The Strange Relationship Between Artist and Gallery

I have in the past lamented the gallery that forces a photographer, or any artist for that matter, to work in a particular way.  In addition to often resulting in series of photographs in a certain quantity, I also mean that the gallery has a certain lay-out, a certain amount of wall space and will organize its exhibitions based on the limitations dictated by said space.  The walls are the walls and an accommodation must be made to bring the art to the space, as opposed to the space to the art. 

And here we have the crux of the matter:  A gallery has an artist in its stable with a contract.  Perhaps even an exclusive contract.  It befalls the artist to work with the gallery to get an exhibition of their work.  If the average gallery has between 6 and 10 shows per year, and a stable of maybe 20, or 30 artists, it does not take a world class mathematician to figure out that on average you wait 3 years to have a solo show.  This assuming of course that the gallery does not play favorites.  Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that the artists might be forgiven for trying to get their work to fit the gallery space. 

Further, it stands to reason that the gallerist fancies him-, or herself a connoisseur and has great sway when it comes to the work of the artists in the stable.  After all, they picked the artists and brought the artist a certain standing by having gallery representation in the first place.  Of course, I am generalizing a little, but for most artists, this is their reality.

Given that the gallerist will decide what work is shown in their gallery, the work will be influenced by the gallery space.  I have heard several examples of where an artist presents new work to the gallerist, only to be told that the work is not suitable for the gallery, or will not sell.  Short of breaking their contract and walking away, with whatever consequences this may entail, the artist is basically destined to conform to the wishes of their gallery.

Galleries seem to have had artists over a barrel for the longest time.  Sometimes this relationship can be a fruitful partnership that encourages an artist to do great work, but sometimes it is the shackles that stifle creativity and evolution of artistic expression.  After all, it mostly comes down to simply economics.  Supply and demand.  If there is supply and no way to create demand (as in no gallery representation), the supply is no longer relevant, however great it may be.  Case in point:  Dora Maar, once the muse of Pablo Picasso, and currently showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was a great artist.  Picasso blackballed her work by threatening all the galleries in Paris with his wrath should they dare to show or sell her work after their tumultuous break-up.  Great supply.  No demand.

Let me give you an example from a very well known gallery in Italy, which has in its stable one of the greatest living photographers.  Out of respect for both, I will not name names. The photographer one day came to the gallery with a whole box of 30 cm x 40 cm prints that he had just finished making in his darkroom.  Each photograph was wonderfully printed.  The tonal range perfect.  The photographs were timeless.  And they will never leave the box.  Why?  Well, the subject matter is drawn from a number of old and perhaps forgotten cemeteries, where tilted and fallen stones, exquisite sculpture and the undeniable fate that awaits us all is shown, as only a great photographer can present it. 

The fact that these photographs will never hang on the gallery wall, or be shown beyond the confines of a single box in a sea of boxes, is a reflection of the gallery having decided that this work is unsellable and under no circumstances can it be shown or hung in frames along the walls of the gallery.  Of course, the gallery may be entirely right.  Not a single sale could happen, were the gallery to hang a show of dead people and their memorials.  But, is the decision not to show the artist’s cemetery work the gallerist’s to make? 

In a world where the gallery reigns supreme, there is obviously only one answer to this question.  But with public spaces abound, is it the only answer?  Sadly, here too, the gallerists hold most of the cards. Art is hung in public buildings, museums, and the like, but most often with a gallery deciding what should, or should not hang.  In a word, the gallery is the filter.  I can understand this, as it is easier for a public service, utility or institution to go to a gallery with multiple artists and simple say that we want a show each month and can you do that for us.  Easier because there will be a variety of artists represented by the gallery and instead of having multiple artists to coordinate, there is a single point of contact. Working with artists who might have different ideas, different frames, different demands, or even a different esthetic may proved challenging.  Working with a gallery is above all else simple.

I write this entry as a response to what I read in the most recent issue of Monocle.  A gallery in Milan run by Massimo de Carlo – the article calls him ‘Milan’s most prominent gallerist’ – has moved to a new location.  A villa, constructed in 1936. 

Massimo de Carlo Gallery – Milan

The article goes on to say that: ‘The space is embellished with a rainbow of mixed marble and ornate wall decorations’.  De Carlo is quoted as saying: “Artists don’t want cold industrial spaces and cement floors anymore”, he continues “The future of art is in locations with personality and history that can stimulate the artists.”

Massimo de Carlo Gallery – Milan

And there you have it.  The space for the artist to show his or her work is no longer merely a blank canvas to serve as a neutral background for their work.  No, now the artist has to accommodate the quirks of a 1936 villa, designed and decorated for the use of a family, not as a gallery.  Built at a time, when the Fascists ruled Italy.   Now, the artist is expected, as per de Carlo, to be inspired by the space and produce art accordingly.  This sounds a little totalitarian, does it not?

Harbel

Peter Fetterman – The True Gallerist

For a long time I have been subscribing to Alex Novac’s newsletter.  Alex sells photographs and is a well-respected expert, particularly in the area of 19th century images.  He also takes it upon himself to provide updates to his subscribers on a variety of current events, and I paid particular attention to his summary of discussions with exhibitors at Paris Photo, which I attend each November and have for years.

This year, he interviewed and quoted a number of exhibitors who overall were very happy with the exhibition and enjoyed the incredible attendance and the many sales, as well as seeing what their colleagues are up to.  Paris Photo remains the key event in the calendar of anyone collecting photographs, wherever they might be from in the world.

In 2018, one of the booths at Paris Photo was Peter Fetterman, one of the Grand Masters of the medium from his gallery in California.  Peter Fetterman’s booth at Paris Photo was a wonderful display of what the French call ‘Humaniste’ photography, what I often translate to ‘The Human Condition’.  I quote, as follows from Alex’s newsletter:

With regards to the photography market generally, Fetterman commented, “If it’s great material and it touches people, then the market is strong. I think people are more sensitive now and can tell when an image has been created for a market rather than as a personal statement. All these photographers in my booth, back in the day they never sold anything. They did it, because they had to do it. Emotionally they had to express themselves through their photography. But a lot of the work created today is big prints about nothing, in an edition of three, and that’s supposed to make it important? It’s manufactured, and I think people are catching on to that. It’s a lot of hype. I think the real artists will always be successful, and the here-today, gone tomorrow won’t. It’s Darwin basically, survival of the fittest and the most talented. And I think market corrections are good.”

I have for many years been wondering how some of the modern photographs that we see commanding huge prices can possibly be set along side some of the masters of the medium.  More about that another day, and hats off to Peter Fetterman.  I share his views.

Harbel


Colour Photographs and the Collector – it is all about trust!

It used to be simple; photographs had a colour palette that went from black through the grays to white. Variations, such as the albumen photograph ranged from dark brown to light cream, and cyano-types went from an almost black marine blue to the palest of blue/white. However, throughout the history of the medium, most photographs were what we would call black and white.

Experimentation with colour started almost as early as photographs were stabilized on paper or metal. In the beginning, colour was simply applied with a brush to the black and white image. Early portraits got a healthy complexion with pink lips and rouged cheeks at the hands of the skilled touch-up artist. Later, a variety of methods were developed to show colour in photographs.

Unfortunately, most colour methods have not stood up well to the passing of time. Most have faded, colour-shifted, so that faces have turned from healthy to very sickly, and clothes, grass and trees turned to colours that are brown and muddy. Most older, colour photographs have simply lost their brightness and sharpness. Just have a look at your own family albums…. they look a little muddy and have that ‘old’ look to them, right?

I know of only two methods that are truly stable. One, the dye-transfer process, is no longer used because it became too expensive. Some great photographs were made using this method, but sadly no more. Ernest Hass was maybe the most consistent user of this technology. The second, is the Fresson process. Fresson printing a multi-step laying down of individual colour layers and is still done today at a single family owned lab in France. The closely guarded secret process has not changed in nearly a century. Sheila Metzner is a strong proponent of this printing method, as is the interesting French photographer Bernard Plossu.

Every so many months new inks are developed for new generations of digital printers, new and improved papers are developed. For many years, dating back to the 1940s, Kodak and Fuji went through many, many generations of ‘new and improved’, as have the print, ink and paper manufacturers that produce both the high-end commercial jobs, and the home-use printer you have sitting on the corner of your desk. But is it stable?

A 740 page whopper of a book, still regarded as something of a bible in colour photography, “The Permanence and Care of Colour Photographs” by Henry Wilhelm, is now more than 20 years old. But, it is still often referred to by those that are interested in colour photography. The book dives deep into 20 years of extensive research into the colour medium in photography and how it ages.

Published in 1993, this book describes in great detail all that has gone wrong over the years in colour photography, promises that were broken by suppliers of film and paper, only to be renewed with the next generation of printing technology. Perhaps a little surprising, Wilhelm, ever the optimist, too concludes that nirvana is imminent with new processes being proposed and new in-organic inks arriving on the scene that will change everything.

I am not sure what to believe. I have 5 colour photographs in my collection; One Fresson, two dye-transfer prints, two prints by the Saul Leiter of Canada, Fred Herzog. The latter two are modern digital prints. Don’t ask me what inks are used, or even what paper, but I have a document from the gallery that guarantees the images. The photographer, Fred Herzog is more than 90 years old and the gallery almost acts for him, so I am comfortable with my ability to replace my two images.

But, what if you are considering buying a terrific colour photograph? If it feels right, looks right and meets all the critical considerations that are important to you, as a collector, the obvious answer is to recommend that you buy the photograph. Love it. Enjoy it, but be aware…

Photography collectors have long suffered from chromophobia – the fear of colour. Many have seen fabulous work simply fade, colour shift, or virtually disappear in front of their eyes and are understandably cautious. But that may be the past. You, the modern day collector with no baggage, no prior catastrophes, may fell ready to take on the endless possibilities that colour represents.

Personally, I would make sure that when you buy colour work, the artist (even if you buy through a gallery) guarantees the work and will offer nothing less than a full refund or a replacement print, in the event of a small or epic failure. And do get this in writing signed by the artist, in the event the gallery where you bought the work should fall on hard times and disappear.

I only make black and white photographs, so thankfully have much less to worry about!

Harbel,
Bordeaux

See more on my website: harbel.com

Gallery visit Milan – Herbert List and more

It is rare that you get to meet someone quite as enthusiastic as Alessia Paladini. She is the Director of the Contrasto Galleria in Milan, where I spent a couple of very engaging hours initially looking at the show currently hanging, which is a great mix of vintage and modern prints by Herbert List. The vintage prints have that something, which sadly no modern paper seems able to give us. There is a warmth and tonal range that we can only dream of today. Not sure if the slower film in the 1950s helped, but at any rate, the small 6×6 inch vintage prints were enough to make a grown man do a second take. We then got into the boxes, where I wanted to see some of the vintage material of one of my great heroes Gianni Berengo Gardin.

Berengo Gardin is a photographer who in addition to making great photographs has has an incredible record of more than 250 book projects, is well into his 80s and is still going strong, having just finished the 2017 calendar for the Italian Police Force. We looked at great photographs, some not much more than postcard size, all the way up to quite large modern prints. The vintage photographs, like the List photographs, had a wonderful feel to them and with only a couple of exceptions were of Italian scenes.

Gardin does not like being referred to as the HCB of Italy, he prefers being compared to his friend Willy Ronis. But if HCB is not the right comparison, then Ronis is not entirely bad company!

If you are ever in Milan, take a look at the shows at Contrasto Galleria, they are in a beautiful gallery space, off the beaten path a bit, but well worth the walk or metro ride. You will not regret it!

And NO, I derive no gain from mentioning or proposing you visit Contrasto. I am merely providing a service announcement for like-minded photographers and collectors!

Harbel,
Milan

See more on my website: harbel.com