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Laurence Miller & Keith F.Davis : Conversation


A couple of months ago, we published some memoirs and memories of Laurence Miller.

We continue today with this interview :

This “conversation” between Keith Davis, recently retired Senior Curator for Photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and myself was conducted in 2008 for the publication of OJOS PRIVADOS, a celebration of my collecting photography.

It expands upon my experience at LIGHT Gallery from 1974-1980, and develops my relationship to photographers, and their pictures. It provides a playful discussion of the major figures in the American photography world, and how the community of photography has expanded so vigorously over that decade.

Laurence Miller


KEITH F. DAVIS: Larry, your text in this catalogue touches on a number of important themes and ideas–many of which I hope to get you to expand on in this conversation. These include the personal nature of collecting, the idea of a collection as a kind of “unauthorized autobiography,” and the notion of the “modest or private worker.” Let’s begin, however, by setting the stage historically. The early to mid-1970s, when you and I began in the field, was another world entirely—a time of enormous excitement and seemingly unlimited potential. Photography was the “hot” medium, new discoveries were being made (it seemed) every day, and the field was wide open. Can you relate your own sense of that period?

LAURENCE MILLER: The 70’s were a great time for photography… the possibilities seemed infinite, yet the community was very small. At exhibition openings at the Museum of Modern Art, for example, it felt like 200 people showed up and you knew every one of them. Today, four thousand show up and you hardly know a soul. Photography then was in a world all unto itself. The picture makers were photographers, and proud of it; the curators were specialists in the history of photography, and knew quite a bit about art in general; and the collectors, as few as there were, were in love with this magical medium that seemed so young and fresh, so full of ripe opportunities to collect. Virtually everything was under $5000.

And as my first photography professor, Cavalliere Ketchum, at the University of Wisconsin, used to say: “half the history of photography is still alive and you should go out and meet   them”     and I did. I was fortunate to meet Paul Strand, André Kertész, Minor White, Russell Lee, E.O. Goldbeck, Ruth Bernhard, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Ansel Adams, and others… and in Europe you could meet Bill Brandt, Brassai, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The “history” was really a handful of books we treated like bibles, by authors such as Beaumont Newhall, Helmut Gernsheim, John Szarkowski, Peter Pollack…and of course Robert Frank’s The Americans.

There was no competition back then between art galleries and photography galleries, no “photo- based art.” Castelli and Sonnabend Galleries showed a photographer here and there, as did John Gibson with conceptual artists who used the medium but we had the cake all to ourselves, and

we could eat it too. The few collectors at the time bought with a lot of good faith, some research, and a lot of pride. Though prices were low, it took courage to buy this newly accepted medium, to support some of the older guys like Callahan, Sommer and Siskind when they were not household names…

Of course, today, it is a very different story…

KFD: It is a different story today, and yet it seems clear that you have the same excitement about the medium that you had then. In your essay, you raise the idea of a collection as an “unauthorized autobiography.” Assuming your visual “autobiography” has changed and grown as you have, how might you describe that?

LM: When I began collecting, I was very impressionable, and took to heart the words of wisdom from my professors and especially from Beaumont Newhall’s history book. In fact, I started collecting by getting my father to buy photographs. I would come home from college, visit LIGHT Gallery, and tell my dad that he “could buy the greatest pictures in the history of photography, and they were cheap!” And he did. his first two purchases were a unique Paul Strand platinum print of a mushroom, from 1927, for $1500 less 10%, and a vintage print of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” for $500 less 10%. So he was able to buy what I wanted…

When I joined LIGHT in 1974 I started buying a few things here and there, some because I loved them, some because I thought they would be good investments. Without a doubt, the investments did so-so, and the pictures I loved I still own and love dearly. For example, the Harry Callahan of an insurance company building in Providence, Rhode Island, from 1972. not a picture many people care for—certainly it has none of the glamour that his nudes have—but it still amazes me that he could capture an entire building, very abstractly, in a single picture. He could “miniaturize” it, which always reminded me of a childhood trip to the Metropolitan Museum where they had displayed in the basement a miniature version of the Roman Forum. I loved the idea of capturing something huge, larger than life, and making it small. You know, I tried repeatedly to make this photograph myself, but never succeeded like Harry did.

Throughout my tenure at LIGHT, I acquired mostly from the artists we represented and exhibited: Callahan, Siskind, Thomas Barrow, Robert Heinecken. But things changed when I went out on my own, when I was forced to develop my own aesthetic and artist relationships. That’s when I started representing, and collecting, Val Telberg, Ray Metzker, Helen Levitt, and later Michael Spano, Gary Brotmeyer, and Lee Friedlander. Friedlander was interesting because, in the mid-1980’s, the concept of vintage was just starting to take hold, and Lee always said his vintage prints from the 60’s were not nearly as good as his later prints…but he wanted a premium for them. I argued, to no avail, that if they were lesser prints, why not charge less for them? Of course, Lee always understood “value.”

Over the last ten years my collecting has been mostly through the Gallery, primarily focusing on lesser-known artists that have great work which is significantly undervalued. If I can help bring it value, I will reward the artist, my clients, and myself.

KFD: Your reference to Friedlander and the question of “vintage prints” brings a smile to my face. Would you say that the emphasis on “vintage” prints represents one of the major changes in our attitude toward collecting in the last 30 years?

LM: Definitely, for many collectors. I just looked over my early Sotheby’s auction catalogs, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the phrase “printed later” appears…it was not an issue back then. We just were not thinking along those lines yet. The market had not grown up, and prices were still quite low.

But now we have the terms “image” and “object.” The image is what matters to many collectors, but the specialists often demand the fine early object, the vintage print. I myself collected vintage when I could, such as my three great Lee Friedlander prints. Of course, back in the mid- 80’s, they were under $2000 each, so I could buy one here and there. His Galax, Virginia image of the TV set at the foot of the bed has proven to be one of my best investments… but of course, I love owning it and it is not for sale.

A big change is that now people come in, thinking they are serious collectors, and announce that they only want “the best vintage so and so” which seems totally boring to me—no risk, no imagination, just brand labels….. But in the early days, people were thrilled with discovering an image, an artist, it was something very personal. I liked those people most of all. Many of my early clients bought Ray Metzker prints from me. Ray was not a big name, but the work was smart and elegant. Now all those prints have become vintage and those early buyers were the real smart collectors, in my mind… they bought ahead of the curve, not after a big museum retrospective…

KFD: With time, everything becomes some form of “vintage.” While the concept has come to be interpreted in a somewhat dogmatic way, the basic notion of the “vintage” print is enormously valuable: the best or most authentic expression of the artist’s original visual idea. While it is entirely possible that an artist’s later prints might be technically “better” than their earlier ones, vintage prints typically have a patina and a “character” that is well worth “added value.” However, it’s still all about the image: a dull picture is still dull, even as a rare, early print.

In your catalog essay, you observe that one central idea in your collecting is the quality of “high energy.” I agree with this entirely, but was struck by the seeming paradox of looking to still photographs for a sense of “energy.” Could you expand on how photographs can do this, and what it is that you find particularly enticing?

LM: Well, you know that I am a high modernist, so energy for me means visual intensity, not necessarily cultural reference, sexual politics, or all the other meanings that people attach to pictures. I want the same energy we appreciate in a fine canvas by Bonnard, or Severini, or DeKooning, or even Picasso or Matisse… and the intellectual energy of a Sol Lewitt. Metzker has this, Callahan at times does, Peter Keetman does, too. Michael Spano and Lee Friedlander have it.

That energy is about internal relationships that cause the eye to swim around and discover new patterns, new harmonies, new meanings. like great music, really. Like the “Goldberg Variations”… but not really Joan Baez, the folksinger, who I like, but her music is more about story telling, told with a lovely voice.

This is a good opportunity to speak about one of my very favorite pictures, the G.B. Biggs portrait of an unknown person in a huge costume, with a cigarette holder in his mouth. I have no idea who Biggs is, when it was taken or even what is the intended subject. But I do know that the picture is a wild combination of abstract forms, and that it relates to many other pictures that I own and enjoy. It could be successfully hung alongside the Brassai Monastic Brothel, the Callahan Providence building, the Metzker Mykonos, the Mole and Thomas US Shield, the Colom of a woman in the checkered dress. That’s energy! By the way, do you know who Biggs was?

KFD: No, sad to say, I don’t! But that’s exactly one of the pleasures of your collection—the mixture of big-name artists and others that are (still) little known. There’s a certain democracy of approach here: you’re all for famous artists, but more than that, you’re interested in memorable, dynamic pictures. Pictures that have that energy you’ve just described…

LM: I think a collection should be about the pictures you love, more than the artists you admire. In response to what you call a democracy in collecting, the famous along with the unknown, a big part of my collection is about which pictures I want to install together in my apartment and my country house. And surprisingly I want to hang very few. While I have admired a hallway or stairwell or private gallery filled with many pictures in some collectors’ homes, I have only about a dozen things hanging in my apartment. A few Helen Levitts, a few Ray Metzkers, that Callahan I keep mentioning, and a few Gary Brotmeyer collages. This is probably the result of working daily in a gallery filled with hundreds of pictures; I just don’t need them all at home.

And in the country, I have the house filled mostly with my poster collection: posters made under the auspices of the WPA from 1937-43 within the state of Pennsylvania, where the house is located. For the most part, the poster designers are anonymous the less famous the better (and cheaper!). And the best of them share the same balance of detail and abstraction that I love in photography. So being a contrarian is in my blood…

KFD: I know exactly what you mean about choosing to live with a relative handful of pictures when, in your professional context, you’re absolutely surrounded by them. A memorable visual statement isn’t about quantity: it’s the personal resonance—and the orchestration—of the images.

LM: I forgot to mention how much fun it is to look under the bed and find a long-forgotten print. It’s like rediscovering an old friend, and it always makes me feel good.

KFD: The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which playfully suggested two basic types of thinkers: those with, essentially, one big idea and those who were quick and clever and varied in their creative pursuits. Do you think photography has its hedgehogs and foxes?

LM: I think we have every species (and more) that Noah invited onto his Ark: squirrels, sharks, turtles, rabbits, snakes, French poodles, falcons, scavengers, and even bottom-feeders.

KFD: A wonderful image of the “Peaceable Kingdom of Photography”! Seriously, however, no two photographers really are “the same” and your collection celebrates that diversity. It’s a matter of fitting the pieces of some larger puzzle together to create your own “picture” from the individual images.

LM: I like your analogy to a puzzle, and in my case, they all don’t fit together into a neat boxed set, unlike someone who collects pictures of hands, or nudes, or waterfalls. It’s odd, but when people ask me what I collect, I cannot answer them at all. I can only say that I am looking for a picture that fits together with the pictures I already have, but that is different. That usually gets a curious look, at best. And going back to the autobiographical nature of my collection, each new picture is equivalent to a new chapter in my life. My first trip to China yielded Chairman Mao propaganda pictures; my visits to Japan introduced me to a rare Shoji Ueda self-portrait, along with rare photography books from the 60’s; and my embracing the work of Joan Colom culminated in this exhibition in Barcelona.

KFD: So with this puzzle, you don’t have any “official” image to guide you; it’s totally intuitive. But when pieces fit together, you know it. Your mention of your travels seems just right to me: it’s all about discovery. Discovering distant places, or new life experiences of any kind, allow us to make photographic discoveries.

LM: Even though I purchase pictures for their “pictureness,” a good picture takes me to a new (or distant) place and time. For instance, the amazing Mole and Thomas U.S. Shield is composed of 30,000 military personnel, all arranged on a naval base outside Chicago, in 1918. So here we are, 90 years ago, it’s the First World War, and these guys make a picture about patriotism, and commercialism, since they hope to sell prints to each person in the picture. It just keeps reminding me of the contemporary artists who arrange bodies these days, as well as the post- 9/11 commercialism of patriotism.

KFD: In addition to its value as a cultural artifact, that Mole and Thomas is an amazing demonstration of a central thread in photography’s history: the constructed or fabricated image. Your taste obviously embraces both so-called “straight” and “constructed” images.

LM: What do we do with a straight picture of a constructed reality? Other than perhaps the photojournalists, and they have been known to position a person here and there (Arthur Rothstein was reputed to have carried that animal scull in his trunk), I would think most pictures have a constructed element. Which raises another issue: that of fact or fiction…the DoDo Jin Mings, in which she prints from two different negatives, are fabrications, as is the Les Krims of a nude woman wearing a Minnie Mouse mask, and the Brotmeyer collage of a man in a nose suit. Therefore, a fact can be clearly stated by creating a fiction…isn’t that what metaphor is all about? It’s that MOMA/Garry Winogrand cliché that nothing is as interesting as a fact clearly stated that motivates me to challenge old-fashioned established rules.

KFD: Not all facts are equally interesting, and it’s what photographers do with the “facts” in front of them that’s important. Speaking of which, how would you summarize the difference in emotional tenor between the street pictures of Levitt, Colom, and Metzker?

LM: Well, all three were emotionally involved with what was before their camera. Levitt certainly found great pleasure in the nuances of gesture expressed by her subjects, and Colom certainly loved watching the denizens of the Raval district interact. Metzker loved how light played on a surface, how abstract the real world can be when seen with his particular point of view. To my eyes, each was most interested in picture-making, not expressing social or political propaganda. So in a way they each expressed exaltation: Levitt ever so quietly, Colom ever so lovingly, and Metzker ever so boldly.

KFD: I like that! Now, a couple of semi-random questions: If you could meet and talk to any historical photographer, who would it be and why? If you could meet and talk to any famous figure (non-photographer) who would it be?

LM: I would ask Eadweard Muybridge why, in 1887, he made the outrageous sequence of the chicken being blown up by an exploding torpedo, and why he stopped the animal locomotion project after that print. I would like to ask Johann Sebastian Bach what was going on in his mind when he was composing his awesome music.

KFD: That’s quite a pair: Muybridge and Bach! This brings me back to the surprising and wonderful range of work in your collection. I’m not sure if the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous” is entirely appropriate, but it’s true at least in part: from DoDo Jin Ming to Les Krims, from Aaron Siskind to Gary Brotmeyer.

LM: Well, first off, I think there is a lot of humor in my collection, which crosses over to all kinds of pictures. The Muybridge chicken being wiped out by an explosive device is laughable (the animal rights activists will have a field day). The sublime qualities in a Metzker of branches overlapping a building make me laugh too, because it is so damn good.

KFD: I know what you mean, but these laughs come from different places: one is a response to a comic (if grisly) absurdity; the other is an expression of astonished respect. Your collection embraces both ends of what might be considered a fairly long creative spectrum: the exuberant wackiness of Brotmeyer, for example, seems profoundly different (and this is a good thing!) from, say, the poignant silence and inwardness of Bruce Wrighton’s portraits.

LM: Keith, you just hit the nail on the head. What brings these divergent works together is that they were made by individuals who worked quietly, in relative obscurity, producing powerful and poignant work. They are the reason why I titled the show, and this book, PRIVATE EYES.

KFD: Yes, I think a very big idea in your collection is this play between the visual (and visceral) intensity of the pictures and the idea of the “quiet” worker—that is, of the artist motivated strictly by his or her passion, dedication, and love of the medium, and of seeing. It’s no great leap to say that that’s precisely where the collecting urge comes from.

LM: And I see myself as one of those workers.

I am very wary of official histories, because more is excluded than included. I had the great opportunity to study with two great photo historians: Beaumont Newhall and Van Deren Coke. Their approaches were very different from one another, as were the photographers they each chose to celebrate and honor. I remember fondly the first assignment Coke gave his graduate seminar: write an antithesis to John Szarkowski’s position in John’s newly published book, Looking at Photographs. We select our own heroes. I must add, however, that the history you wrote, An American Century of Photography, is the most inclusive and comprehensive history of photography ever written. Bravo!

KFD: Well, thank you. That was my goal, certainly, and I’m glad the book is being read. I, too, studied with Beaumont and Van. I admired them both, learned different things from each of them, and—inevitably—added a good portion of myself, as well. The truth is that each of us– historians, collectors, dealers—is actively constructing a (rather than “the”) history of photography. Each of these activities results in a perspective on—or a cross-section of—that history. Each is an expression of value: a celebration of what we think matters in that overall history.

LM: Speaking of history, I see my collection as very historically referential….. in the sense that part of my excitement for the Peter Keetman Status Munchen, Pseudo-Relief, 1953, for example, is how it conjures up Daguerre’s A Parisian Boulevard, 1838, showing a man having his shoes shined. They are both city views of a large street, looking down from about a fourth-story window. In the 1838 view we barely see any traces of traffic, but in the 1953 view the city is alive with cars, trolleys, pedestrians—lots of nervous (post-war, reconstruction) energy.

Between these two pictures is 115 years of history, including the industrial revolution! Another good example is Michael Spano’s eight-part image of a backyard fence. Any student of American photo-history should be able to reference Paul Strand’s The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. So the pictures are like bookends, but all I need is to collect one end of the chronological expanse. my memory owns the other.

KFD: Absolutely! Intellectually speaking, we do have “ownership” of that past. But what about the future? What do you imagine getting excited about in coming years?

LM: Where my collection goes from here is a good question. I don’t really need to collect, since, as I said before, I am surrounded by pictures all day long. But there are some exciting projects on the horizon for the gallery, including two possible shows of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work.

Maybe it’s time for me to purchase the work of a world-renowned master. Then again, a contemporary Chinese painting dealer told me he knew where there was some good pre-Mao Chinese photography, by people we’ve never heard of. That sounds especially appealing to me!

KFD: I can identify with that idea: the excitement of the next discovery. Thanks, Larry, it’s been a pleasure having this conversation—and a treat and an education to watch what you’ve been doing over these many years.

LM: And thanks to you, Keith, for helping make both collecting, and selling, pictures so much fun.

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