The Thrill of the Chase. James Hyman interviewed by Photomonitor
This is a revised and updated version of an interview with gallerist and collector, James Hyman, that originally appeared in Photomonitor in April 2013.
Christiane Monarchi: You've quietly collected for several years. Why publicise it?
James Hyman: We are the most active British photography collectors and have lent works from the collection to museums across the world. But Claire and I have liked being a bit under the radar. But the collection is now so big that we'd love other people to see it and to share our enthusiasm for photography.
In the last few years I've given an increasing number of talks to patrons groups and post graduate students here in London, and this website is another method of communication. It really is about wanting to share, wanting people to learn about and see remarkable works by exceptional artists, to discover pictures that they might not see otherwise. Above all it's about providing an accessible educational resource.
Ultimately we would like to include every picture on the website with an essay on each work. So it's not just about reproducing the work, but about providing thematic essays and detailed information on each individual picture. We also want to provide links to other resources that are on line: publications, exhibitions, collections etc. That way the site can be a portal to learn more about British photography.
British photography is actually not our main area of collecting, but we feel it is the area that would benefit most from this kind of support. It's still underappreciated.
It is interesting how the type of educational role previously associated with museums and educational establishments is today being complimented by private initiatives. In Israel, for example, Shalom Shpilman's private collection is just one aspect of an ambitious public educational project aimed at promoting the medium of photography.
In our case, although our collecting has focused on French nineteenth century salt prints, early twentieth century Modernism and contemporary art, we have chosen to launch this website as a showcase for contemporary British photography. It's too little known. For several years we have done what we can to support British photography as collectors, and would also like to spread the word through this website. This is also why we are planning a prize, an award specifically for research into the history of British photography.
Creating this website feels like the beginning of something, not the culmination of years of collecting. It's very much an on-going process. We also have other ideas of ways to support British photography and other photographers that we would love to collect.
Christiane Monarchi: You and Claire first began collecting art together in the mid 1990s focused, initially, on the School of London painters and young British artists (yBas). What were your first purchases?
James Hyman: Claire and I began collecting soon after we met. The first major work we acquired was Anya Gallaccio's floor-piece of ten thousand fragrant red English tea roses, Red on Green. I was stunned by it when it was first shown at the ICA in 1992 and I still consider it to be Gallaccio's greatest work. It was a crazy but exciting acquisition. Totally impractical. Completely uncommercial. But I couldn't believe that it was possible to acquire a work of such significance. Since then we've lent it to exhibitions all round the world, from Scotland to Iran! It always attracts huge publicity.
Then on a trip to New York in 1996, we went to Nan Goldin's exhibition at the Whitney Museum. We both found Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency slide show with its great sound track incredibly moving. We bought some works by Nan Goldin and by Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon but they were never really Claire's thing. Claire and I married in 1997 and in 2001 had our first child. I remember talking about what art we wanted around us. We explicitly decided that it should be art works we would be comfortable for the children and their friends to see. Goldin's Jimmy Paulette, Kelley's rag doll and McCarthy's exotic dancer had to go. That's not to say that the work we have around us today isn't challenging. The scroll in our hallway by Jin Feng, An Appeal Without Words, is an incredible, many metres-long, photograph that addresses the lack of a voice of the ordinary people in today's China. An oil painting by Peter de Francia, showing the effect on civilians of the bombing of Sakiet in the 1950s, is also prominently displayed, as is a Bill Brandt photograph of a family in the coal mining community of Jarrow that was aimed at exposing poverty in northern England in the 1930s, and early black and white works by Simon Norfolk, which are beautiful but highly charged. We were also early collectors of South African activist and photographer Zanele Muholi and have some of her key early series.
Christiane Monarchi: Did you come from a background where art was important?
James Hyman: My father, Robin Hyman, is a book publisher and my mother, Inge, a psychologist, but they are both interested in art and regularly visit exhibitions. As a child, they often took my brother and sister and me to exhibitions. I remember peering round corners from one vast gallery to the next at the Tate Gallery's Constable exhibition in 1976. Also the excitement, a bit later, of seeing the Pompidou Centre in Paris for the first time. But my parents were always very good and the moment we showed signs of boredom they would whisk us out. So it was never an ordeal being dragged round exhibitions.
Also I was encouraged by a family friend, the greatest art historian of the twentieth century, Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich. During the war my father's family were evacuated from London to a tiny village called Chalk House Green in Oxfordhsire, between Henley-on-Thames and Reading. Their neighbour was Professor Gombrich who was working at the secret BBC monitoring service at nearby Caversham Park whilst writing his famous Story of Art. After the war the families continued their friendship back in north London and Professor Gombrich encouraged my early interest in art history and gave me advice when I was considering whether to study it at University. I remember, as a confused student, questioning him about all the different approaches to art history. His advice was simple, pragmatic and liberating: "Use whatever method will help you answer the questions that interest you".
But as a child I never knew that there were "collectors". I assumed that all great pictures were already in museums. Then in my late teens I got a summer job at Hatchards, the famous old bookshop on Piccadilly, and in my lunch breaks I discovered Cork Street and the galleries around Mayfair. I was amazed to discover Waddington Galleries and realise that if you had the money you could buy a Picasso. Also as a teenager, the parents of one of my best friends had a wonderfully focused collection that included paintings by Chaim Soutine, David Bomberg, Willem de Kooning, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. I learnt a lot about the expressive, emotional power of paint and the psychological charge of the best painting. Each time I went round there my friend's father would show me his latest acquisition and challenge me for a response. He was a huge influence on me. But it never crossed my mind that one day I might be an art dealer or a collector.
I did my BA at Manchester University before spending a decade at the Courtauld Institute in London where I received my Masters and PhD and then taught. This was a time when the painters of the The School of London were comparatively accessible and by the time that I was twenty I was regularly visiting Leon Kossoff, seeing Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Kitaj, and had met Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. In my early twenties no one had a bigger influence on me than Leon Kossoff. I have never felt a painter's work so deeply. My doctorate The Battle for Realism. Art and Politics in the Cold War (1945-60) (published by Yale University Press in 2001) had many of these painters at its centre.
What was particularly exciting for me was not just learning about their own work but visiting exhibitions with them and seeing other artists through their eyes. I went to the National Gallery and Royal Academy with Leon Kossoff, to Paris with Michael Andrews where we had a breakfast-time visit to the Grand Palais to see their Seurat exhibition before the doors opened to the public; went round a Picasso show with Lucian Freud and visited an exhibition of works by Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud with Francis Bacon whose every utterance had a sting in the tail. None of these artists had the level of fame that they do now, so being obsessed with their work seemed like being part of a privileged clique.
A little later, friendship with Bridget Riley also meant an enormous amount to me. Our frequent wine-fuelled conversations, about politics as well as art, would extend late into the night. On one occasion when Bridget came round for dinner, Claire was so exhausted from working nights as a doctor at the Royal London Hospital that she fell asleep. I don't think Bridget ever forgave her!
Later Claire and I had many studio visits to Alan Davie. Our lunches with Alan and his wife Bili, and time in the studio seeing old and new work, were always extraordinary. Alan viewed himself as a medium for work that was outside of his conscious control and could then stand back, seemingly detached, and admire a painting as "a great Davie" as though he had played no part in its creation.
Friendship with Derrick Greaves is also very special. He has such a gift for friendship that it crosses generations. It's extraordinary to think that he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale as long ago as 1956 and is still producing paintings of such wit and originality. We have learnt to expect the unexpected when we visit his studio in deepest Norfolk to see his latest works. I love our conversations about art and life by way of saucy music-hall songs: the Winkle Song is a particular favourite.
We also recently took the children on a memorable visit to Zhang Huan's enormous studio complex in Shanghai. He was a generous and fascinating host, spending a whole morning showing us his latest work, including the longest painting I have ever seen: a painting made of incence ash from Buddhist temples that is based on an old photograph of Chairman Mao and the leaders of the Communist Party. We also loved seeing the massive sculptures in enormous hangars, although the children were just as excited by the chance to feed his pet monkeys!
Christiane Monarchi: When did you start to focus on collecting photographs?
James Hyman: At school I wanted to be a photographer: When I was just fourteen I entered a competition by the Greater London Council entitled Metropolis -Portrait of a City and won first prize in my category with a black and white photograph of a newspaper seller outside Warren Street Underground Station: £250 of photographic equipment. An enormous sum for a fourteen year old in 1982! To win was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Although the newspaper coverage embarrassed me, it was wonderful to be able to buy incredible new equipment, including a zoom lens. I loved taking photographs of derelict streets in Bermondsey, life along Tottenham Court Road, streets in Knightsbridge, CND marches and also enjoyed being in the dark room. The smell of the chemicals, the images appearing before my eyes. But I was steered towards a more academic path and went on to study History of Art at University.
So for many years I virtually stopped taking photographs, although later I was delighted when several of my photographs of Anselm Kiefer's studio were used by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in one of their books. At that time, many of the London painters that I most admired were very anti-photography: Bacon was an exception. They were at pains to stress that they did not use photography in their work and dismissive of it as an art form. But from school days I loved Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Brassai and Bill Brandt. I had a pocket sized copy of Andre Kertesz's On Reading, which I loved.
I also loved a show at the Barbican Centre American Visions that took place in 1985. The show's focus was mainly on people, on street photography, and much of it had a very European feel: what I liked about Bill Brandt or Andre Kertesz I could also admire in their selection of Robert Franks.
Later we visited the Paris Photo fair each year, but purely as visitors, not as buyers. So we had a long time looking and learning before ever thinking about buying anything, let alone forming a collection. I was inspired by a good friend of mine Gary Sokol, one of the greatest photography collectors in America. We met in the mid 1980s on a boat going down the Li River in China! This was before he, or I, began collecting. Then over the years we visited photo auctions and fairs together, him as a buyer, me simply to admire. At a London auction at Sotheby's we both loved a vintage photograph of an aerial view by Moholy-Nagy. Gary was put off by the condition but I encouraged him to go for it. He won the lot and after cleaning it turned out to be a spectacular purchase.
I first began collecting photographs in the early 1990s, but it was Gary whom I called when we decided to start to collect more seriously and he introduced us to the legendary American photography dealer, Margaret Weston. Claire and I spent a wonderful day with Maggi at her gallery and her home in Carmel, California. It was incredible to see what she had tucked away!
From Maggi we acquired our first major vintage photographs: a rare Edward Weston Dune and two platinum prints by Paul Strand. Gary also recommended other photography dealers, among them, Stephen Daiter in Chicago. In those early days Steve taught me more than anyone else. As a young collector I had a lot to learn! I still do! We would have long transatlantic phone calls. I would ask Steve a question about Andre Kertész, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and he would still be answering the question half an hour later! Those conversations were very special. Some of our best twentieth century photographs come from him. So the backbone of the collection dates from the beginning of this millennium. Major early acquisitions included work by two of the greatest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, William Henry Fox Talbot and Edward Weston.
Nineteenth century French salt prints and paper negatives are an obsession and are the greatest strength of the collection. But in recent years we've also added a lot of contemporary, especially British photographs, particularly conceptual or subjective documentary photography from the Thatcher years: from Martin Parr and Paul Graham through to younger artists.
Christiane Monarchi: Where did the idea of collecting nineteenth-century pictures come from?
James Hyman: I think Gary must take credit for that as well. When Claire and I stayed with him in San Francisco he showed us his incredible pictures and then in New York he took me to visit Hans Kraus to look at very early works by Talbot. They were small, faded, barely there: whispers of the past. Yet for me these scraps were magical, like sacred relics. I loved the theatre of it, the shadowy forms emerging from the twilight in Hans's dark rooms. He also showed me some early British and French paper negatives. I bought two works on that first visit, both British paper negatives.
A great moment for me was meeting André Jammes, the greatest collector of nineteenth century photographs. Hans introduced me as a collector of paper negatives. "Vous avez raison" he told me. We are fortunate to have acquired several early French photographs that were once in his remarkable collection.
I used to joke with Gary about our different approaches. Looking at a nineteenth century photograph he would see the future and I would see the past. He would respond to its modernism, I would be attracted to the echoes of earlier times.
Whether it's nineteenth or twentieth century, I suppose I'm drawn to people, genre scenes, traces of man, a sense of timelessness, to continuity rather than change. I love the intimacy, tenderness and sensitivity of the earliest photography. I also especially love the humanism of Charles Negre and Andre Kertesz.
Back in London I began to get regular visits from Robert Hershkowitz, one of the greatest dealers in nineteenth century photographs. An American, living in England, Bobby consistently showed me great things by great photographers. But he also showed me that a poor photographer could still produce a great picture.
Christiane Monarchi: So it sounds like a very American story.
James Hyman: Well for several years almost everything we acquired was from American dealers or, occasionally, American auctions. There just wasn't the material in London. Auctions were drying up and vintage material by European and American Modernists was almost impossible to find at London dealers. It's a pity that to this day, with the exception of acquisitions from Robert Hershkowitz and some contemporary works, we've bought virtually nothing from galleries in London. It's certainly not been conscious. We have, for example, bought a lot of good vintage work in France from auctions and dealers such as Serge Kakou, Alain Paviot and Serge Plantureux.
Christiane Monarchi: But London is changing.
James Hyman: Yes. Progress is incredibly slow here in London but there are encouraging signs. Michael Wilson, one of the world's greatest photography collectors, has done more than anyone to try and stimulate a photography community, personally though his generosity and publicly through the Wilson Centre for Photography. Philippe Garner, as auctioneer and author, has also been a wonderful influence with his knowledge, enthusiasm and judgement. There are also major institutional developments. The Photographers' Gallery has opened a new gallery and raised its profile under Brett Rogers. Also the National Media Museum now has an outpost at the Science Museum. I've been a sponsor and judge of their bursary awards and a supporter of their fundraising campaign for the new space and am excited to see what Kate Bush achieves.
The Tate's recent engagement with photography has also generated a lot of good will and a great sense of expectation. But it is clearly a struggle. What they really need is two posts, a curator of International Photography at Tate Modern and a comparable post at Tate Britain for British Photography.
There have also been brilliant developments outside London. Pete James, formerly at Birmingham Library, did an incredible job of supporting British photographers and Jem Southam in Plymouth diligently developed initiatives to help photographers consider the best options for their archives. Michael Pritchard's britishphotohistory website is also a wonderful resource for information as well as creating a real sense of community and sharing, and I also enjoy Simon Roberts's We English website.
Christiane Monarchi: What advice would you give to collectors starting out today?
James Hyman: See as much as possible. I was lucky early on not only to see great works at dealers such as Hans Kraus but also to visit institutions to see pictures that were not on display. For example, Gerard Levy, one of the old school French dealers took me to the Société Française de Photographie (SFP) where we looked at J.B. Greene, Regnault and Humbert de Molard. It gave me a canon of excellence against which to judge the pieces that I was being offered. Without this sort of visual experience it's easy to be seduced by the image not the object.
Also be patient. New discoveries are made and works do come back on the market. It's true that great collections such as the Gilman Collection are now in institutions, but others such as those of Henry Buhl and Howard Stein have been dispersed at auction. It's easy to be envious of the opportunities in the past, to lament the lack of material today, or its quality, or the escalation in prices. Of course I wish I'd started earlier, but there are still opportunities.
I'd also recommend reading as much as possible. Photography until recently was a terra incognita but there is a growing literature on the history of photography and a growing amount on the internet, from museum websites that illustrate and catalogue each and every work, to a multitude of blogs. Early on, Alex Novak's iphotocentral newsletters provided an incredible entrée into the world of photography collecting. Luminous-Lint is also a great online treasure trove of images.
Christiane Monarchi: You also collect contemporary work. How does that fit into the collection?
James Hyman: The earliest French photography is incredibly rare and the best twentieth century modernism is also drying up. So it's also exciting to engage with what's going on today. But it's more than that. We are fortunate to be living in Britain at a time when many of the greatest contemporary photographers are working here. It's a strange fact that in Britain we have a generation of extraordinary photographers who remain under-appreciated. Several of them were the subject of a MOMA New York exhibition, Photography from the Thatcher Years, as far back as 1991, and others were included in Martin Parr's travelling Parrworld show in 2009. I thought that it showed great generosity for Martin to use the opening galleries of his show to promote the photographers that he believed in, but New British Photography still deserves far greater acclaim at home and abroad.
Often these photographers have worked, series by series, with each project culminating in a book and/or exhibition, so rather than acquiring single prints, we've tried where possible to buy entire, or at least substantial, bodies of work: Anna Fox's Work Stations, Ken Grant's Close Season, Karen Knorr's Belgravia, Martin Parr's Last Resort, Mark Power's Shipping Forecast, Paul Reas's Flogging a Dead Horse, Paul Seawright's Sectarian Murders, Jem Southam's Painters Pool, Jo Spence's Remodelling Photohistory, Homer Sykes's Once a Year. It's a long list! In recent years we have also acquired entire retrospective exhibitions at the end of their museum tours. These include the acclaimed solo shows of Anna Fox and Daniel Meadows. This allows us to present in depth not just one representative body of work, but several.
I also particularly admire Stephen Gill who, for me, has the ethos of early Punk. There is a craft element, a do it yourself attitude. Whether producing subtle photographs or exquisite books he has a real appreciation for the art object.
It may be unfashionable, but what interests me is the on-going potential of the camera. I think it is harder than ever to be a photographer today given the proliferation of digital images and, for me, the current fashion for appropriation and for collage, however sincere, just seems too easy. When I joked with Brett Rogers, the Director of the Photographer's Gallery here in London, that to be a photographer no longer requires owning a camera, she chided me for being old fashioned.
What Claire and I really like, what we are really after is artists, in whatever medium, who make us see the world in a fresh way. In fact one of the problems that we have with certain younger artists is that their vision is so heavily built on the work of the generation or generations before them that they aren't making the viewer think differently. Part of the reason for creating this website is to make these earlier generations better known. Everyone knows Paul Graham and Martin Parr. Anna Fox, Paul Seawright and Jem Southam are known world-wide, but great photographers such as Ken Grant, David Moore and Paul Reas deserve to be much better known internationally. It's incredibly adhoc. In New York Edwynn Houk represents the estate of Bill Brandt, Tom Gitterman represents Roger Mayne, James Danziger represents Karen Knorr, and L. Parker Stephenson recently began representing Sirkka Liisa Konttinen. But it all seems very random.
Christiane Monarchi: Which are your favourite pictures in the collection?
James Hyman: It's always the latest acquisition.
Christiane Monarchi: Do you think that a collection should have a theme?
James Hyman: Some of the greatest private collections have a theme and some of the greatest collections don't. There are no rules. I immensely admire the private collections of Paul Sack on buildings, Bill Hunt on unseen eyes, Henry Buhl on hands, Gary Sokol on Modernism, but equally I admire the quality of Michael Wilson and Thomas Walther's diverse collections. The encyclopaedic range of the Archive of Modern Conflict is also astonishing.
So I suppose we try and have it both ways. The collection is personal and there are threads - intimacy, is one, performance is another - but it also has a wider historical ambition and includes important milestones in the history of photography. As an art historian, I love all the research and it excites me that photography is one of the few areas of the art market where works of such rarity and importance can still be acquired and that there is still the potential to build something definitive. But first and foremost it's a subjective, aesthetic experience.
Christiane Monarchi: Isn't it a conflict being an art dealer and a collector?
James Hyman: Claire and I started collecting together nearly twenty years ago, but I've only dealt in photographs for a short time. In fact my enthusiasm for photography has spilled into my life as an art historian and painting dealer. As well as showing vintage photographs, its been wonderful to work with photographers and to see their latest work. It was also enormously exciting to co-curate with Paul McCartney an exhibition of photographs by Linda McCartney.
So although we continue to collect, the core collection predates me dealing in photographs by several years.
It's interesting that in recent years it's not just been collectors such as Paul Sack, Gary Sokol and Henry Buhl, who have exhibited their work in public institutions, but also photography dealers such as Maggi Weston, Howard Greenberg and Eric Franck. I appreciate the ethical issues for a museum, but think they are more relevant when it comes to young contemporary artists, for whom a museum show may shift the market, than for deceased and already established artists. I think for the public the main issue should be whether the material is of the highest quality. Whether it is publicly or privately owned is a side issue. The britishphotography.org website is a way of making public a collection that would otherwise be private. There is no comparable museum collection, so we hope that the site will take on an educational function.
Christiane Monarchi: If you had to choose one work to keep, which would it be?
James Hyman: There are many aspects to collecting: meeting fascinating people, learning about amazing artists, the thrill of the chase, living with the work, understanding the object not just the image, deepening one's relationship with it. It's an obsession. But odd though it may seem, I'm actually not that possessive: The impulses are more psychological and emotional than material.
So although there are pictures that I love, ownership is not actually the prime issue and I'm not sure that there is any single work that I'd fight to keep. I'm passionate about all the pictures on the website and believe that they form a coherent, historically significant whole, all be it with gaps that we hope to fill. I would love it if one day this collection found an institutional home.
So for sentimental reasons, I think that what I would keep is a book not a photograph. In my twenties I had the thrill of meeting my hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson. I went to his apartment in Paris overlooking the Tuileries Gardens to interview him for an essay that I was writing. I was terrified, as he had a reputation for being impatient with interviewers, and nervous as I wasn't sure whether we would be talking in French or English. But he was completely charming. We spent all afternoon talking and then enjoyed a whisky as we watched the sun setting on Paris. The focus of my essay was on his drawings and lithographs and, in appreciation, he sent me a book inscribed - for James, with my deep gratitude for your encouragement, Henri Cartier-Bresson. April 98 - I should have retired there and then!