Gallerist Howard Greenberg on Unveiling His Storied Photo Collection in Paris

Gallerist Howard Greenberg on Unveiling His Storied Photo Collection in Paris
Ruth Orkin, "American Girl in Italy" (1951), from Howard Greenberg's collection

Howard Greenberg, owner of New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery, is showing part of his photography collection at Paris’s Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation through April 21, in an exhibition that originated at the Musée de l’Elysée photography museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Greenberg has been involved with photography in a number of ways: first as a photographer himself, also as a gallerist, and as the founder and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Photography at Woodstock. ARTINFO France sat down with him recently to talk about the new show, the magical quality of original prints, and how he first realized he was becoming a collector.

Why did you choose to show your collection for the first time at the Musée de l’Elysée and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation?

 

The idea for the show came about during a conversation with Sam Stourdzé, the director of the Musée de l’Elysée. We’re colleagues, and we’ve already worked on several projects together. When I asked him what he wanted to do in the museum, he told me that he wanted to show private collections. At that stage he hadn’t realized that I myself had a vast collection, so I showed him some images on CD and since he liked them a lot, he decided to come to my house and see them with his own eyes. After that, everything happened very naturally.

You discovered the New York School, the Photo League, and the Czech School. How did that come about?

Well, I didn’t “discover” them. However, there is an anecdote I can tell you about my personal discovery of the Photo League. At the time, I was a young photographer in Woodstock, New York, and I had just gotten interested in the history of the discipline, which I was studying through books and exhibitions. One day, I went into the local frame shop, and what should I come upon but 20 prints of New York dating to the middle of the century, impressive images. So I asked whom they were by, and found out that they were the work of the owner of the local movie theater, who was a friend of mine. I had no idea that he had been a photographer, much less that he was part of the Photo League! I knew this group a bit because, in 1980, the International Center of Photography had organized an exhibition of their work. But that was only a brief encounter. These photos were a revelation for me, and right away I wanted to know more about them. A few years later, I did a big show on the League in my first gallery.

As for Czech photography, everything started with Josef Sudek. When I was a young photographer in the 1970s, I studied Sudek along with other Czech artists of the ’20s and ’30s, [František] Drtikol and [Jaromír] Funke, for example. No one knew a lot about them at the time, so I started researching them and this was exciting for me. The first prints that I got my hands on inspired me a great deal.

When did you start collecting?

I’ve always been a collector. As a child, I gathered all kinds of objects. I started collecting prints when I got involved in photography; my friends and I traded them. In 1972, I had a studio with Jerry Uelsmann, and I gave him cigar boxes in exchange for my favorite images by him. However, at that stage I didn’t yet see myself as a collector.

Maybe the beginning of my collecting goes back to the purchase of an image by Karl Struss, a pictorial work from 1910 of New York. A California collector had given it to me to resell. It cost $4,000, a large amount at that time, in 1987. I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn’t sell it. Six months later, in my gallery, I made a good sale. Because I had some money put aside, I told myself that since no one wanted it, well, I would buy it. By then I had become completely fascinated by this photo.

Why don’t you collect photo series?

I don’t buy images because of the name of the person who took them, or for their genre. On the contrary, I base it on my personal experience. I love the beauty of the object — it must evoke something special and unique for me to want to acquire it. Therefore it’s often an image that is related to something I experienced at that time. I can’t be called an intellectual collector. Through my purchases, I’m not trying to establish the history of photography or put together a conceptual collection starting with a certain idea; I don’t work that way.

Still, when we look at your collection, it does sketch out a history of the 20th century.

I have different sources of influence and all kinds of contacts; in my life, people have shown me an impressive number of photographs. I could have collected pictures of other periods, of the 19th century for instance, but I feel most at home in the 20th century.

Is this exhibition representative of your collection?

Yes, totally. It shows the incredible enjoyment that original photos give me on their own, and the power of certain specific images, which can create a transcendental experience. I love beautiful photographs, but above all it’s the magic of the medium that excites me. You can see it clearly in my collection, even in the pieces that aren’t part of the show.

You also pay a lot of attention to the quality of the prints. What does the material aspect of a photograph reveal?

My taste for and love of photography go way back, to well before anyone could even imagine the arrival of digital. I learned photography by printing images in a darkroom. It’s a very special place, and I love the artisanal quality of beautiful photos. The combination of craftsmanship and vision is very strong, and very moving. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Or, to be more precise, that’s what moves me and, in these moments of emotion, something happens inside me. I’m talking about a magical process; as I said before, I’m not an intellectual, I do things deeply.

I have an example: “Three Welsh Miners” by Eugene Smith, which I saw for the first time at MoMA in 1970. Over the years, in my gallery, I’ve seen many prints of this photo, without ever wanting to own one. One day, I was lucky enough to have access to the original print, the one that LIFE magazine used for its reproductions. It was less about contrasts, less about intensity, but to my eyes this photo had something special. Each print changes according to its quality.

Different schools are represented in this exhibition. It makes visitors want to know everything about these images. To appreciate them, is it necessary to have a thorough knowledge and to know the entire work of the photographers who took them?

This question calls for a very long answer. So I’m just going to say that each photo provides information and tells a story in its own words. Nevertheless, you can sometimes appreciate an image even more after learning about its context.

Some of these images are very hard to look at. Is looking at them a way of confronting reality? I’m thinking about several pictures in your collection, especially one of an execution in Vietnam by Eddie Adams.

In his photographs Eddie Adams confronted war and death. I’m talking about his major works, his documentary photography, which, indeed, often shows the reality of armed combat. An image can say a lot about war and its horrors. You don’t walk away from it unscathed because what you have just seen actually happened — the photographer was there to bear witness. Plus, in this context, original prints have a unique historical value. Of course, there is also a personal dimension, given that they speak of a time that I experienced; they evoke facts that were reported to us in real time. That’s why they’re in my collection.

There are also more personal and poetic photographs. Do they additionally represent a vision of reality?

To begin with, a photograph is a document, the “faithful representation” of the real world. However, when a photographer has something to say, something that belongs to him alone, looking at the world, then he uses the medium to give shape to his vision, his opinion. Therefore objective truth and photographic truth are not always the same thing.

The Center for Photography at Woodstock is going to celebrate its 35th anniversary soon. What are some of the highlights of its history, and how would you describe its development?

Such a long existence is a little miracle in and of itself. It’s a small-scale organization that doesn’t benefit from any financial support. It’s people’s passion that has let it hang on for so long and it will keep on going this way. In 1972, I discovered Woodstock, a community of artists, of people who love to create, an artistic colony that had already existed since 1902. For years now, its photography center has had the mission to inform the public about the history and the implications of this medium. We help young photographers with workshops and exhibitions. We help them to find themselves, to find their way. That’s where we are today.

What work have you acquired most recently for your collection?

I recently purchased an important piece, “Man’s Hand Next to His Ear” (1929) by Brett Weston. He was very young at the time. I had never come across one of his original prints [until] I bought it from a Hungarian musician who had visited Weston in California around the time of this image. This photo had never been sold; it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s been attractive to me ever since I started working as a photographer.