Howard Greenberg Talks to Elizabeth Avedon
Howard Greenberg Photo © Elizabeth Paul Avedon
“It’s not an encyclopedic history of photography...it’s the magic of photography when the right picture printed the right way just grabs you.” – Howard Greenberg
Howard Greenberg’s name has been synonymous with great photography for over thirty years. A leader in the modern photography market, Greenberg early on established himself as one of the pillars of the New York photography scene. Now a selection of photographs from Greenberg’s own personal photography collection will be exhibited for the first time at the Musée de l’Elysée Lausanne in September and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris in January.
A recent press release explains, Howard Greenberg, Collection focuses on the development of the modern history of photography as it grew and finally became recognized as its own genre in the fine arts. The exhibition traces the development of modernity with work from early in the 20th century by Edward Steichen and Edward Weston to the Czech photographers František Drtikol and Josef Sudek. The architecture and urban life of New York City provides the context for a number of images from the 1930s to the 1970s by Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, Weegee, and Garry Winogrand. An important section of the exhibition is dedicated to images that photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange shot for the Farm Security Administration as witnesses to the Great Depression.”
I sat down with Howard Greenberg last week to talk about his personal photography collection. I came away bedazzled by Greenberg’s contagious enthusiasm and love for photography and descriptions of some of my favorite photographers work.
Elizabeth Avedon: I’m curious why it took so long to show your Collection?
Howard Greenberg: First of all, I have to say my collection is really, truly personal. There are many known photographs, classic photographs, in the collection to be sure. But there are more than that many photographs which are unknown or hardly known or certainly not what you would consider important - but they are important to me for my own personal reasons. It’s my life and just like in your life you’ll see certain pictures you can relate to, you want it because of your experience. So it’s that way with my collection.
And also, I started as a photographer and I was like most photographers earlier on, a darkroom junkie, I loved to print and I was completely enamored of printing. When I started to learn about the history of photography and saw older prints that were beautiful prints - that was something yet again. A lot of the photographs in my collection got there because the print of the image was truly special to me. It’s really about the magic of photography. That’s how I see it. In so many pictures that I fall in love with, that I bought for myself, display that magic.
Probably the number one reason is because I am a dealer, I am a gallery. There’s this stigma against being a dealer and collecting. The stigma, which I think is maybe imagined as much as real, is your clients will think you’ve taken the best work for yourself. That’s not a good reputation to have and it’s not true. There have been one or two times where I’ve taken the best one for myself, usually when no one else has seen it, but more often than not, no, it’s not really about that. It’s collecting as a collector when something really gets me.
I did cross the line with my 25th Anniversary show and book, “An American Gallery, Twenty-Five Years of Photography” (Lumiere Press 2007). I labored for a couple of years about the 25th anniversary, I want to do a publication, I want to do a show, I didn’t know what to do. Part of the problem was I’ve worked with so many photographers and estates and I have so many friends out there that I didn’t feel I could be politically correct. So I just took twenty-five pictures from my own collection and spoke about them and about my involvement in photography.
I hooked up with Michael Torosian who owns Lumiere Press out of Toronto. I’d been collecting Michael’s books for years because they are completely handmade; they’re small, they’re precious, and they are perfect and full of love and incredible craftsmanship. We’ve become friends over the years and I asked Michael if he would do my 25th Anniversary book.
The exhibit was really the book, and the book was a complete collaboration. He helped me realize my vision to the extent that months went by and I wasn’t getting things written, so I sat up in Michaels kitchen for a couple of long sessions up in Toronto. He interviewed me with questions and then transcribed my voice in the book. He just did a fabulous job.
EA: How did the opportunity to exhibit the collection in Europe come about?
HG: Sam Stourdzé, the Director at Musée de l’Elysée, is an old friend. He was a brilliant independent French curator ten or fifteen years ago and did shows on Dorothea Lange, Brassai and others. I worked with him several times on projects, including a book and a traveling show on Leon Levinstein whose archive I now own; I represented it for 25 years. A great New York City Street Photographer, he’s in The New York School book.
Sam was here right after he was hired at his new job and we were talking about what shows he’s going to do. I don’t remember what he said exactly but it led to my saying, “How would you like to do a show of my collection?” Instead of the reaction I would expect from most American curators, because understandably everyone’s afraid to mix the possible commercial problem with an exhibition, Sam said, “That’s a great idea, I’ve been thinking about doing something like that. I think dealers’ contributions to the field are misunderstood and under recognized. I’d love to do a show. Let me see what you have.”
I sent him a disk of most of my collection. It probably took six months to put together. He liked it and he and Anne Lacoste, curator at Musée de l’Elysée, came over from Switzerland. She had just spent six or seven years as a curator at the Getty. They went up to my house to see the collection. It was a wonderful moment because they were truly blown away. Sam said he loved the pictures from the disk, but he had no idea what the prints looked like. I thanked him, because that’s what it’s about. You have to see them, smell them and touch them. That was last March and it’s been a real pleasure putting together since then.
EA: How did the editing process work?
HG: Due to the size of the Museum in Lausanne and the size of the Cartier-Bresson Foundation it’s going to afterwards, they had to edit pretty severely. Obviously I had some input but I decided I had to let the curators curate the show. I think there’s around one hundred twenty or twenty-five photographs in Lausanne and about ninety in Paris. I have about four hundred photographs or so at home, so many of the more unexpected, the I-never-saw-that-before, or more personal kinds of photographs that I have, are not in the show. Sam and Agnes [Agnès Sire, Director, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson], for all their abilities as curators, know the history of photography differently than I do and have had different access to photography than I have. They went more towards what their audience is going to love, the better-known pictures and the more famous photographers.
It’s still going to be a wonderful show. I’m not sure if the personality is going to shine through. I know people say, “Oh you have such a great collection. There’s such wonderful photographs and that’s a beautiful print,” but I’m still on the fence whether it’s going to really represent my collection.
EA: What do you think pulled you towards the photographs you chose? Were you going for the image, the photographer or were you going for the perfect print?
HG: It’s kind of all of the above. Not the photographer necessarily, although understandably there are lots and lots of pictures in my collection that are made by photographers I’ve shown or represented. If they are wonderful enough I want to do a show, you go through a thousand or five thousand of their photographs. You are probably going to find one or two that leap out at you. That’s happened with regularity.
Many of the photographers in my collection I represent, but it’s not because of the photographer. It’s not like I have to have my this and my that. I don’t have a Steiglitz; I don’t have a Man Ray; I just bought an Arbus, I didn’t have an Arbus for a long time. A lot of the most collected and desirable photographers, I don’t have in my collection. I have some great Steichen’s, but that’s because I had access to them. I was the only one to represent Joanna Steichen’s collection. There were oodles of masterpieces there and I found ways to buy a couple. So it’s not about that.
It’s not an encyclopedic history of photography, nothing like that really. It’s a combination of factors. It’s the magic of photography when the right picture printed the right way just grabs you.
I love Humanism; the photographs are often about people. But then again I love European Modernism and I find that even though they could be purely abstract, there’s so much warmth and personality in those photographs. When I say European Modernism, it’s primarily Czech Modernism that I find to be Humanism even though it’s abstract.
EA: What photographers are you talking about; Drtikol, Sudek, Koudelka?
HG: Well, Koudelka is different. Koudelka is post-war. I do have a couple of incredible Koudelka’s in my collection. Yes, Sudek, Drtikol, Rössler, Funke, Schneeberger, those are the Czech Modern and a couple of others as well. There’s seven or eight of them in my collection. Sudek is very important to me. I’ve had four shows of Sudek over the years. I’ve bought and sold probably two or three hundred Sudek’s over the years. I love Sudek. There was a moment when I was able to buy some really extraordinary special ones and I kept a couple for the collection.
I have a lot of photographs of music, music related, because I’m very involved with music. I have some sports related photographs, because I was a baseball player when I was young and I’m into sports. I play golf now and I have a couple of golf photos. When my kids were young I bought a lot of pictures with kids in them, just like anybody else might do. So I have a couple of Helen Levitt’s, usually with kids. I have a Julia Margaret Cameron with a young baby in it. Again I allowed myself to collect for very personal reasons and then it had to be the right photograph at the right time.
EA: When you mention sports photographs, what images do you mean, like Tod Papageorge’s series, American Sports ?
HG: I could have, but that’s a more intellectual pursuit. It’s more like Jackie Robinson sliding into home base, which I saw when I was a very young kid, and I was enamored of Jackie Robinson. I have a great vintage print of Ralph Branca who was the pitcher who threw the home run pitch to Bobby Thompson in the most famous homerun of all time, in a locker room depressed and bent over. A picture that was burned in my brain since I was a kid and one day there was a vintage print of it. I never really go out and seek these things, they just happen.
EA: Would you explain what you mean by Humanist photography?
HG: For me the term I use which is a little more open ended and I think explanatory is Real World photography. The Real World is often about the people in the world, Cartier-Bresson, Julian Smith, to any number of people whose milieu included people in the real world. Also, it’s a lot of what I’ve shown in the gallery, Mid-century photography, a lot of New York photographers. I love that work.
EA: Is there any photograph that belonged to you that you regret selling?
HG: There are dozens of photographs I’ve had in the gallery that when I sold them I thought to myself, “I’d love to keep this, but I can’t.” There are photographs that I’ve collected and taken home. That’s my measure of collecting; when it’s out of the gallery and goes home, it’s in the collection. There is a small handful, not many, that I sold out of my collection very reluctantly. There are so many wonderful photographs in the world and so many wonderful photographs in my life, whether they are on the gallery walls or they are home on my own walls, so I’ve learned not to be too greedy about it. You have to let things go sometimes and it’s OK because you can replace it with something else and love just as much. Yes, there’s been plenty, but I don’t lose sleep over it.
A lot of the best pictures in my collection are photographs I actually sold to clients when I first got them and for different reasons they wanted to resell them. I often paid a high price and said to myself, “I’m not letting it go a second time.” I would buy it and bring it home. I have maybe fifteen or twenty photographs that are real special ones. I happily paid big bucks to have them back and those really stay with me.
You can’t love photography and not love Atget. I have two Atgets. They are very different. One of them falls into that class of great photographs that I sold, that I always thought about, and then that collector wanted to resell it, and I bought it for myself. Its a prototypical gorgeous Atget; the Seine, the light, the boat, the trees.
I have a few Dorothea Lange’s. I guess I have six or seven Lange’s. I have a really, really wonderful print of “Migrant Mother” with a long description by her on the back. Do you know the picture “White Angel Breadline”? I have a variant of that. It’s the picture immediately before or after. It’s all the same people in the picture, the same spot she photographed in; but the way the people move and the way it’s structured; it becomes a very different picture. It’s really amazing. I think it’s in the show, so you’ll see it. That is another one; I sold it and then bought it back and I kept it the second time.
That kind of thing has happened a lot more than once because I do fall in love with these things and a lot of times I sell them and miss them.
I have a beautiful little print I bought from another gallery of the “Funeral Cortege”, the older woman in the carriage, you see a face through the oval window. And one of the pictures in this book [An American Gallery, Twenty-Five Years of Photography page 48] if you read the page you’ll see why I have it. I really enjoyed getting this one. It’s not the most valuable FSA print, but it’s such an interesting picture. You can read so much into this photograph, “Plantation Overseer And His Field Hands” by Dorothea Lange. The white farm owner, the ex-slave workers, their relationship to each other; it has a kind of universal symbolism. That’s the way I knew it. But then I came across this FSA print one day. On the left, almost out of the frame, is her husband Paul Taylor. It speaks to the issue of what is truth in a photograph, what’s real in a real photograph. I found this to be such a fascinating example because this photograph is one that always stuck in my head as just a great amazing photograph. So that is another Lange in my collection.
I’d love to have one or more shows in this country and it ties in with my book. The reason is I really believe in collecting the way I’ve collected. That’s what this book is all about. There are twenty-five different photographs and what I have to say about each one. For me the book was successful in that a lot of people read it and they understood my sensibility about collecting and could apply it to themselves; that’s the important thing. I think it gives people a certain freedom in their collecting, or if they want to collect, that maybe they wouldn’t have the same way without this experience. That’s my first interest in sharing it. I really believe in the pleasures that are available to people. Obviously you always have to do it within your means; even within your means it’s a license to do it; and to do it for your own reasons not for any other reasons.
It’s the antithesis of the typical contemporary art collector who is a trophy hunter, who has their this and their that from the consultant. This is the opposite. You do it for love. You do it to enrich your own life
EA: What is the oldest image in your collection?
HG: When I first started up in Woodstock, I was collecting stereoviews, old cameras and daguerreotypes; I still have four or five daguerreotypes. They’re not terribly important, they are mostly nostalgic because I got them so long ago. You could say daguerreotypes are part of my collection. As a rule I have not collected much 19th century material. It’s not that I don’t love 19th century, but it’s a question of access, the way my life has gone, the way the gallery has gone; it seemed to be more about the 20th century. I can’t count on one hand the number of photographs I actually tried to acquire that I wanted to buy somewhere in the Universe. Usually it’s happenstance, just there it is, and that’s rare with 19th century. So I have Julia Margaret Cameron from around 1860. That’s one I wanted to acquire, but there are maybe ten 19th century pictures that I would say are part of my collection. I had an early 1840’s Fox Talbot once, but that didn’t stay with me for very long.
EA: What have I left out?
HG: I feel like a young photographer having his first exhibition! This whole process has tickled me and made me feel gleeful and young. Those pictures really mean a lot to me. It’s a major part of the good stuff that I’ve been fortunate to get from what I do in this life of having a photography gallery. They’re up in the house, I look at them all the time, I share them, it means a lot to me. And yes of course I’ve always had some fantasy it would be wonderful to have a show of my collection someday somewhere, and now it’s really happening.
Howard Greenberg, Collection
From September 21st, 2012 to January 6th, 2013
Curators : Sam Stourdzé et Anne Lacoste
Musée de l'Elysée
18, avenue de l'Elysée
1014 Lausanne - Switzerland
Tél. ++41 21 316 99 11
Fax ++41 21 316 99 12
Mail : email@example.com
Howard Greenberg, Collection
From January 15th to April 28th, 2013
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
2 Impasse Lebouis
Tel: ++33 1 56 80 27 00
Catalogue Published by Steidl