Portrait of gallerist : Howard Greenberg
Howard Greenberg © Stéphanie de Rougé
At last. At last I’m going to meet Howard Greenberg. Face to face. I’ve been following the gallerists trail for several months now, and he keeps appearing – at the bend of one dealer’s path, in the corner of another dealer’s story. I’ve heard his name dozens of times, in the more impressive stories and the most unexpected ones too. I know he’s a pillar of his generation, an exemplar for the next one, and a respected model. I suspect that what makes the difference is the human being behind the gallerist; I hope I’ll meet that person too.
Howard forgot to bring his favorite image. But that’s no bad thing today, because this way he’s obliged to show it to me reproduced in one of the few original copies of Greenberg 25, a book I plunge into as delicately as I can, given my excitement. In this magnificent book, put together by hand, you see his essence, his truth, his choices: 25 images that he lived and breathed over for a quarter-century, 25 photographs that would all answer the question at the heart of my project: “If there were only one…”
Howard chooses Pear on Plate, by Edward Steichen, the first photograph in the book. He loves its simplicity and elegance, and he sees in it the modernity of his maker: just after World War I, the young photographer’s experiments, combined with his wide knowledge of European painting, led Steichen to create still lives with nearly abstract lines, establishing him as the first and greatest of modern photographers. Howard tells me how happy he was to be able to represent Steichen, and to be able to celebrate his outsize talent and his highly original place in photography’s interwar history.
He also talks about his first undertakings with photographers at Woodstock, and his passion for analog photography. He welcomes the digital era, but at the same time he regrets that the photographers of the future will never enjoy the experience of the darkroom. And he adds, laughing, that he takes photos with his iPhone. Howard’s passion for photography has never flagged for a single day, and he even says that for all these years he never had to look down at his watch.
His speech is soft and composed, and resolutely upbeat. He takes his time, sharing and reliving all the stories he tells me. It’s unbelievable that he’s so generous – a real pleasure.
He offers me a copy of Greenberg 25.
Since then I’ve looked through it often. And now I’ve fallen in love once again…with Ted Croner’s Whiplash, a quantum leap in my quest for my own first photograph.
Thank you, Howard.
From the first encounter with photography to the opening of his own gallery space…
During his last year in high school in Buffalo, he and his father went on vacation to Miami to visit his grandfather. At the airport he met a girl studying photography at Parsons. Their brief love affair led him to discover photography. She suggested that he buy a camera, and so he picked up a Pentax. Soon after he abandoned his plans to study psychology, moved to Woodstock, and began his career as a photographer at the local newspaper. In 1977, he founded The Center for Photography at Woodstock – an institution whose goal was to support photographic artists. He says himself that he got swallowed up in that adventure, becoming an administrator in the art world rather than a photographer. In the same vein, he opened the gallery Photofind in 1980 in Woodstock, relocating it to SoHo in 1986. The Gallery was named after his owner in 1991.
His fondest memory as an art dealer…
He tells me about the time he brought his daughter Gabrielle to Paris for the organization of Paris Photo. She was 16 at the time. Sarah Moon and her husband Robert Delpire decided to put together a dinner in their honor. William Klein and his wife were invited, as were Marc Riboud and his wife, and Martine Franck (the wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson) . After the dinner, they all went up to Sarah’s studio to watch a film she was working on. Howard remembers exactly how he turned around to see Gabrielle stretched out on a sofa, completely at ease among these giants of the world of photography. He knew at that moment that this was the greatest gift he could give her. He adds that she remembers that night, and that her passion for photography has never stopped growing.
His worst memory as an art dealer…
There was a short but difficult period in his career, when he was battling grave health problems and simultaneously had to go to court for professional reasons.
The first picture he bought, or one that has a particular importance to him…
Pear on Plate, by Edward Steichen.
On his bedroom wall…
Or, rather, at the top of the stairs that lead to an open space in front of his bedroom. He has three Steichens: Pear on Plate, Portrait of Gloria Swanson, and Pear and Apples.
He says that his most precious photographs are in his small home office:
American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin
Pablo in Times Square by Robert Frank
Powerhouse Mechanics by Lewis Hine
The Crouched Ones by Manual Alvarez Bravo
Easter Sunday by Minor White
And two images by Cartier-Bresson and Atget.
If he were a famous photographer…
He has serious trouble deciding but finally settles on Steichen. Not for his huge ego which was certainly not his biggest quality (he laughs) but for his astounding originality and talent. And because he ended his career as a curator at MoMA, where he exhibited major photographers such as Saul Leiter. His influence on the history of photography was substantial, and Howard regrets that his impact is still not fully appreciated.
Stéphanie de Rougé