Herb Benkel: Photography Collector Extraordinaire
Herb Benkel, a private collector in New Jersey, has been purchasing fine-art photographs since the 1970s. Over time, he has amassed more than 400 photographs by more than seventy-five photographers. Some of the most famous, but now deceased, photographers in the history of the medium are represented in his collection, photographers like Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Andre Kértész, Dorothea Lange, Walter Rosenblum, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. However, as the reader will see in this interview, Benkel is interested in far more than “big names;” he trusts his own instincts and purchases the images he loves.
In response to many requests from readers, Focus Magazine plans to present interviews with collectors of fine-art photography. The purpose of the interviews is to encourage those readers who are thinking of beginning a collection to take their first steps by demonstrating how other photography lovers began their collection, and to help those collectors who are already established to keep in touch with the thinking process of fellow collectors. We are fortunate to begin with Herb Benkel, a New Jersey endodontist, who began collecting in the 1970s and who has acquired more than 400 photographs. Because he began so early, Herb Benkel had the good luck to meet many of the “old masters” still living in the 1970s and ’80s. In this very personal interview, he explains how the relationships he developed with both artists and gallerists influenced his thinking process about his collection, and he gives advice about how a novice collector can get a good start.
Could you tell us a little about your background and profession?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. When I was very young, I received a Kodak Brownie, a gift from a cousin of mine. I must have been about six years old, and I remember I must have stayed up all night looking at it. That was the beginning of my photographic education. My world education was through the New York City public school system. Then I went to Brooklyn College and ultimately got a masters in fine arts, after studying with Walter Rosenblum [American documentary photographer, 1919–2006]. I took all my concentration in photography, and then I went out and I taught photography for five years in the New York City school system. When John Lindsey was mayor, and the city was going broke, and teachers’ jobs were not secure, I went back to school with my wife’s help. I came home one day and said, “If I went to dental school, would you support me?” and she said, “Yes.” So I applied and went off to New York University Dental School, and then I went to a specialty program through NYU. I’ve been in school a long time. So that’s my formal education. The photography started with the little Brownie and then became Walter Rosenblum.
So you are at present a dentist.
I am an endodontist. I do root canal therapy only. I also teach at Hackensack University Medical Center where I am chief of my specialty, and I’m having a good time.
You’ve told us how you became interested in photography and how you studied photography. How did you start collecting photography?
Good question. That’s Walter Rosenblum. When we took classes with Walter, he critiqued everyone, but he was always encouraging. Through his encouragement, we all became very excited about photographs, and we wanted to know about acquiring photographs by the masters. We’re talking about 1965–66. We had no money. Walter would say, if you can’t afford to buy a photograph — which might have been a hundred or two hundred dollars — buy a book. Now in those days you didn’t go on the internet and buy a book. If you couldn’t find a book you went to a place on Madison Avenue — it was at 1080 Madison Avenue — called Wittenborn’s. You called them and gave them a small fee for their help in finding a particular book for you, and then you were locked into buying it. That’s when I started buying books.
After I graduated from Brooklyn College, I got married. It was 1967 when I graduated, and ’68 when I got married. My wife was just graduating. At that time in New York City, it was a little dangerous to carry jewelry on the subway. There was something called chain snatching. So my wife and I decided that instead of buying jewelry for birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries, we’d buy a photograph. We pooled all the money we could and came up with $500. That was the beginning of my collecting. We took the $500 to the one gallery I knew, which was the Witkin Gallery. I had no idea about how things worked and I was very intimidated. We walked in, and we looked around for a while. I can just picture this — and this fellow with a moustache walked over to me, and he asked if he could help me. I said, “Yes, I’d like to buy a photograph.” He said, “Well, who are you interested in.” I said, “Paul Strand,” and he said, “What’s your price range?” I said, “Up to $500.” He chuckled and said, “I’ll show you what I have.” He pulled out a few Paul Strand photographs that he had in print boxes, but they started at $5,000, so by a factor of ten they were more than I wanted to pay, and I was very disappointed. He said, “But let me show you a few things that you might be interested in.” One of the things he showed me was the Jerry N. Uelsmann Cloud Room on the wall in my house. It was all framed, exactly as it’s hanging on the wall here now. It was sitting against a desk. Breathtaking, it was just breathtaking. I said I was interested; how much was it. It was $650, so I was willing to stretch another $150. In the end it was only $600, but it was more than $500. He said, well, he would call Jerry and ask him to make a print for me, because the print he was showing me was his [Lee Witkin’s]. He was taking it home that afternoon. And I said, “Well, that’s fine, but I’ve studied photography and I want the right to refuse the print if I don’t like it, if the print is not as good as this one — because this is all darkroom work.” It’s not like today in digital where it’s a lot easier to make a print consistently. Lee said, “No, it’ll be fine,” and we got into a philosophical discussion. I like to call it an argument, but it was a philosophical discussion which went on for, I don’t know, probably forty-five minutes. I talked about how I print and how the chemicals change their temperature and get weak and how the quality of the print changes; there’s a certain serendipity in a wonderful photograph. Finally he looked at me, and he said, “Look, I’m not as critical as you are about this. You take mine. And I will call Jerry and get one for myself,” so I took that framed print home.
What year was that?
I have to think about that. I was in dental school already…must have been 1974, maybe even as late as ’75. It was an incredible day and it also became the basis for a long-standing friendship, obviously. Then I kept going back. I loved him. He was an incredible person. And everyone at the gallery was so much fun to be with.
Did you try other galleries too? Like Light Gallery, Marlborough, etc., and more, during the following years?
I purchased one or two from other galleries. I purchased the William Clift in Philadelphia. Then I bought the first Eliot Porter Portfolio from Daniel Wolf Gallery on 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth. But that was it. Otherwise it was all Lee Witkin, and Evelyne Daitz [who became owner and director of the Witkin Gallery after the death of Lee Witkin in 1984], and the auction houses.
How did you find the auction houses? Did you enjoy going to auctions?
It was fun buying at the gallery. That was one experience, partly because we helped out at the gallery. You know, we used to go help with the framing, pre-show. We were doing all those wonderful things with wonderful people, and the photographers were hanging around, and we were watching all of this, and we got all excited. I could choose a photograph to buy before it got up there, so I always had my first pick. That was a kick.
My wife was fully in favor of everything I was doing. We were equally excited about buying photographs, but when I went to an auction, she didn’t want to go with me. She found the auctions boring. I found that when you started bidding, the excitement of that few seconds was the greatest rush…it was just incredible! There was a time that I was with Evelyne Daitz in the first row — I think it was Christie’s when it was on the East Side, and I was bidding on a Brett Weston. We were in the first row right in front of the podium. Evelyne’s to my left and then there’s three or four seats and then there’s this older gentleman, and he’s bidding against me. We realize that we’re bidding against each other. I look at him and I’m a lot younger than he is, so I look at him and I think, this is ridiculous. I said, “You take it,” and he said, “No, you take it.” And I said, “No, you take it.” And he said, “You sure?” And I said, “Yes.” I’m trying to be polite. And he gets the Brett Weston, and now Evelyne can speak and she nudges me, and she leans over to me, and says, “You shouldn’t have done that. He has all the money in the world. He used to own Chris-Craft.” At one time he had owned Chris-Craft; he had made boats. He could have afforded any Brett Weston he wanted, and I was struggling to buy a Brett Weston, and she said I had made a mistake. But still…it was the excitement.
I bought a lot at auction. There were a lot of stories because there were things I learned. When I was in post-graduate in dental school, I went to Christie’s on the East Side, and my wife said, “Whatever you do, don’t buy anything.” So I said, “Okay, I won’t.” I went to Christie’s, and that morning — I know it was morning because I called her at lunch time and I had to tell her I bought something — the Edward Weston Desnudos Portfolio came up for sale. It was the only time I had seen it come up for sale. The bidding just stopped, and the next bid was going to be fifteen hundred dollars for all those photographs in the Desnudos Portfolio. There are eleven prints in the portfolio, all printed by Edward’s son Cole Weston. Fifteen hundred dollars, all Cole Weston prints from Edward’s negatives and they’re gorgeous; they’re small, but they’re gorgeous. So I bid, and I got it. At that time the auction houses weren’t asking astronomical premiums. The premiums and the tax almost double the cost of each item, so I haven’t bought anything at auction lately. I’d just rather buy at a gallery! It doesn’t pay to buy at auction now. I called my wife up at the phone. She said, “Did you buy anything? I said, “Yes!” And she said, “You know we can’t afford it!”
Anyway, time passed, and I never again saw it come up for auction. Then one day Lee Witkin had an occasion when Cole Weston was visiting, and I made sure to be at the gallery while Cole was there. I asked him, “Mr. Weston, I bought the Desnudos Portfolio, and it says “one of one hundred.” With “one of one hundred,” you would normally expect it to show up now and then, but it never shows up at auction. Why? What’s going on?” He said, “Well, my father was sick at the time that we were doing the portfolio, and we did only fifteen.” So now it was one of fifteen, and when I told my wife, she realized that I had made a smart buy, at least financially. I wouldn’t want to part with it while I am alive. I asked Cole Weston if he would write me a letter to that effect, and he wrote me a letter. Two years ago — Phillips de Pury auction house — and by now a lot of years have passed by — two years ago Phillips put it up for auction. I looked in the catalogue and the catalogue said, “one of one hundred.” I contacted the curator there and I said, “No, I have proof that there’s only fifteen.’ And he said, “Well, we can’t change the catalogue, but we’ll announce it. Send us the proof you have,” and I did. I sent the copy of the letter from Cole, and sure enough, there are really only fifteen of the Desnudos Portfolio. So it’s fun. You go to these things…there’s an excitement to it. And then the question always becomes, what is the value of these things. The value is really insignificant. Any photograph is just a sheet of paper, and it’s worth a sheet of paper, except to the person who appreciates that sheet of paper.
There was a time when I bid on an Ansel Adams Moonrise. I wanted to have a Moonrise, I think it was for my fiftieth birthday, fifteen years ago. And I decided that I was going to get Moonrise. So I went with Evelyne to the auctions. She didn’t have one, so we went to the auctions. And I started bidding. We were in the first row at Sotheby’s. I forget who the auctioneer was. I should know all these things. I guess it doesn’t really matter. So I’m bidding. I decided I wanted to spend up to nine thousand dollars. One thing that we always talked about is that auctions can get crazy. So you can lose your mind at an auction. The bidding gets up to nine thousand dollars and I stop. And the auctioneer leans over, because we were in the first row — I always like being in the first row — and he leans over and Evelyne’s sitting next to me, and he says, “Don’t you want to make one more bid?” My bid was nine thousand and I said, “No.” And he says, “Are you sure? Very good things could happen to you if you make one more bid.” And I say, “No.” And he says, [banging of the gavel] “Bought in!”
Then Evelyne and I went out to lunch, and I said, “Boy, did I make a mistake. I didn’t buy it. I should have bought it.” One more bid, but I had set my limit and I was at my limit. I didn’t want to go beyond my limit and she consoled me a little and said, “It’s okay. There’s always another chance. That print was good, but it wasn’t great. It was probably for the best.” Then she got me a print of it. She came across somebody who was selling one, and I ended up buying it through Evelyne rather than at auction. It made everybody happy. It was just a wonderful experience because it made me so nervous because all of a sudden the auctioneer was talking to me. And I felt like…I guess you’re at an auction…but I don’t feel like I’m up to…I’m only a dentist. A dentist becomes comfortable. A dentist never becomes very wealthy. If you want to become wealthy, you get an assembly line and you put things in boxes. You have a machine put things in boxes. Then you have a shipping department. You know what I’m trying to say? But with a dentist, it’s what you do with two hands…you’re a craftsman. You have to be a very great craftsman to be wealthy, and society puts a limit on what you can charge for your craft. You can never get wealthy. That’s the problem with that.
Have you ever sold one of the photographs in your collection?
The only thing I’ve ever sold, in all the years I’ve been collecting since the ’70s, is one photograph, and then only because I had two prints of it. I had bought the Walker Evans Saratoga as a single print from a broken portfolio, and then at auction I was able to buy the whole portfolio. Evelyne Daitz knew that I had both. She had someone who needed — who wanted, nobody needs it — wanted one. She asked me to sell it and I said, “Yes,” because the Witkin Gallery had always supported and guided me in the right direction. The whole collection is not all my idea. It was formed and guided by the people I met along the way: Walter Rosenblum, Lee Witkin, Evelyne Daitz. All these people that you meet along the way.
It’s one of the great experiences of a collector: the people that you meet along the way. There’s a tremendous amount of emotion involved in being a photograph collector.
There is, but also, you know, in addition to buying photographs, there’s no way I would have bought non-photographic prints without Lee Witkin. Prints and printmaking were never my thing. But it was Lee Witkin’s thing to show printmaking [“prints” being defined in this context as woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, and screenprints]. I appreciated it. It was very graphic, and graphic like a photograph. Lee Witkin probably felt the same way about it. Because of his excitement about printmaking, we also collected prints. It also makes your art collection so much more interesting, because then it’s not one-sided; and so we have prints. I was led to people because I became curious about them, not necessarily because I sought them out. All of a sudden I was exposed to them, and I realized how lucky I was.
But you had the energy to go to the necessary places, and put in the effort. A collector has to do some of that also. It’s not totally being led by the hand. You went out in a rather assertive way and looked around and made connections.
My wife Susan has always been into the Crafts Movement. So there are a lot of crafts in the house. Glass — the glass we collect — is the Crafts Movement. Printmaking might be considered craft. Where does one end and the other begin? Nobody really knows. Photography could be considered a craft. You get into the art of the everyday, and certainly photography started out as the art of everyday. These people that we hold as the icons of photography, such as Lewis Hine, did not go out to make photographs that sell for $25,000. Hine went out with a mission to save children, to work on society, to do something wonderful.
Edward Steichen went out to create beautiful images. It’s very interesting…up in Massachusetts, we saw an exhibition, Susan and I, about two years ago. There was an exhibition of Steichen’s paintings at the Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts. We were shocked by Steichen’s paintings. You don’t see Steichen’s paintings very much. Not at all. They had the entire show of Steichen’s paintings. I’m fairly certain it was nine paintings. It was like one room or a room-and-a-half. It was spaced out beautifully. They were just like the Steichen photographs! They had light, the same special, mysterious, soft, painterly light as the photographs. So if you look at the Mamaroneck — the famous Moonrise Mamaroneck, that pond photograph — his painting looked just like that. When I came out of the exhibition, I said, “Boy, would I love to own the painting. At least I have the gravure [an impression made with ink on paper] of the photograph of Steichen’s Flatiron. That’s not a bad one.”
Do you still actively purchase, or is it rarely?
I still purchase. I don’t purchase as often as I did. Now I’ve been purchasing some younger photographers. There’s a photographer named Peter Leipke. There’s a young guy by the name of Michael Massaia. I think they were both represented at AIPAD this year. Massaia photographs buildings. He photographs at night with very long exposures and then he plays with the prints. He makes something special out of them. He’s also a New Jersey boy. He lives fifteen minutes from me. And there’s always George Tice.
Yes, a New Jersey boy who made it big. He’s one of the people of the ’70s who has continued to excel.
He’s so amazing. His ability, his images, his printmaking, his…
Much of your collection is based in the 1970s. When you were initially purchasing, did you have in mind that the photographs would escalate in value? Was that something that entered into your thinking process?
No, it was more that when I was studying photography with Walter Rosenblum, I wanted to own the photographs I loved. Then I looked at the first history of photography by his wife, the art historian Naomi Rosenblum. It was well printed, even though the images were small. You read portions of the book, and then you sat there and looked at the pictures. Also, at the time we are talking about, the Daybooks of Edward Weston were required reading for anybody in a photography program. You read Minor White, and you wanted to feel close to these people. With Walter I could be close to him because I knew him, but books are another way to get close to these people.
So you have read a lot in the history of photography?
Yes. I have read a lot of history of photography and a lot of history of the world. All these people had such interesting lives. They’re all a great adventure. All the artists went out and pursued a dream. I’m so conservative. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten married so young, I would have gone out and tried to be a James Nachtwey. That’s somebody whose photography I really respect, but I don’t own his work. I’d love to own it. Sebastião Salgado is another. I had the chance to buy Salgado, but I passed. It was very expensive, and I thought I’d get another opportunity, so I lost it. These photographers travel, and they do things that you can’t do if you are going to have a family and a profession. Their lives are so exciting, so it’s as if I were Walter Mitty [a daydreaming character in a short story by James Thurber]. If I were Walter Mitty, I’d like to go out there and take chances with photography, as a photographer. Could you imagine Edward Steichen during World War II? Leading the Navy photographic corps? It had to be amazingly exciting, and he didn’t have to go out and shoot people. How interesting to be Walter Rosenblum on D-Day or Robert Capa on the beach.
If you were to make a guess as to how much you have spent on your collection, what kind of guess would you arrive at?
You know, I don’t know, but I have a list of what I paid. I was worried that if something happened to me, some unscrupulous dealer could take everything I had collected and give very little to my remaining family.
You have told us about your wife, Susan. Please tell us about your son. Does he have a relationship to photography?
My son’s name is Adam for Ansel Adams, Lee for Lee Witkin, and Benkel for me. My son was born three weeks before Lee passed away, so when my son was being born, it was obvious that Lee was not doing well. We went to see him in the hospital. We said, “We’re Jewish. You know we don’t name after the living, but we’d like to name our son after you, and would you mind?” He was very excited. During those difficult months before he passed away, he would come out here and stay at our house in the New Jersey.
In regard to naming my son after Ansel Adams, I became interested in Ansel Adams back in high school — or maybe it was in college — we must have been getting some kind of photography publication. I tore out an ad for an Ansel Adams portfolio. It was $1,000 for an Ansel Adams portfolio by mail order. In recent years I was going through books while cleaning out the house one day. I was throwing out notebooks, and that sheet of paper fell out: an Ansel Adams portfolio for a thousand dollars. A Volkswagen at that time was two thousand, a brand new Volkswagen was two thousand dollars, so a thousand dollars was a lot of money. Nowadays a bag of groceries is about fifty dollars. When we were kids it was like five dollars a bag.
Would you say that over time you have been astounded to see the rise in value in photography?
What shocks me is that it’s probably the best thing I ever did, much better than the stock market. It’s not liquid, nor would I want it to be. My wife thinks I’m getting older and maybe I should sell some of the photographs off. I’ve said no. It’s very hard to part with anything. Everything has a story. There are photographs by not famous people here, by people who never became famous. The photographs caught my eye and I loved them and I bought them and they’re valued at probably nothing — I paid something for them — but it doesn’t mean I don’t like the photograph now. The photograph still excites me. The photographer — the great photographer — sees something, gets excited about it, and then is able to get you excited about what he or she saw. That’s what makes a great photograph.
Please tell us about the photographers you met in the 1970s. So many of the old masters were still alive — André Kertész and Ansel Adams.
And the Witkin was the place to be at that time. Would I have known Robert Doisneau if Doisneau hadn’t come to the Witkin Gallery? Probably not. Would I have known Willy Ronis if he hadn’t come to the Witkin Gallery? Lee Witkin catalogued all the photographers in his book, The Photograph Collector’s Guide. We all have the book. I used to make notes on what date I met which photographer. Lots of those people are gone. Lots of them.
Susan and I met André Kertész. One day Lee took us back to his apartment at the Osborne in Manhattan along with Kertész. Kertész sat in this big chair in the living room and we all sat around while Kertész told stories. Lee got some cookies for everybody. I have a lot of Kertész prints now because of the memories of sitting there. That room is the cover of The Photograph Collector’s Guide. The room was chock full of everything — pottery and prints and photographs and knick-knacks. Talk about tchotchkes!
Now you have approximately 400 photographs.
There are a lot of photographs, and many of them sit in a room upstairs because you can’t hang them on a wall. Sometimes I pull out photographs from the boxes and look at them. I sit on the floor and look at them, and I look at treasure. I could be a pirate running my fingers through gold. This is photographic gold. Of course, I also have my own photographs up in that room, tall stacks, boxes and boxes. We once bought a treadmill, an expensive treadmill, so we could exercise. It carries hundreds of pounds of photographs. It’s just incredible. It’s a great place. That’s a good use for a treadmill, because it’s nice and flat. It’s out of the way, and the treadmill’s got arms to protect the boxes from things hitting them, and the boxes are off the floor.
Do you ever chat with other collectors and compare notes?
Not really, because somehow it doesn’t come up. I get to chat with more photographers than collectors because in northern Jersey we have this camera store, called Bergen Camera. They’re an authorized Leica dealer, and it is a camera shop that’s of the old-fashioned sort that’s helpful. They have an online business but that’s not the way they position themselves. They also have a gallery called Gallery 270, where they show some photographers who are well known and some not so well known. They represent George Tice. They’ve got the new George Tice prints, those huge prints he’s been making, and George Tice is now asking twenty thousand dollars for those. This gallery has sold a few, even though it’s part of a camera store. What happens there is you get all these photographers who mingle there, so that’s where I get to talk to some people. The owner of the place is Tom Gramenya. He’s a collector, so I can talk to him about collecting. When you go to an auction, everybody is so secretive. Everybody’s in his or her own little world and everybody’s in competition, but the person I still talk to is Evelyne Daitz. We get together now and then and go to dinner or lunch and we sit there and talk about photography and the past. A lot about the past.
A couple of years ago, there was a talk about the history of photography at Aperture Gallery that was just amazing. Evelyne Daitz was there representing the Witkin Gallery. They had the people from the old Light Gallery. Peter Bunnell was there; he had just written a book. He was leading the talk and it was just amazing. Of course it brought back these memories of what it was like when it was simple, and people weren’t buying as this tremendous investment. You were buying because you loved it, and the photographers were creating the art because they loved it. Maybe Stieglitz created photographs partly because he had the gallery. He knew he was creating fine art. Most of the other photographers from the early twentieth century photographed simply because they wanted to photograph.
Do you go to art fairs?
I go to AIPAD every year, and last year I went to the Affordable Art Fair in New York. One of the things that makes buying exciting for me is the personal relationship with the dealer I’m buying from, so just walking into a gallery without knowing anyone and buying something is hard for me. You talk to people and then they start to talk with you, and you get a feeling for what they are like. At AIPAD you go from little cubicle to little cubicle, and there are people who share your vision and share your ideas, and you want to do business with them.
Well, it’s clear that part of your very strong response to photography has to do with personal relationships, both with the photographers and the dealers, and the various people you have come across in your life in photography.
It started with Walter Rosenblum, who was really an interesting teacher because he was really in the trend of his time. He knew the great photographers; he was friends with great photographers; and he was a great photographer himself. He was part of the Photographer’s Forum, and they had a group that I went to periodically at that time. That’s where I met Builder Levy [American documentary photography]. We still see each other at meetings, and we’re Facebook friends now, however, there’s only so much time. That’s the other thing. When you’re busy in practice and teaching…my greatest resource is my wife. And also Tom Gramenya, who’s building quite a collection on his own. He’s younger than I am and he started later and he’s a gallery owner and a camera store owner. Tom Gramenya appreciates photography.
It’s very funny because living in a suburban community where a lot of people are not into the arts, I see that a lot of them have a large house with nothing hanging on the walls. I’d rather have a little house with a lot of things hanging on the walls. I’ve had people come to the house and look at a Paul Strand Christ photograph that’s on the wall. It’s from the Mexican Portfolio. It’s an incredible photograph. People have come into the house and said, “You’re Jewish. Why Christ? And why do you have Christopher James?” Christopher James is chairman of photography at the Art Institute of Boston. I have a drawing of his of nuns. I also have a portfolio of his photographs, which is an incredible portfolio. He would take a black-and-white photograph and lay a drop of enamel paint on it. I saw that portfolio, and I still have it. Well, I have everything I ever bought, not all of it is out on the walls, but I still look at everything regularly. Christopher James picked one little highlight and then added some enamel to highlight his choice. I still can’t figure out how he got the enamel to stick so beautifully at just the right spot. Well, he’s an artist. He’s a great artist. And I’m still excited about the purchase. When you can buy a portfolio or a photograph and thirty years later — even if it’s sitting in a closet and you don’t see it regularly — you know exactly what it looks like because the image of it is indelible, that’s what it’s all about. The photographs that you choose excite your eye, or you don’t buy them.
Have you ever belonged to a support group for patrons of the photography department of a local museum or a Manhattan museum?
No, I didn’t even know they had something like that. That would be a wonderful thing to be involved with, specifically, so your legacy doesn’t get wasted. What my wife and I did was make a will. You try to decide how you’re going to sponsor certain things. We took certain photographs out of our whole system; the ones I’m specifically talking about are by Roman Vishniac. The Roman Vishniacs are so important to Jewish heritage that we targeted them for Jewish organizations. Everything else is in a different category. I would love not to sell my collection piecemeal, but a lot of the museums are so flush with photographs that it can be difficult to find one that will take your collection.
Do you use, or have you ever considered, a software program to manage your collection?
No. I didn’t even know there were software programs. But I started keeping a record as soon as I got my first Commodore 64 computer. I did it by artist’s name, name, title, size, signed and not signed, framed. I kept a record of what I paid for it and what it sells for, if I can find out if it sells somewhere. I look at the auction catalogues, just Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and if it goes for a price I just add it to the list. I noted if it is signed, where is it signed, on the front or the back, signed in pencil, stamped (most things are not stamped). If something happened to me, my wife, who has a vague idea of its value, would be able to say, “Ah! This is what it’s worth.”
There’s a funny story: once when my son was younger — he’s 26 now — he must have been 19 when I asked, “What would you do with the photographs, if I died.” And he said, he would give them back to Evelyne. I said, “Give them back?” And he said, “Yes, I’d give them back to Evelyne. Evelyne always loved them.” And I said, “I bought them from Evelyne! She didn’t give me the photographs!” He was under the impression she had given me all the photographs, but of course Evelyne and I had had a business relationship. I said, “Adam!” But now he’s much older. He sells things and buys things for his own living. Now he realizes, this is the way business gets done. At the time, he said he’d give back the photographs…that word “give.” Okay, just load up the truck and take 400 or so pictures back to Evelyne.
Do you ever bargain with a gallery over a price?
All the time, and it’s always done some good, with all the art I’ve bought. You don’t get much. The reality is, if you’re going to buy, you don’t want to be insulting. Most galleries are willing to give a little courtesy toward you if you turn out to be a regular customer — I mean, client — customer’s a “bad word.” You work together, but working together also means helping out, because you’re really going to start to support the gallery. There’s a difference between a little gentle bargaining, coming to a price that’s a little easier to handle, and being insulting. Being insulting is telling someone, gee, to me it’s really not worth anything.
As you were working with your collection, developing it, did you seek to develop different themes within it?
That’s interesting. The theme is that…there’s virtually nothing that is pre-twentieth century, although I’ve come to appreciate some of the pre-twentieth century photographers a lot. I sort of think, why wasn’t I looking in that direction earlier? But I bought the people I was excited about at the time. You would go to a book store and for nine dollars buy a George Tice in paperback, maybe it was $6.95. I’ve got it upstairs. You’d look at George Tice photographs in the book with offset printing, and you’d say, “Ah!” Now you went to a gallery and you saw the real thing. George Tice was very early on my list. Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans…and Paul Strand…and W. Eugene Smith…I saw Eugene Smith’s photographs in Life Magazine. When I saw the work of Magnum photographers, I wanted to own at least one photograph by each of these people. When I was making the list I didn’t consciously come up with a theme. I think I was always most interested in twentieth century, pre-1975. And that’s what most of this is. There are a few later prints, and now there are some much later.
What do you think of digital photography?
I do a lot of my own photography. So for that I became a member of NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Photographers). It’s through Adobe. I think everybody works with Adobe. I went to a course in Manhattan and I was really resistant to this idea of digital photography. Now I’m okay with it, because I went to a show at the Penn Hotel in Manhattan. They had a banquet room set up as a gallery. They had Paul Caponigro’s son, who works for them. They had programs from all of these people at Adobe using digital photography. These guys were good photographers, and they had large prints on easels. I always go around with a loop because I’m an endodontist and all the endodontists have to look at X-rays very carefully. So I was carrying a loop with me and I went over and I tried to determine whether these photographs were digital or whether they were film. I looked very carefully. I have a collection. I know what a photograph looks like. That’s how you learn to do photography.
When people ask me how to become a photographer, I say look at pictures. That’s all. And read books. But I looked at the photographs in the room at the Penn Hotel and I said, “These are terrific. I could live with this.” And then I said to myself, I should be able to do this. I’m not computer savvy but I should be able to do this. None of these guys is a doctor. I should be able to do this. So I went home and I started to work on it, because I had seen a couple of prints and now I could focus myself to be able to make prints. So a lot of what I do is I’m looking at books all the time. That’s my big connection to photography. I have a large collection of books upstairs, these hundreds of books. Whenever a big photography book comes out, I buy it. And I look at books. Also, I go to the museums, the Modern and the Met, to see what they have, and I go to as many galleries as I can, when I have time. That’s my community. And my wife. And when something gets this exciting, usually it’s worth being excited about.
If you were advising someone who wanted to begin a photography collection, how would you advise them to proceed?
First of all, I think photography is still collectible because you can still find fine photographs by fine photographers for maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars. Those two people I mentioned to you — neither one cost me more than a thousand dollars — and they’re young guys. Michael Massaia is very young, but he’s like a savant. He lives, breathes photography. Obviously his family structure supports him, and he makes some amazing prints, and so does Peter Liepke. You have to go to galleries and see. Just last week, I went to the new Robert Anderson Gallery and saw those Dean Brown pictures. They were three thousand dollars. There was one I was really thinking about, but I had just gotten back from China and I had broken the bank. There’s a limit. Everybody has a limit.
You know, you need to diversify your life. One of the things you have to do is create a beautiful home, and if you’re going to do that, you should purchase fewer items, but ones of value, rather than lots of items that are junk. That’s the way I’ve always thought. If you can have little things, they should be good. Then you just feel good about having them. I started out by saying that when my wife and I went to Lee Witkin to buy a photograph the first time, it was instead of buying a gold chain that could be snatched. Then it became at least two birthdays and a wedding anniversary, at least three photographs. Then it became a lot more, because sometimes it wasn’t a photograph, it was a portfolio. So all of a sudden my birthday was twelve photographs. It’s also having a spouse who has your vision and gets passionate about the same things.
The photograph is a tangible, wonderful thing to own that you can appreciate, and the proof is that the photographs we bought, almost forty years ago, are still exciting. You just never get tired of a great photograph. You never get tired of a great piece of art, a great print, an incredible piece of pottery. That’s what art is all about. You surround yourself with art; you buy what you really love, what excites your eye. It’s good to have a plan to conduct an interview or to correct somebody’s mistake with a root canal. I didn’t need a plan to collect photography. I just needed my eye. What got me excited. And I know a lot about it because of all the years I’ve been involved in it and read about it. I’ve gotten a lot of other people to invest in photography, some extensively, others not extensively. They bought a few prints because they saw if they were going to spend money on something, they might as well have something that is wonderful and will eventually appreciate. Yes, if you buy well, the photographs will appreciate in value.
Originally published at Focus Photography Magazine.