Janet Lehr: Une pionnière
Janet Lehr © Stephanie de Rougé
The first 15 gallerist portraits were published on March 30 in La Lettre de la Photographie. “Fantastic,” said Jean-Jacques. “It’s a real success. Let’s keep it going!” But I could barely process it. After these two crazy months, I decided to take 48 hours off – just to sleep….
And then a few days later, I received a particularly nice note from the dealer Janet Lehr. So I donned my photographer’s boots once more, charged my battery pack, and headed back out on my adventure.
Her home is yellow and gold. It’s joyous, intriguing, and a bit bewitching as well – it feels as if you’ve been transported, perhaps to somewhere in Asia. And Janet has these hypnotic glasses, a necklace that’s probably magic, a wide smile and a shirt that matches the sunniness of her walls. We jump right into the discussion – talking about being transported – on what it must have been like to be an early photographer? It’s intriguing indeed to imagine the lives of these men and women who went off exploring, at a time when the airplane hadn’t yet been invented and a large part of the world remained uncharted territory. At that time, photographic technology was not designed for the conditions of the jungle or the desert. It’s crazy when you think about it.
I stayed at Janet’s home for a long time, since she was full of the kind of stories I love. But what endures from this interview was her passion for the image – drawing, photograph or painting, it doesn’t matter which. Without reservations, she lets herself be moved by the delicacy of a line, the power of a form, or the evidence of a balance between the two. We spent a delightful moment talking in front of Picasso’s last self-portrait. It’s a real poem.
She sees all of that as well in the work of the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn; for her, he is the first modernist photographer. She shows me her favorite image of his: Spider-webs shot in Liverpool in 1906.
I listen, I stare at the image, and slowly I let myself slip into the illusion that I’m seeing this photograph for the first time. Janet keeps speaking, and I can suddenly see just how modern this image is – a city on the move, vibrant like a monster’s heart, blowing smoke like an infernal machine. It’s staggering. A portrait that dives unceasingly into the entrails of the city, its alleyways, its smells, its chaos…
I hope I’ll always be able to open my eyes for the first time.
Thank you, Janet!
From the first encounter with photography to the opening of his own gallery space…
At age 9 she joined the Clic Clic Camera Club, in Miss Jeffers’ class. She can’t tell me much more than that, except that she owned a camera, which was rather rare at the time.
Later she studied law and passed the bar. After several years as a lawyer, the rabbi at her congregation asked her to put together a benefit auction, and she agreed. At the time she was pregnant with her first child. The night of the auction, she went into labor. Her husband bought the most beautiful image in the sale and brought it to her hospital bed. That was when she decided to enter the art world.
Her first interest was American painters (George Bellows, Maurice Prendergast, Willem de Kooning) whose work was not well known at the time and not widely collected. Promoting them became a quest for her until around 1965, when their careers were so well established that she left behind American painting to devote herself to another underexposed medium.
At the time, her husband was collecting cameras and she was intrigued by the images that this older equipment could produce. In the same year, she saw three shows that marked her career: Walker Evans, Brassaï, and Julia Margaret Cameron. She had found her new challenge: to buy, sell, display, and celebrate photography. So she started visiting archives and exploring museums, documenting their large photography collections, which were never put on display. She bought works by Talbot, among others.
She officially opened Janet Lehr Inc. in 1972.
Her best memory as an art dealer…
According to Janet, every find is a success and a pleasure – and that includes research. Finding a Coburn was no small deed at the time, not least because he died without descendants. She says she spent hours chasing down certain photographs…life as a treasure hunter!
She adds that putting together collections for museums is by far her favorite part of her job. She says she’s met and worked with highly talented curators, deeply passionate about photography as an art back when photography was seen only as documentation.
Her worst memory as an art dealer…
She’s not the type of person to hold on to bad memories!
The first picture she bought, or one that has a particular importance to her
Spider-webs, Liverpool 1906 by Alvin Langdon Coburn.
On her bedroom wall…
Willem de Kooning.
If she were a famous photographer…
John Thompson, a pioneer of photography of Southeast Asia.
Stéphanie de Rougé