a rule that none of my artists could be represented by any other gallery. They could be in shows and I would work to have them shown in as many other places as possible, but I would be their gallery. This was considered really out of the norm, but the gallery world is still stuck in some ways, like a lot of businesses, in an old model that doesn’t take the internet and the way technology works into account. For instance, the model used to work very well – you had to be in galleries on the west coast, the east coast, in Chicago, in Houston and so on because there was no other way for people to see your work.
But now, my best clients are on the west coast, period. I sell the most to people on the west coast and all the transactions are done by them looking at the work online, calling me and us having in-depth conversations. If my artists were represented by galleries on the west coast, all of those sales would go to those galleries.
I think that art fairs are just another part of the way in which the art world is evolving from people figuring out ways in which they can make things work better or differently. I personally don’t love art fairs because they’re really, really tiring. They take you out of the gallery, there’s a lot of small talk that goes on, which isn’t something I love – I prefer to have more in-depth conversations with people so I find it psychologically challenging to stand around for four to five days and possibly not have one of those conversations with anyone.
But, it doesn’t matter – that’s the way it is now and it is a lot easier. If you’re a big collector in Brussels, it’s a lot easier for you to come in for Armory Week and do all your buying at once rather than going around a million different galleries. I think of galleries like showrooms. It’s a really nice office, but we don’t really sell shows. We just sell work, it’s about continually selling work that people are interested in and you never know what that’s going to be. Art fairs are just another part of the crapshoot now. But, if it makes it a lot easier for people to buy work, then of course it’s going to be successful. There’s no way it’s going to stop if the client, the person who is spending the money, has deemed it incredibly convenient. Then, it’s going to continue and we all have to just adapt to that.

CT: The gallery is one of a small-ish number that exclusively show photography. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that?

SW: I think that there are not many advantages but they are very clear, which is that if you love photography and you love the type of post-documentary work that I show, then you know that if you come in here that’s what you’ll get. We tend to hear that a lot – people come in and say how much they love coming because they know that whenever they stop by they’re going to be rewarded. That is a real joy for me to hear, I’m so happy when people tell me that. So, I feel like there’s a real, clear advantage to having your niche because it means people can count on you for something.
I think the disadvantages are pretty big. I get a much smaller slice of the potential collector pie and that pie is very small to begin with. The amount of people who are going to spend their money on original artwork versus putting money towards their kid’s college fund, a vacation, a new sofa or a down-payment on a house is incredibly small, so it’s even smaller if you’re only considering photography. But, this is what I love, so this is what I do. I don’t think it’s the best business plan, but it’s what I’m stuck with.

CT: How do you think photography collectors are different from collectors of broader art?

SW: I don’t. I think that people, just like I have as a photography gallerist, find things that they love. Whether you’re a stamp collector or you collect baseball cards, you find something that you love and that speaks to you for whatever reason. I think that being a collector means you have a particular type of personality. Most people are not collectors of anything, but if you’re a collector of something you’re a certain type of person. I don’t know what that type of person is, I don’t want to examine it too closely, but you’re definitely a particular type of person.

CT: Do you collect for yourself, other than photography?

SW: I collect 90% photography and 10% whatever, if I see something that I love. I own a couple of paintings and a couple of drawings and two pieces of sculpture. So not a lot, but when I see something I love, I’ll buy it! I’m a collector, which means I’ll spend money I don’t have. Unfortunately, the paying off of things over time is something that’s a part of my life.

CT: Finally, do you have any advice for young photographers?

SW: I have a lot of advice for young photographers, but to be concise I’ll pick the most important thing, well, couple of things. One is that you have to shoot in your own voice, but that’s advice I’d give to any artist. It doesn’t matter what you love – when I was a filmmaker I used to write things that were somewhat whimsical, almost like magical realism, which is not by any means my favourite genre of film but it was my voice. You cannot go against that, you have to honour it even if it’s not what you were expecting or hoping for. I’d say that’s the number one thing.
On a practical note, I would say never underestimate the importance of networking, even in the art world. That means being as charming, gracious, humble and giving as possible. I could cite a million examples of people who were making good work, never got picked up by a gallery, but were always hanging around being endearing. Little by little, they were included in more group shows until they were picked up. Just like in any other walk of life, being likeable, getting out there and meeting people is very important.

 

securedownload-150x150Catherine Troiano is co-editor of New York Photography Diary. She is Gallery Manager at a New York photography gallery, who also works independently as a curatorial consultant and researcher. She has experience in various institutions in New York, Edinburgh and London, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, currently, the Sasha Wolf Gallery. She holds an MA in History of Art from the University of Edinburgh, and her interests include inter-war Eastern European photography, Hungarian art and contemporary art.

A Letter From The Editors

bourke-white4In 1930, New York’s Museum of Modern Art began collecting photography, making it one of the first institutions to consider the medium a legitimate art form. Seven years later, Beaumont Newhall mounted the museum’s first large-scale exhibition of photographic works. This show was central in establishing an enduring place for photography in the arts and Newhall, who went on to become the first Director of Photography at MoMA in 1940, contributed a lifetime’s worth of scholarship to the history of the medium.

Since then, as the city has grown, the volume and scope of art in New York has expanded exponentially, and with it, photography. The medium’s relationship to the broader art world has proven slippery and hard to pin down at times, but its current place demands respect. It is easily found among the exhibition schedules of galleries and museums, in the roster of post-graduate university courses and as the topic of scholarly symposia. Furthermore, it has surpassed the sometimes-rigid boundaries of scholarship; contemporary photography is as present in the work of amateur and emerging artists as vintage photography is in museum collections.

Here is where we come in. László Moholy-Nagy’s prediction that “the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera” has become resoundingly true, and New Yorkers have no excuse for ignorance. In this city, you can find galleries and museums showing every kind of photography from all over the world, from Daguerrotypes to documentary photography and salt prints to the most contemporary interpretations of the medium. At New York Photography Diary, we cover the entirety of the New York photography scene, from museum retrospectives of established artists to small shows from emerging talent. We’ll make you aware of lectures, events and auctions, and frame it all with articles provided by our writers.

We want to make this diverse world inclusive and comprehensive, so that everyone has a chance to get involved.

Catherine and Rebecca, Co-Editors, NY Photography Diary

 

credit: Margaret Bourke-White, Chrysler Building, 1930-31.