Best of British - James Hyman interviewed by the British Journal of Photography
James Hyman has collected British photography for more than 15 years, and now he's launching a website devoted to his archive, which he hopes will stimulate more interest from collectors, curators and institutions around the world. Diane Smyth meets him.
"Among certain circles, this work is known, but I think it should be more widely appreciated", says British photography gallerist and collector James Hyman. "We've got a very devoted but small community in this country, but the point of the website is that it's global."
Britishphotography.org, which he's just launched, focuses on documentary photography,particularly work from the 1970s and '80s, which he's been collecting for more than 15 years. The site is dedicated to this archive and includes images by photographers such as Anna Fox, Paul Graham, Ken Grant, Chris Killip, Daniel Meadows, Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, as well as earlier work by the likes of Bert Hardy and Thurston Hopkins, together with young, emerging image-makers such as Andy Sewell and Jon Tonks. Each entry includes information on the photographers and their work, and while Hyman represents three or four of the photographers, he says he's primarily launched it as an educational tool.
"It's not a selling tool - nothing in the collection is for sale", he says. "I've even added links to other dealers. What it is doing, hopefully, is promoting photographers who I think are important. It seems to me a resource, a place where you can find out about a whole school of photography, which I think is wonderful, but which isn't well enough known. You know these photographers, but if I had the same conversation with someone in Paris or New York or Los Angeles, they wouldn't."
"And if a curator at MoMA or the Met said, 'I want to find out more about the history of British photography', how would they piece it together? You're looking at bits and pieces on the Arts Council website, bits and pieces on the Tate website, almost no text. I've tried and haven't ever been able to say, 'This is the place to go'. Whatever its shortcomings,at least those curators now have somewhere to go."
As Hyman concedes, the site isn't comprehensive - based on his personal collection it reflects his taste, and also what he's been able to buy. Unusually, he prefers to buy entire series rather than individual images, and vintage prints over later editions, commenting that this is down to his background in art history - after studying it at university, he went on to do a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art and taught there for years.
"Bert Hardy did great prints published in the 1980s, signed by him, sold by The Photographers' Gallery, but they don't look anything like his Picture Post prints," he says. "As an art historian, I like the fact that the Picture Post prints are a bit grubby - they're handled,they have the Picture Post stamp on the back, they were working prints. The prints from the 1980s are actually better printed - they're more contrasty, the blacks and the whites are very crisp, and there aren't loads of murky mid-tones, so, aesthetically, you could say the later prints, in that sense, are better. But I like the fact that these are the ones that were knocking around Picture Post. If you're going to look at it in that way, you're going to want vintage prints, but you can't always find them. You just have to be patient and wait. I'd love to have more work by Raymond Moore, but there's virtually nothing around."
Hyman sees the website as just the starting point - he doesn't want people to feel they know the work "because they've seen a thumbnail online", he says. He wants them to see it in the flesh. And while people are welcome to make an appointment to see it - though it's dispersed across his home, his gallery and his storage facility, not one dedicated place - what he'd really like is to exhibit it. He hopes the website will help convince curators to do so.
"What's on our website is still only a reproduction," he says. "I'd enjoy walking around and just seeing what all this stuff looks like together. I'd like to see it presented at an institution, and I'm sure there would be an audience for it. I'd like a curator to see the website and say, 'OK, it's easy for us, it's all been catalogued, there are essays on everything already, and it can all be picked up from one place'. We can make it very easy for people if they want to show it.And great though it would be to show it in this country, I'm much more interested in showing it abroad, because while we do have a sense of these photographers,that's not necessarily the case elsewhere. In a way, what I've done by having the website out there is I've set out my stall. It's up to other people in a way now... If a curator wants to do a show, I'm delighted to lend. If someone is doing a show and they want to borrow individual works, fabulous. It's out there, now it's up to other people whether they're going to see it as an opportunity."
By the same token, Hyman is open to publishing a book on the collection, whether a picture led catalogue or something more focused on British history. Ultimately, though, he would even consider donating the entire collection to an institution - or at least he would have done. Recent events at the Library of Birmingham, which was threatened with drastic cuts and the loss of its entire photography staff, have somewhat shaken his confidence in the institutions. "The lesson of the past few weeks in Birmingham is that even if something is a public body, there's no assurance of security or funding, or even appreciation," he says. "The fact that something may be institutionally owned doesn't necessarily mean the powers that be have any commitment to it. So I have a problem: yes, I'd like it to stay together, and yes, I'd like it to go into an institution, but at the moment I don't have great confidence in those homes. I feel it's safer with me."
He adds that "if you come at all this, as I do, through a belief in the public sector, in a way it's an oddity to be building up something privately". He's surprised that UK institutions haven't built up similar collections to his. "In terms of museums, the heyday of Arts Council patronage was the 1970s; for the British Council it might be the '80s, for the Tate it's still not happened," he says. "You're left with Birmingham, which is amazing - what Pete James has achieved up there is phenomenal. But even there, they have this great resource, but it's not all catalogued, it's not all online".
"As a dealer and as a collector, I haven't seen any evidence that the Arts Council or the British Council or Tate are being terribly active in collecting British photography; as a dealer I've not been selling to them, or even having them enquire, and as a collector, I've not been in competition with them," he adds. "It has been left to private individuals and it shouldn't have been."
He concedes that the big institutions have very limited budgets, but says that can't be the whole explanation because photography - especially British photography - is still so cheap. "The value of my entire photography collection will be less than one [painting by contemporary artist] Peter Doig," he says. "If there was someone supportive of vintage photography, they could be buying up a collection - there hasn't been a strong collector base, so there haven't been the prints circulating."
"It's down to individuals," he adds. "And whether they're interested in British photography. We tend to think of institutions as monolithic and fixed, but they're not. In the meantime, it's up to people like me to step in."
As his comments suggest, he believes this lack of institutional support reflects a wider malaise in British photography collecting, because where most countries have a strong private demand for domestic photographers and prints, that's still not the case in the UK. He takes James Hyman Photography to eight or nine fairs a year - in Paris, LA and New York - because he can't rely on the market at home. "London is an anomaly in the photography world," he says. "There isn't a collector base in London - the market here is tiny. We're doing Photo London [21 to 24 May] and hopefully that will work for everyone and they'll get lots of publicity. But it's never been a problem getting people into fairs and shows. The problem is getting people to collect photography."
"The fact I deal in photographs is not a commercial decision," he adds. "I just have an obsession that's spilled into the day job."