by Gary Faye
Collecting photographs is exciting. It is also challenging, fulfilling, profitable, and fun. These are some of the views expressed by several Houston collectors. They share a common enthusiasm and pride for their photographs, and each collection has its own distinct character. While they are aware of investment value, their purchases are finally made for a very personal reason: "because I liked it." Though most of the photographs have appreciated considerably in value, none of the collectors has realized the profits in a sale. They love the prints too much to let them go,
Petra Benteler, owner of Benteler Galleries, began collecting in 1975 and bought "Allee", her first print, while still a student of photography in Germany. The negative was made in 1923 by Renger-Patzsch. Her next find was a 1907 Kuhn photograph of a woman and child. She already collected works in other media by artists she knew, but there was something very different about collecting photographs. Six months after completing her studies. Petra decided to become a dealer and eventually to open a gallery, something she thought she would never do. Interested in "straight" photography, she started collecting European images of the ‘20s and '30s, focusing initially on the work of the "Neue Sachlichkeit," the trend of the New Objectivity.
In 1978, she bought her first American photographs. Her collection has grown to include work by Steichen and more contemporary work by Callahan, Shore, and Slavin and is no longer restricted to any particular period, Petra is drawn to color as well as black & white, and her interests include people, landscape, and still Life. None of her personal collection has been sold.
Benteler notes that while photographers express themselves through their work, her own personal expression is through curating shows and designing catalogs. With a warm gesture toward a superbly hung exhibit, she said. This is my art.' Her contribution in bringing this work lo our attention is an important one indeed. Her gallery, located at 2409 Rice Boulevard in the Rice Village, is devoted exclusively to European photography.
The issue of "photography as art" was settled for collector John Cleary at a 1978 Cronin Gallery exhibit of Ansel Adams' work. Before that, he had read only one article on the medium, but he immediately recognized the quality of Adams' pictures. An experienced stockbroker, well grounded in collecting other art (graphics, books, and antiques). John was initially cautious and waited four years to make his first purchase, 'Carousel- by Doisneau. Four more Doisneau photographs followed. The collection rapidly expanded to include vintage as well as contemporary European and American photographs. The oldest- "Men of the 68th Regiment" — a Crimean War photograph by Roger Fenton, dates back to 1856. Other early purchases were Civil War images by O’Sullivan and Barnard. His favorite acquisition is an original issue of Camerawork with 17 original Steichen gravures. He is still looking for the right Steichen silver print.
John's constant research and study of photography has resulted in a collection of some sixty major prints, and library of over one hundred books. The collection is about half American and almost completely black and white. It includes people and landscapes from artists like Edward S. Curtis, Bravo, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams.
Asked about the ultimate direction of his collection, John answered. "I would eventually like to include work by all the major contemporary photographers.' a task not nearly as ambitious as it would be in sculpture or painting. "Photography is so much more affordable." he said.
Unlike many collectors. John is not a photographer himself, preferring to spend his free lime acquiring new knowledge of the medium - its techniques, styles, artists, and rare images.
Mike Marvin's background in photography dates back generations. He comes from a family of portrait photographers and when he's not behind the camera making his own pictures, he researches the work of outers for his extensive collection. He began collecting only five years ago after taking a course on collecting photographs at Rice. His intense interest in history is reflected in the vintage prints that form the bulk of his collection. His ambition is to have examples of work representing every major photographic period and process.
His first purchase was "Mother and Father," a silver print by Lartigue. Gravures by Alvin Langdon Coburn followed. Other gravures include a 1915 Steiglitz, "City Across the River," another hand-pulled 1911 gravure by Cobum. and a set of Strand's images from Camerawork. His earliest photograph is a Henry Fox Talbot calotypc. "Bust of Patroculus." made in 1841 only two years after photography began. Another calotypc is an 1851 Roger Fenton Civil War photograph of "Col. Shadford and the 5th Regiment."
The collection also ranges from samples of albumen printing, such as Alexander Gardner's "Fairfax Courthouse" and G.N. Barnard's "Whiteside Valley Below the Bridge," to platinum prints by Gertrude Kascbicr and Edward S, Curtis.
Because collecting vintage photography demands careful study. Mike has accumulated a sizable library of reference books. Early photographers didn't produce nearly as many prints as our contemporaries do. and often work was unsigned, making identification and authentication difficult. But that makes the discoveries more rewarding.
Mike's interests are not limited to the 19th century. He has many excellent examples of contemporary photography such as Kertesz' "Hands and Glasses", and prints by Eugene Smith. Carrier- Bresson, and Bravo. The collection is evenly divided between portrait and non-portrait, European and American, and Mike still buys what he likes, even if it has nothing to do with the direction of the collection.
The prints usually come from auctions and travelling dealers, and Marvins has teamed up with friend John Cleary lo make joint purchases. By pooling their resources theyfound they could invest in work that they wouldn't buy as individuals. This way they can both enjoy the work at half the cost. Two recent joint ventures are an Eliot Porter portfolio and a set of Edward Curtis photogravures. Mike feels the current low prices brought on by a depressed market provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors.
Photographer Gay Block became interested in photography in 1971. as a student of architecture. She began making photographs in 1973 as an extension of that work. By 1974, she was studying at the Rice Media Center with Geoff Winningham and her career goals had switched completely to photography. About that time, she began collecting.
Her first two prints were by Cartier-Bresson - one from Greece, the other from India. Additions to the collection centered on the human experience: portraits and suspended moments in daily life. Although most of the work is contemporary, there are earlier photographs too. such as a 1915 August Sander portrait, a circa 1910 Bellocq (printed by Lee Friedlander), and two Strand portraits from the 1920s and 1930s.
She lives with the work all around her. Most of it is intense and magnetic: Bill Brandt's portrait of Francis Bacon (one of her favorites), a Winogrand portfolio, and Larry Fink's pictures energize the room. An entire portfolio by Lisette Model is tightly grouped on one wall, the frames forming a grid from which life situations radiate. The effect is electric.
When asked what she feels is important in a portrait. Gay replied, "That one human being -for a moment - is somehow connected to another human being."
Art dealer Clint Wiltour's interest in collecting photographs evolved from a friendship with local gallery owners Tony and Robin Cronin in 1976. Through them he met Anne Tucker, curator of photography for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and his awareness of the medium developed further. First he acquired an Eliot Porter tree portrait, followed by Kipton Kumlcr's "Banana Leaves", Clint describes both of these pieces as very safe, conservative beginnings that were supplemented by more adventurous purchases later.
Clint thoroughly enjoys the prints he has acquired and talks about them with great enthusiasm, telling anecdotal stories about some of his purchases with warm humor. His next purchase, for example, came in March of 1977 at a benefit auction for the Contemporary Arts Museum where he bought a Gerald Moorhead print of "two Mardi Gras drag queens" for only $10. He added that there are excellent and provocative photographs available for very little money.
In the beginning, his collection centered on landscape or urban subjects; the people photographs came later. Being a director of the Watson-De Nagy Gallery, a dealer in fine art, Clint has a very painterly sensibility, yet he initially resisted collecting color photographs. Ironically, his first purchase was a color print. Today, thebulk of his collection is black and white, although 10-20 percent is color, hand-colored or toned. He also has albumen and palladium prints, Type C and dye-transfer color prints.
Clint's approach to collecting is unusual, in that he never sets out to buy a print he has seen previously. He feels that popular images can be enjoyed at gallery shows, museum exhibits, or in excellent reproductions. He buys prints that please him and has no particular limitations other than budget and personal taste. He is less concerned with investment value than with visual impact and says he will eventually donate all the photographs to the MFA. The collection has a strong otherworldly quality and includes work by George Tice, George Krause, Bruce Davidson. Clarence John Laughlin, Bravo, Arbus. and Richard Misrach.
Clint delights in the work of unknown or little-known artists. While he buys from dealers across the country, he takes a strong interest in the local scene, and is a frequent juror and supporter of student exhibitions
(Private, continued by Paul Hester)
Wally Wilson's strong interest in photography came about through his interest in art in general. His company, Wilson Industries, has an important art collection that has been very supportive of local artists. Photography was scheduled to be the next area of concentration for the company's purchases, but that has been delayed by the slowdown in Houston‘s economy. The percentage of the collection now devoted to photography is very small, but il does include work by Suzanne Bloom (from her White Oak Bayou series), Casey Williams. Sally Gall. Buddy demons, and Peter Brown. Wilsons definition of local has stretched lo include work from Garry Winogrand’s rodeo series, and pictures by William Christenberry from Southern Exposure.
The company was advised on its purchases by Joan Seeman-Robinson, who works as an independent art consultant. Wilson began buying from the Cronin Gallery, then moved to Mancini Gallery, Texas Gallery, and more recently, to Benteler Gallery. He also likes to buy at auctions and from dealers in New York such as Peter MacGill, who was at Light Gallery and is now in a joint venture with Pace Galleries.
Wilson's interests have tended toward a concentration in one period, such as European work from the 1900s and 1930s, to contemporary European. He now follows a few contemporary photographers, such as Nic Nicosia. He is not buying much now, but is looking a great deal. He feels a practical consideration in the increased size of recent work, and the problems of where to put them.
Wilson stresses that his small personal collection is not a museum-type vintage collection, but includes recent prints by some of the same photographers seen in museums. Two of the more familiar contemporary names he mentions are Lee Friedlandcr and Len Gensell.
Buddy Clemons went to a New York auction in 1978 with a good chunk of money that he'd made from a real estate deal. He had been making photographs since he'd edited the yearbook at Lamar High School, and had purchased from Robin Cronin his First photograph, a Bill Brandt image of London rooftops. In that first auction at Christie's he bought over two dozen photographs and had such a good lime that he went back for three years in a row. It was at that point that he opened his gallery. But after disappointing sales with such names as Eisenstadt, Callahan, and Erwjtt, he became convinced that Houston didn't have enough serious collectors to support such expensive exhibitions. After all, the biggest buyers could go to New York directly. He also discovered that he missed the prints after he'd sold them. This coincided with his realization that Houston was more willing to support a moderately priced regional photographer than expensive national names; consequently, he pulled all of his collection out of the gallery and now deals exclusively in the photographer whose work outsells all the others: Buddy Clemons.
Meanwhile, his collection has grown to great proportions and includes an unusual print by Diane Arbus, less-well known images by Ansel Adams, and a vintage Walker Evans from his early work at Coney Island. Portraits of actors and actresses such as Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, and Marlon Brando are a significant portion of the collection that stems from Buddy's love of the movies. Elliott Erwitt's photograph of Jackie Kennedy on the day of President Kennedy's funeral is a powerful addition to the portraits of his collection.
Frequently Clemons opts to buy a less familiar image by a photographer rather than the more identifiable trademarks. These offer different perspectives on the person's approach to photography, and are often less expensive than the more frequently seen ones the photographer has grown tired of printing. "I've always bought because I like the photographer. If you’re collecting to make money, forget it. Real estate goes up a lot faster."
Fredericka Hunter and lan Glennie bought their first photograph in the late 1960s from 10th Street Gallery in New York City. That Duane Michals print has been joined by more than 200 other photographs. They remember writing to Lee Fricdlander in the 1960s after seeing in Holiday magazine one of his pictures of Lucy the Elephant, an architectural novelty in Atlantic City. They never bought that picture, but since have become good friends with the photographer and have several Friedlander photographs including the portfolio produced in collaboration with artist Jim Dine, Work from the Same House. Personal reverberations of things remembered are an important criterion for their collecting, and a second major emphasis is eroticism, including work by Larry Clark and Robert Mapplethorpe.
A friendship with Danny Lyon when he was photographing Texas prisons led to acquisition of his work.
In the 1970s they relied heavily on the advice of Robin and Tony Cronin during the time their two galleries were close together. First on Bissonnet and later in the River Oaks Center. Photographers they collected from that time include Nicholas Nixon, Tod Papageorge and Ed Grazda.
Through shows in their own Texas Gallery, they have acquired work by Cindy Sherman, William Wegman, Eve Sonneman, Laurie Simmons, Richard Prince, and Ellen Carrie.
They do not collect much vintage work, but the cool, intellectual work of Walker Evans is in their collection as is work by Bill Brandt from his English Life series.
They feel that it is important to encourage contemporary artists, and they buy whenever they can. They own the work of several local photographers including Suzanne Paul, Sally Gall, and Casey Williams, whom they also represent.