Bill, it’s my understanding that your RE: groups
collection developed as an offshoot while forming You Can’t See Their Eyes.
When did you first recognize the merit in these group photographs, and what organizing principles framed their selection? Did these criteria change over time? William M. Hunt
The so-called You Can’t See Their Eyes
photographs have a name too — Collection Dancing Bear
— magical, heart-stopping images of people in which their eyes cannot be seen. In that collection there are a number of groups: American ones like the KKK, the John Greenleaf Whittier
funeral, John Hiller’s
Albino Zuni Indians and even some English ones — a great one by Frank Sutcliffe
for example — and, as you say, a number of vernacular ones, too, though these were mostly press proofs and snapshots.
In my earlier life as a dealer, I made it a point to look at rougher stuff than I might otherwise have done. Edward J. Kelty
(how can I not buy The Hunt Circus
?) and Mole & Thomas
are American originals. I worked on a wonderful American flag show once, attempting to demonstrate a serendipity between American folk and outsider art and photography.
So things crept into the collection, but to the side. It really wasn’t until the Houston Center for Photography approached me about showing the bigger collection. I said no to that, but thought maybe there could be a show in this other stuff. It’s hard to fathom that there were more than 150 photographs put “to the side,” but I had never seen all of these images until the Houston installation. Even then, there were a couple of dozen that didn’t make the cut. MH
You seem to move back and forth easily between the world of fine art contemporary photography and vernacular photography. Do these two arenas feed and inspire one another? And were you by any chance inspired by the work of Andreas Gursky
to collect early panoramic photographs? WMH
Gursky had no impact on this, although I find his work thrilling. Actually by not
wanting to venture past 1950 or to include Europeans like Rodchenko
, you could say that Gursky was a negative influence. MH
Many of these “groups” seem like early performance art to me, especially the Mole and Thomas. As a former theatre person, do you think you’re attracted to these images because they’re so staged? Makes me wonder, since you were used to working on shows with a cast and crew, do you think you’ve been looking for your tribe? WMH
My “tribe” consists of the lookers, the seekers. I respond to the theatrical element but I love
the obsessive part of it even more. It is the imagination that I respond to — the photographer framing a group that is either terribly formal or in total disarray. Making these photographs was a lot of work — they were a really big deal. MH
Would you say looking is a kind of leisure pasttime for you? Maybe this is what people mean when they say you have a good eye. Would you say that the art of looking forms the basis for your collections — and if so, have you found any evidence to support the notion that this activity is being negatively influenced by our online activities? WMH
So many questions, so little time…leisure? What a funny idea! I look all the time. How can this be considered leisure when it’s also work? It’s the same thing.
has to do with instinct or talent; it’s really an ability to see better than other people — like being funny or good at math. I think I can see more quickly than most people. That’s why a dealer or critic gets a good reputation. You can lead people to photographs that you find compelling and tell them why. Real collecting has very little to do with taste and only to do with neurosis, in my opinion. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily — it’s simply my observation.
It’s difficult to judge how looking online is working its way into how we see. I am sure it is. I seem to squint at everything now, but maybe that’s just age. Online viewing is educational and a tool for selling. At this point it doesn’t have much to do with art
as it’s been traditionally defined. In terms of collecting, I am sure that folks are collecting everything from jpegs to video games. People collect everything!
One thing, though, is how little we understand about what the eye can see and what the brain retains. I organized a show once with images by the members of the photo agency VII
(which includes James Nachtwey
and Ron Haviv
, among others) with 6000 images and 7 projectors running simultaneously. It took 20 minutes for the pictures to do a complete loop, but people could remember scores of pictures afterwards. It was very surprising, and revealing. MH
Do you think that hunting for photographs in flea markets and antiques shows has honed your senses? Are you more adept at finding treasures than if you’d strictly been searching online? WMH
This is a good point. The reality of the thing is important — finding that perfect object and holding it in your hands. At this point, when I see something online I can tell a lot. It’s distressing that there are some people dealing in contemporary reprints of vintage negatives. Usually I can sense it, but only because of my experience in the field.
So much of the hunting for me has been weird instinct. I was never one to sort through boxes of stuff. I believe in the “finder’s fee.” I go to you as a dealer because you have pre-screened stuff and edited out the crap. That’s why you trust some dealers and not others. You like their taste. MH
You founded the photography department at the Ricco Maresca Gallery
that specializes in self-taught and outsider art. How has this influenced your aesthetic? WMH
Profoundly. They really look at the object first and the authorship later. They really gave me confidence in my eye and taste. RMG has the uncanny ability to recognize something in a fresh context — for instance, your living room — an object will have uncommon beauty. Further, there is sometimes the sense that supply in the world of collectibles keeps shrinking (and gets more expensive.) It’s valuable to find more stuff to love. Collectors are junkies.
You seem to really love to look at stuff, evaluate it, consider it, react to it and possess it. You have considered the framing differently throughout the show depending on the photograph. Your collection shows an appreciation for photographs as tactile objects: there’s this implicit sense that photographs as object, is a changing notion.
When I go to sites like Flicker there is a strict uniformity to the way the edge of photographs are handled: it’s all sharp, crisp straight lines. This cleaned-up edge seems to erase the fact that photographs are objects too. Is this something you’ve observed in contemporary art photography, as well? WMH
I ask young photographers why they make photographs with edges. We see elliptically and yet artists are trapped by the pieces of paper. It seems like they overlook a fairly basic component in seeing. Jacques Lartigue
made a bunch of images using a two-lens stereo camera with the lens focused in the center so that the resulting single images had slight flair in the middle. He printed them with a curved edge. Only the overmats made them rectangular. Remember the circular Kodak II
snapshots? Very cool. Edges are lazy and arbitrary.MH
Recently, while setting up at an antiques show, an acquaintance expressed intererest in two items from my booth — a painting and a photograph. She ended up passing on the items, which was fine. Since then, I became privy to her Facebook page. A few hours after she left the antique show she posted photos of the two objects she had loved in my booth that she’d taken with her iPhone. She had, after all, acquired them. Like a journal or scrapbook, they were now personalized on her Facebook page with her comments. Do you ever collect in a virtual way, storing images on your computer and playing around with them? Have you run into the virtual collector at the gallery? WMH
So much of my material is in my head, that I find I can play with the pictures there to some extent. I encourage collectors to make books of their collections, and I wish I had started doing that long ago. Not that you asked, but actually I do have book coming out next year — The Unseen Eye
from Thames & Hudson. I have always maintained informal clipping files with postcards, newspaper photos.
Photography is such an amazing and versatile medium because it draws all kinds of practitioners from people that make or take photographs — family or whatever — and art and the people who just play with them, who look at the newspaper or magazine then talk about them at the water cooler. That’s a kind of collecting. I am sure that I have run into someone collecting pictures on their phone. Bless them. MH
In Nicholas A. Basbanes book A Gentle Madness
, he introduces the mania of bibliophiles, which describes as a psychological conceit: “With thought, patience and discrimination,” he writes, “book passion becomes the signature of a person’s character.” The idea that collecting reveals a person’s character is obviously not unique to book collecting. Your collections are both idiosyncratic and personal. You’ve even named them — Blind Pirate
and Dancing Bear
. Why name a collection? Does your collection reveal your character? WMH
Yes. The Dancing Bear
is my unconscious manifest. Literally. That discovery was initially chilling then later, empowering. Blind Pirate
is much less about my psyche and more about my visual curiosity. Collection Dancing Bear
gave me huge insight into myself over a span of about 35 years. Blind Pirate
is not nearly as self-reflective. MH
Do you ever feel a bit crazy as you accumulate all this photographic material? WMH
told me once that there is a big difference between an accumulation and a collection. With a collection, he believed, you can’t take anything out without leaving a hole, but with an accumulation you can edit a lot out. Have you honed these groups to be tightly formed collections now? WMH
They’re not that tight in any academic sense: as you said, they’re personal and idiosyncratic. Dancing Bear
is pretty good, but at the end of the day, Blind Pirate
doesn’t hold together all that well as a group of things. But I was never as invested in it, either.MH
Has putting them in book form and creating an exhibition allowed you to really step back and evaluate what you have been doing all these years? WMH
: It has been such a trip. Absolutely. The first drafts of the book read like a memoir: they’re very personal. MH
:The Unseen Eye
is coming out next year, and groups
is now an exhibition. Does this finalize the creative process and put an end to this particular quest? And if so, what’s next? WMH
I think it’s time to find them all nice homes. The housekeeping is unwieldy. And I am interested in moving on. Where to — I don’t know.