Spencer Throckmorton — Throckmorton Fine Art
Founded in 1980 and located on 57th Street in New York City, Throckmorton Fine Art is a pioneering gallery specializing in Latin American photography. Originally an antiquities dealer, Spencer Throckmorton became deeply interested in Latin American photography in the late 1970s. Today his gallery inventory encompasses more than 30,000 works, ranging from vintage prints by such important figures as Tina Modotti, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Edward Weston (in Mexico), Martín Chambi, Agustín Jiménez, Fritz Henle, and William Henry Jackson (in Mexico); to photographs by such contemporary artists as Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, Luis González Palma, Ruven Afanador, Mariana Yampolsky, and Christian Cravo. Over the years, Throckmorton Fine Art has also added a few contemporary Americans to its roster, as well as one noted Chinese photographer, with plans to add a few more. In an extensive interview, Spencer Throckmorton discusses the development of his gallery and his faith in the future of photography as an important part of the art market.
Tina Modotti, Hands, c. 1923–1929; Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art.
Please tell us about your background.
I am from rural Virginia. I studied at Virginia Commonwealth University where I majored in art history. In the 1970s I went to live in Latin America. I came back to the United States in the late 1970s. I was good friends with Daniel Wolf, who had a gallery on 57th Street (The Daniel Wolf Gallery). He specialized in photography and I quietly started collecting photographs. My own business was in antiquities. I founded my gallery in New York in 1980. I had a gallery director named Yona Bäker. Yona and I decided that since there was no gallery in New York specializing in Latin American photography, I would devote the photography department of my gallery to Latin American work. By the end of the 1980s I devoted myself almost exclusively to photography.
So, your initial business was in antiquities. How did you get into that particular business?
In the 1970s, it was difficult to find employment. If you had studied art history, you had to become either a teacher or work at a gallery. I became a dealer in antiquities because I had studied that and anthropology.
Did you live in Latin America at one point as a dealer in antiquities?
I was there from 1971 to 1976, but not as a dealer in antiquities. No, I just lived there as a student keen on learning as much as I could. I did serve as an adviser to several collectors and helped form their collections. I was living in Guatemala, but while I was there I traveled. One week I went to Mexico, one week to Honduras, one week to El Salvador, one week to Panama, and so forth. I traveled all over Latin America, just to see the region and to absorb as much of its rich culture as I could.
Did you find the logistics of travel difficult in Latin America in the 1970s?
No, it was very easy, because I was willing to be flexible, including just taking an old bus if necessary. It was interesting because you really got in contact with people. To me, it was like going back in time; it was like going back a hundred years, especially in rural areas. I really enjoyed it.
Flor Garduño, Vestido Eterno (Eternal Dress), 1999; Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art
Do you think there is something of a “mystical” connection between antiquities and much of the photography you are working with?
To me it is a mystical connection, and it is one that has always existed. Latin America is so rooted both in history — really early history — and lore, that there is this cultural element at heart that survives, that transcends, that goes into contemporary art. Latin American photography is part of a continuum. Latin American photography can be progressive, but it is really based on the rich and long human experience that Latin America has enjoyed.
Do you have some further thoughts to offer about the sensibility of Latin photography?
Latin American photography is serious. It embraces everyday life, looking at it in a way that is close to nature, yet also respectful of cultural norms. In a way it is a little spiritual, but in another way it is very realistic; it is the type of realism that sometimes becomes what André Breton thought of as Surrealism, or what others call Magic Realism. It’s very prevalent in Latin work, especially in Mexico. I really think it has to do with a society that still has very strong values attached to the land. Somehow Surrealism is tied to peoples’ psyche and it manifests itself in all kinds of ways: in how they photograph people, in how they photograph events. It can be a really soft undercurrent, but it is always there.
In terms of formal definitions, Surrealism as an art movement is associated with ideas arising from the subconscious and taking on a fantastic form. Magic Realism refers to the casual intermingling of fantasy and reality, often going back and forth from one state to the other. Magic Realism is associated with modern Latin American literature. On the more personal level, as an observer of Latin American life and art, what do you think is the difference between Magic Surrealism and Surrealism? Or is Magic Realism simply an outgrowth of Surrealism?
Magic Realism relates to the Surreal quality of life that arises out of the combination of the people, the history, and nature in relation to religion and also various events there. In terms of nature, somehow I think Surrealism and Magic Realism have a lot to do with the light quality — where Latin America is located on the earth, and how the people are affected by light. Very strong shadows. It’s all about light. It’s the angle of the earth in relation to the sun. This intersects with what photography is all about: it’s light. I think that it’s somehow a magical element that is in the psyche of the people who work in Latin America. Even North American photographers who go down there to photograph somehow bring that magical element back with them in their work.
Ruven Afanador, Eva Maria Garrido Garcia Yerbabuena, Outskirts of Sevilla, Spain, 2007, Selenium Toned Silver Gelatin Photograph, 16 x 20 © Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art
As well, most Latin Americans are still deeply religious. They celebrate the Day of the Dead; they observe Semana Santa (Holy Week) and many festivals. They have strong Christian values that were imposed by the Spanish. It is a very Catholic thing. There is a small stronghold of Mormons, Lutherans, and other Protestants, but the real heart of Latin America is Catholic. And it comes off as unreal, to the point that it is Surreal. Historically, there are many myths and ancient gods and fantasies and rituals and pageants, and all that gets played into the mix, too.
And an obsession with death?
There is an obsession with death, especially in countries with a rich pre-Columbian heritage, like Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. The pre-Columbian world of Latin America was life and death, and Latin Americans still have that in their psyche. If you look in the newspapers, what is most evident is the coverage of all the car crashes, and the more bloody and the more horrible and the more strange, the greater the interest. To North Americans that focus is unusual.
Is it possible that Americans are obsessed with the idea that Latins are obsessed with death, and that we make way too much of it?
Yes, death is a much more natural occurrence for Latin Americans. Coming from another culture, we notice it and make more of it, but they don’t.
You have a strong percentage of vertical photographs in your gallery. Do you think there is anything about the Latin sensibility that prefers vertical to horizontal?
I think it is an outgrowth of my interest in antiquities. I’m used to looking at sculpture, so when I look at a photograph I look at it as sculpture as well, and I see 3-D. In addition, historically, many Latin American photographers did portraits — verticals — so some of the photographers may have a lingering preference for vertical images.
Mariana Yampolsky, Beso de la muerte (The Kiss of Death), 1989, Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art
How did you go about gathering up Latin American photography for your gallery?
I made many trips to Latin America to collect vintage photographs. We were helping the Getty Library in California put together a cross-section of Latin American photography for their study and research purposes, so I was led to buy many vintage early nineteenth century Mexican and Peruvian photographs. At the same time I wanted to show young, contemporary photographers from Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere in the region.
How did you find vintage work?
I did research. I knew that a lot of photography was usually held by, or occasionally bought by, book dealers. I collect rare books and rare book dealers had contact with vintage photographs. So I started in the 1970s collecting Tina Modotti (1896–1942, photographer and one-time mistress of the photographer Edward Weston) before she became famous, and also Frida Kahlo (1907–1954, painter and wife of the muralist Diego Rivera). I built a great collection of photographs of Frida Kahlo and we were able to mount an exhibition with a book, titled Portrait of an Icon, which has traveled for seven years to over 25 museums, world-wide. That was one of my early collections. In addition to visiting rare book dealers, I went to exhibitions of paintings in all the Latin American countries. There were a lot of contemporary photographers around the painting galleries, and so I met photographers through them, including photographers from Columbia, from Mexico.
Do you find that book dealers have fewer vintage photographs than in the past, that they are less likely sources?
Yes, now it is not possible to find vintage photographs with rare book dealers. You have to buy directly from either the family of the photographer or from galleries that handle an artist’s work. That is the new reality.
Fritz Henle, Portrait of Nieves, Mexico, 1943; Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art
When you are approaching people in Latin America and making financial offers, are they suspicious of you? Are they eager to sell, or hesitant to sell?
Well, I am known for photography. I’m more known in Latin America than I am in the United States. I try to work in an established market, to know what the values are. Most people I meet in Latin America are eager to sell. In general, I’m bombarded with people trying to sell to me, but we are limited in our resources. We can buy only so much.
Are people in Latin America hyper-aware of auction prices at places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s?
They have the internet, so they know immediately the outcome of an auction. Latin American photography is more expensive in Latin America than it is here.
Do you have Latin American clients as well as Latin American sources, and do they come up here specifically to see you, or do they wait for you to go down there with a suitcase?
Yes, I have Latin American clients, but I do not go to the region to sell photographs. Clients come here to buy photographs. I cannot travel from country to country to sell because it is a small market, a niche market. Museums and wealthy individuals buy in Latin American, but not the average person. When museums want something, they call me. One of the reasons that photography is a limited market in Latin America is that it is printed on paper, so the climate is a significant factor. It is an issue of conservation. So only very “with it” collectors and museums want to purchase. The majority of photographs are bought by Americans and Europeans. Surprisingly, perhaps, I sell a lot of photographs in Paris.
When Sotheby’s started its Latin American art department in 1973, was there an immediate upsurge of interest in the work you handled?
In the beginning, Sotheby’s handled only paintings and sculptures from Latin America. They did not handle photography. It has been only in the last few years that they have started to handle photography as part of their formal Latin American sales, I would say in the last ten years or even five years. Of course, for a long time, there have been some Latin American photographs in the regular photography sales.
Were you astonished by, or were you expecting, the prices photography now attains?
I think we were all surprised. I never realized that photographs would reach the level that they have reached, to the six figures and beyond.
Do you find it offensive, in a way, that this has happened?
It is always the case that art brings a lot of money based on rarity and condition. As with anything in the art market, when you have something that is very rare and unique, it demands unparalleled prices. It seems to go with what has happened in the art market per se. But photography has not yet reached a zenith. It has continued to grow and will continue to grow in the future.
How do you find the recession in terms of business with Latin American photography?
It is very difficult. It has always been a small market — a niche market — and with museums being able to afford less, it is a double burden. But since we have rare vintage photographs, we have been able to survive, to prosper, but it has not been easy. Fortunately, too, with our living photographers, we have had success in sales with artists like Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño, and Ruven Afanador.
What strategy would you suggest to collectors during a time of recession?
Buy carefully, but — and this has always been my success as a dealer — buy what resonates with you. Do not let someone else convince you what to buy. I feel that art responds to the soul of the individual and I think that when it resonates and when it’s affordable, one should collect it, one should buy. Whoever regretted spending money on music and art?
And there’s a better chance of being affordable during a recession…
Oh, yes. We have adjusted our prices. We are holding back on increasing prices even on work that we feel should be more expensive. I advise all my photographers: do not raise your prices. Try to keep prices within the realm of what people can afford. Ultimately, such a strategy will bring success to the photographers because they need to be able to sell their work to establish their place in the art world.
If you were to guess how many photographs you keep in the gallery, from vintage to contemporary, what would you estimate?
It is more than 30,000, and I know this from the inventory records. We assign a catalogue number to each work as it comes in. We use a software program called Art Base. It is really complicated, but it is a very good system because once we have logged in the pieces, the potential to correlate and make comparisons is fantastic.
In reference to vintage photographs, on your website you show the work of Guillermo Kahlo, the father of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Could you tell us a little about him?
I have a large body of work by Guillermo Kahlo (1872–1941). I even have the family album, which is the master album with his master prints. He supported himself by working for the government on a project documenting all the churches in Mexico, and by taking photographs for the Secretary of the Interior. He also supported himself by taking family portraits of wealthy Mexican families, also a form of documentation. He had come to Mexico from Europe. He married a Mexican woman and started to photograph for someone else. Then he went out on his own and developed his own home studio and photography business. His great work was the documentation of the Mexican churches for the government. When Frida was a young girl she accompanied him because he had epilepsy. When he had a seizure, she would put a spoon in his mouth, and guard the camera, so nobody would steal the camera. Her father gave her brushes, and her first painting job was retouching his photographs for him at home. There are many great books on Frida’s life.
How did you start collecting Tina Modotti?
I have a very good friend, Ava Vargas. He had worked with the Royal Photographic Society in London, and he introduced me to the work of Tina Modotti. She was born in Italy. I started collecting her work in Mexico, since she lived in Mexico from 1923 to 1930. Almost all of her work was there, and occasionally I would find it with the rare book dealers I visited.
I actively began looking for her work, and was later very lucky to be able to buy the Frances Toor archives, which gave me many of her photographs. Frances Toor (1890–1956) was an American living in Mexico who published a magazine to promote tourism for Mexico. It was called Mexican Folkways. It included music, literature, poetry, and travel information about Mexico. But it was really devoted to the culture of Mexico. Frances Toor was an avid admirer and lover of Mexican culture. She single-handedly promoted it through Mexican Folkways. Tina Modotti worked from 1925 to 1928, even into 1929, on the photo editing of the magazine. Diego Rivera was the editor-in-chief and did the designs for Mexican Folkways. Edward Weston also worked with Tina at Mexican Folkways. He was the photo editor and Tina was his assistant. When he left in 1926 she became the photo editor of the magazine.
Was there a lot of Edward Weston’s work in Mexico?
There was some, not a lot, and then only the work that he did in Mexico from 1924 through 1926. He left Mexico in January of 1926, but he maintained a friendship with Tina and they corresponded frequently. But in reference to his work, what is in Mexico would be Weston’s early work. To me, Modotti changed Weston’s life; she turned him from a Pictorialist into a Modernist photographer. He was never the same again. She changed his life, as he changed hers.
Can you tell us about Manuel Álvarez Bravo?
Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002) was the father of Mexican photography. He influenced three generations of photographers from Mexico. He had an impact on Mariana Yampolsky, Graciela Ituride, and Flor Garduño, among many others. His connection to his culture, to Mexico, can be seen in his pictures. That connection is what made me love Mexico even more. Manuel had already won a prize in a photography contest in Oaxaca in 1925, before he met Tina Modotti in 1927, but he was inspired by her. She introduced him to the exciting intellectual and cultural circle of other artists of the time. He was self-taught, and a collector of art. He is known as the founder of the “Latin American School of Photography.” His dedication to detail is easily noted in his work. Álvarez Bravo was an avid reader all his life, and in his early career as a photographer he was open to experimentation. He aspired to be different, and as a result he became the modern photographer that we know today. He was well aware of the artistic revolution happening in Europe, especially in France. He was a pioneer, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, in transforming the medium of photography from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Over the years, I have purchased many of Álvarez Bravo’s wonderful photographs.
Going forward with a discussion of vintage work at your gallery, could you tell us about Martín Chambi?
Martín Chambi (1891–1973) was an Indian photographer born in Cuzco, Peru. He apprenticed in the studio of the photographer Max T. Vargas and then went out on his own. His work was brought to the forefront by an American organization, Earthwatch Foundation, which supported American photographer and anthropologist Edward Ranney, who worked to put Chambi’s archives in order. Chambi’s family has continued to save the work. What I like about his photography is the quiet nature of the architecture and his ability to record the roots of the architecture of Peru from pre-Columbian times. He went with Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu, and was one of the first photographers to work there. We actually have photographs from the late 1920s at Machu Picchu. He returned many times, and he did a great body of work in the 1930s and early 1940s. He photographed the ruins from different angles. He also photographed the people surrounding the ruins, the groups of people, the societies. A lot of his work is portraits since there was next to no photography market other than individual portraits and group portraits of people. He was able to support his family by taking wedding photographs and photographs for corporations. He published his work in a lot of magazines in the 1940s and 1950s. Chambi traveled throughout Peru and Latin America, and so his body of work was very rich. He did not have a lot of money, so he never made lots and lots of prints. He started with glass plates, and then graduated from glass plates to film. In 1979 his photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Have you found that many families have saved the photographer’s body of work?
Chambi’s family did; they saved it. But a lot of times that has not been the case. There is one incident of a great photographer from Mexico named Nacho Lόpez whose family burned many of his photographs after his death. He had worked for Mañana, the famous newspaper in Mexico City. He did fantastic work of indigenous people and events he would encounter on the streets. His photography had a real edge. Unfortunately, a lot of his work was destroyed.
Please tell us about Agustín Jiménez.
Jiménez (1901–1974) was a fantastic experimental Mexican photographer, ahead of his time. Fantastic, but there is not much of his work. His family members told me it is very rare and hard to find. He was good friends with Paul Strand and the Russian filmmaker, Eisenstein, with whom he worked closely. Eisenstein was friends with the filmmaker Luis Buñuel and also the novelist Sinclair Lewis, who wrote the letters of introduction for Eisenstein in Mexico. Jimenez did all these fabulous avant-garde experimental Man Ray-like photographs in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930s were really exciting. There was an incredible art community, really progressive.
And Désiré Charnay?
Désiré Charnay (1828–1915) was a French archaeologist and photographer. He was the first to photograph pre-Columbian ruins in Latin America. He photographed in Mexico from Oaxaca to Chichen Itza to Uxmal. He had to hire Indian porters to cut the brush away so that he could photograph the ruins. He had to stay at each ruin at least three months, probably, just to clear the brush and then to photograph and to set up the wagon in which he printed his photographs onsite. He used to take the glass plates into Mexico City by mule to have them developed to see if they were going to come out to be something of interest. Charnay had tremendous formulization and a good eye; he accomplished so much for that period. In that respect, Charnay was reminiscent of the American photographer William Henry Jackson, who also photographed in Mexico. We have a lot of Jackson’s photographs in Mexico. He was the first to do rural studies and to photograph churches in Mexico.
What about Fritz Henle?
Fritz Henle (1909–1993) was German. As a German, he went to Mexico in 1936 because he had to apply for his visa to come to the U.S., and he could not do that directly from Germany. In Mexico he started photographing. Henle made some beautiful photographs in 1936. He returned to Mexico in 1943 and did more work. Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, he did a book a year. His publisher was Ziff Davis. He did a book on Paris, one on Germany, one on Japan, one on the Caribbean, and one on Mexico. In his two visits to Mexico, he spent a long time because he went by car, just traveling around. He went from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, from Cuernavaca to California, and then back to the East Coast of the United States. He was based here in New York and then he moved, probably in the 1980s, I think, to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. He is sort of forgotten today, but he is making a come-back and is being reevaluated.
And Lola Álvarez Bravo?
Lola Álvarez Bravo (1907–1993) was the first wife of Manuel Álvarez Bravo. He taught her photography. They were separated in 1934, but she continued photographing and did a lot of work for magazines. She also did a lot of collages. Lola had an exhibition in the United States in 1981. It was in Washington, D.C. at a gallery called the Osuna Gallery. Ramon Osuna and Lola put together 50 photographs which she felt were the 50 most important in her body of work. Not one sold. The whole exhibition went into crates but was not shipped because Lola said just keep it in Washington; somebody might want to buy the photographs. Robert J. Stroessner, now deceased, was head curator of the New World Department (pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art) at the Denver Art Museum. He mentioned to me that he had seen the work at Ramon’s. I called Ramon and acquired the collection, all 50 prints, and later I was able to find more prints in Mexico. Her archives are now at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, thanks to Olivier Debroise, who was an an art historian, a photo historian, an independent curator, a scholar. He was very important to the Center of the Image in Mexico City. He has since passed away. He was really instrumental in saving Lola’s archive, and it is a very important archive because she was a great woman photographer of the period. I was very happy to work with Kraige Block, director of my gallery and a present-day consultant; and Liz Ferrer, who did a wonderful book called Lola Álvarez Bravo. I helped to promote and bring to fruition the idea of Aperture’s doing a traveling exhibition connected with the book. The traveling exhibition was due to the combined efforts of Aperture, Liz Ferrer, Ellen Harris (former executive director of Aperture Foundation), and Juan García Oteyza (current executive director of Aperture Foundation). It was a wonderful exhibition, very important.
Mariana Yampolsky (1925–2002) was an American who went to live in Mexico. She went down as a graphic printmaker in the 1940s and associated herself with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphics Workshop; also known as the TGP) and the TGP group of artists in Mexico. She was not a photographer until the 1960s. She became part of what I would call the School of Manuel Álvarez Bravo; it is all those who centered around the sphere of Manuel. She actually learned photography through Lola, but she was good friends with Manuel. In the 1970s she did beautiful work, really fantastic. During her lifetime, she was represented by the Witkin Gallery in New York. She was always very loyal to Witkin. When the Witkin closed its doors as an exhibition gallery and became a private dealership, her family came to me because Mariana had passed away. They have a foundation in Mexico that works with me and supplies photographs by Mariana.
Moving to contemporary photographers, you handle the work of Graciela Iturbide. Could you tell us a little about her?
Graciela was born in Mexico City in 1942, and she lives and works in Mexico today. She was originally a film student. During the early 1970s she was an assistant to Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Last year, in 2008, Graciela won the Hasselblad Award. I was so happy that I went to Sweden for what proved to be an extraordinary appreciation of an artist. They did a fantastic dinner for her. They gave a cocktail party for her. They commissioned a film to be made of her life. The ceremony was with contemporary music, then a film, then a poem, then a showing of her works. It was incredible. It was such a tribute, and she well deserved it, because she is one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. The Getty Museum in California also gave her a one-person show that was really impressive. She also won an award in France; the Living Legends Award from the Smithsonian in 2008; and the Golden Plume in Mexico. The Golden Plume is a medal bestowed upon people who excel in the arts. At present Graciela has an exhibition at Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland.
You also handle the work of Flor Garduño?
Yes, Flor is also Mexican, born in 1957. In the late 1970s she was an assistant to Álvarez Bravo. Her outlook is pure Mexican; it is pure classic, and it is rooted in all the elements of great art. It is just a younger person looking at contemporary life, incorporating the human figure in that. Flor is extraordinary and she is very productive and diligent. Both she and Graciela are constantly thinking about the medium, as was Manuel. A lot of the time people are photographers, but, unless they happen to work for a commercial company where their job is to photograph all day — if instead, they are private and individual artists — I do not know if they spend as much time on the work as Manuel did, and as Graciela and Flor do, on just their work. Graciela and Flor spend a lot of their time working, thinking about life and photography, and expressing it through their art.
Another one of your contemporary photographers is Valdir Cruz.
Yes, we have given Valdir four shows. He has photographed in his native Brazil and also Venezuela, but he lives in New York City. We were the first gallery to represent him. Because of my ties to ancient art and sculpture, his documentation of the rainforest and indigenous sculpture is a natural fit for me. I appreciate his work, collect his work, and show his work. And we have also done very well with his portraits of the Indians and with his waterfall series. The waterfalls are a quiet reflection on nature and they go well with my gallery. He is doing extremely well in Brazilian galleries.
Javier Silva Meinel?
Javier Silva Meinel is one of the best photographers from Peru. It was thanks to the Metropolitan Museum in New York that I found him. Colleagues there referred Javier to me and I have given him two shows. The Skin of the Amazon was his most recent show with us. It was very beautiful, dealing with indigenous people and legends of Peru. He photographed along the Amazon and captured a part of the world that few people see or even think about in the twentieth century, and it is very powerful work. He lives in Lima; he plans out his expeditions, hires several people, and takes his food with him. He does what Irving Penn did with his Cuzco children, and Martín Chambi did: he takes a natural canvas backdrop with him on his trips and photographs the people against it. Just a simple backdrop that he sets up on two poles — Javier followed that tradition in photography. His photographs are not done in a studio. In some of the photographs you will see leaves, patterns, shadows, all bathed in natural light.
In terms of Cuban photographers, you have Juan Carlos Alom and Mario Algaze.
Juan Carlos is great. He is the experimental young photographer from Cuba who has been in a lot of shows in his country, and who has an international market. His brother is a poet. Juan Carlos’s work is very poetic. It is very strong. When you have a country like Cuba that has been held back because of the embargo, and you still have a photographer come out with new imagery, different imagery than you would normally associate with Cuba, it’s pretty astounding. It just shows the level of creative mind that he has.
Mario Algaze is a more seasoned photographer. He has traveled throughout Latin America and documented the region. He has photographs from Guatemala, from Columbia, from all over. Again, there is a classicism. He is a real master of light and he is very interested in architecture, and his compositions are that of an educated photographer who is sensitive to light and structure. Carol McCusker, the curator of photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, has just done an essay on him for a new book that is coming out soon. He deserves the attention.
How do photographers in Cuba manage to interact at all with the rest of the world?
It is due in part to the Havana Biennial, because of all the people who go to Cuba for the Biennial; and in part to the Fototeca Museum in Havana, which interacts with both Europe and the United States. For an American, you would have to go to either Canada or Mexico, and from there travel to Cuba. I think President Obama is going to lift the restrictions, which would be great. But so far travel to the island has been banned. I have not been to Cuba. Juan Carlos Alom came to me through Marta María Pérez Bravo. Also, a lot of the Cuban artists have emigrated, like José Bedia, who is a painter and installation artist from Cuba. He is friends with Alom, and that is how I know the photographers who are in Cuba.
Who is Marta María Pérez Bravo?
Pérez Bravo is a Cuban photographer who left Cuba. She is married to a Cuban painter and she lives in Monterrey, Mexico. In her work, everything is autobiographical. In the last Philips auction there were a couple of pieces by her. She was in a traveling show called Cartography at El Museo del Barrio in New York, and that’s how I learned about her. I have given Marta several shows. When she moved to Monterrey, she began an association with the Ramis Barquet Gallery of that city. We still represent her, but we share representation with Ramis Barquet, now located in both Monterrey and New York City.
Please tell us about Luis González Palma.
Luis is from Guatemala. I had always wanted to represent Luis, but he was with Simon Lewinsky first, and then Robert Mann, and from Robert he came to us. I had always loved his work and was already a large collector of Palma. He has influenced so many young photographers in the region because he has been shown in biennials and art shows all over Latin America for the last twenty years. He now lives in Buenos Aires and is married to a woman from Buenos Aires. He is great friends with Flor Garduño of Mexico. In his latest body of work he has returned to portraiture. Because he is a conceptual artist, he is always coming up with new ideas and new ways to push the medium of photography — he has used grids, he has used sculpture. His latest work, which we showed in October of 2009, is a return to his roots in portraiture; many of the portraits are Daguerreotypes and many are beautiful sepia-toned prints. He is always experimenting.
The exhibition that you are putting up at the time of this interview is by Ruven Afanador (November, 2009). What are your thoughts on his work?
Ruven Afanador is Columbian by birth. He is one of the world’s leading fashion and editorial photographers, and contributes frequently to Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Elle. He did an extremely popular series and book entitled Torero, on the subject of toreadors. His most recent work, the series we are putting up right now, is about flamenco, and is titled Mil Besos [Thousand Kisses]. I think it is just fantastic. I think his interest in flamenco stems from the fact that he is of Spanish descent and travels a lot in Europe. Dance is so important in Latin culture. Because of his Columbian heritage, because of his education, he has always admired flamenco dancers, and he’s caught them in Spain in a very playful, joyous, exuberant manner. I think it’s something he’s always wanted to do.
What challenges do Latin American photographers face that are unique to them?
The challenges are supplies, climate, and a viable market. It is very hard for them to get supplies, and also to have access to what is happening around the world, because a lot of Latin America is still rural. There are a lot of young photographers all over the place. They want to produce work and to show it, and it is hard. One of the best things that has happened in Mexico has been that the painter Francisco Toledo opened the Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo in the city of Oaxaca. It is a museum and a school. The well-known American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark has gone down to teach there, and also Flor Garduño. I think that has been fantastic. Mary Ellen is now compiling a book on photographers in Mexico.
You imply that there are increasing numbers of young photographers in Latin America. Do they come to New York to show you their work? Do you still look at portfolios? Many galleries no longer do that.
Yes, there are lots of young photographers who come here. Today we had a visiting class of young Latin American photographers who have come to New York University to study. We have people coming every week from all over the world, from France, from Mexico, from Peru. We look at work all the time, but we try to limit it to within the focus of what we are doing. We try to look mainly at Latin American work, or some American work. We are not trying to look at work from Europe because of time constraints. It can be an emotional experience. You have to be very sensitive because you want to be positive, and yet you have to give them viable criticism that, hopefully, they will appreciate. But you have to be very careful because your view is your view and their view is another one. It is a delicate flower. And you cannot always “see” what a photographer is trying to do upon the first encounter. My first big mistake that way was with Vik Muniz in the early 1990s. He is from Brazil, and now lives and works in New York. When I first saw his work, I just did not “get” it. Vik would have been a great artist to have represented.
Are Latin American photographers switching to digital?
They are beginning to, many of them. The ones who are not include Flor and Graciela, but increasingly the photographers are moving to digital. So it is the future. I have always taught my clients to appreciate silver paper and silver prints, and most of my business is silver prints, not digital. But I expect that will change with the future, I really do.
Do you participate in a lot of art fairs?
We did the AIPAD Photography Show Art Miami last year. We did well, because there is a large Latin American enclave in Miami. We will not be doing Art Basel this year because of the recession; the market has been soft there, so we have tried to pull in our reins and see what happens. We did Art Hamptons this summer; we did well and we enjoyed the fair. We do AIPAD Photography Show New York, which comes up in the spring, and we always look forward to that. We always do well at AIPAD because we are the only gallery that has Latin American work. Among others, we will show Valdir Cruz and Christian Cravo, the son of Mario Cravo Neto, the noted Brazilian photographer who passed away this year. We wanted to go to Hong Kong this year, but we decided not to because of the recession and the general pullback from the art market in China.
Do you have Chinese clients?
I have a few Chinese clients for photography. We have a show of vintage nineteenth century Chinese photography with a book, SHEYING (Vistas of China, 1850 to 1900), by Clark Worswick, that is traveling in Europe. We actually have a large collection of vintage nineteenth century Chinese photography. At present the art market in China has softened.
Speaking of China, last year at AIPAD New York you featured a Chinese photographer, a woman, who photographed a series of mothers and children. Could you tell us about her?
Yes, her name is Gao Yuan and she is Chinese. She looked for women who had children born in the twelve months of the year, so there are twelve zodiac signs in her work. She wanted very young children between the ages of 2 and 3. She photographed each mother together with the child against the backdrop of the city they were from, an industrial modern backdrop, and then digitally she put them inside a circle. The circle is an archtype for the moon. It also represents the earth, unity, and so on. Then with a marker or a paintbrush, she would write the child’s zodiac sign on the child’s body for the portrait. She looked for different ethnic groups from different cities. She really thought out the project. I think it is a great series, a beautiful series. It is in color and it is called the Twelve Moons.
She was recommended to me by a friend. She had done a body of work in Japan on tattoos. The gangs in Japan tattoo themselves but they cover it up with a t-shirt during the day. When a member is inducted into the gang, he loses the tip of one finger. It is a very intense thing, and Gao Yuan is the only person who has ever been allowed to photograph it. I was doing an exhibition of photographs of the body, which is why my friend recommended her work.
Flor Garduño, Vestido Eterno (Eternal Dress), 1999; Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art
Are you handling more Chinese photographers?
I am trying to get a couple more, but I have not had a chance this year to go to China, so I have not been able to do it. However, I am going to have one photographer from Shanghai represented here at the gallery.
Is it difficult to get work out of China?
Yes, because of new restrictions imposed by the Chinese government on content of art.
What do you have to say about the Chinese sensibility as expressed through photography?
It is either very Zen, or it is very much like contemporary, modern American photography. There are photographers who are totally Chinese, and in that case it is very Zen. It is very minimal, very dream-like, with traditional subjects like clouds and mountains and landscapes. For them it is a rediscovery of the past, expressed in a “new” medium. But most of the photographers are trying to emulate the West. I think, in fact, that they are too preoccupied by what is happening in the West. I think that is a limitation, because when they develop their own style and their own perspective in a Chinese way, then it is much purer, much more compelling. That is why Gao Yuan is so good; her concept is really so Chinese and her approach is so Chinese.
Do you foresee yourself branching out into other areas besides Latin and Chinese photography?
Well, I’m doing a little bit with young American photographers, but there’s so much to do with Latin America that I try to stay focused mainly on those photographers. I have a Tina Modotti exhibition coming up that I am working very hard on organizing. It is going to be spectacular.
In closing, can you tell us: In a sea of art galleries in general, and of photography galleries in particular, what makes your gallery unique?
I would say that my gallery is a friendly gallery. I dislike galleries that project the feeling of, “Who are you and why are you here?” I hate the pretense of exclusivity. When you walk in the door here you see a mix of Latin American photographs and Chinese antiquities. There are always places to sit and books to read. We’re very helpful. We greet people. We give them water if they need water. We give them literature and reference material, and we take the time to be personal. We always have fresh flowers. We want to make it, visually, a home-like experience, a personal experience, not a sterile gallery experience. We want to integrate photography into daily life. So often people separate art — fine art — from domestic life. What we do is to integrate art into a setting to help people visualize the works in their home, in their life.
Throckmorton Fine Art is located at 145 E 57th St, New York, NY 10022. Its current exhibition, Under the Cuban Sun, runs until September 17, 2016. For more information, please visit www.throckmorton-nyc.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published at Focus Fine Art Photography Magazine.