Interview: Collector Stephen White

Los Angeles gallery owner Steven White talks about his passion for discovering the undiscovered… May 1989. Steven White’s collection of photographs with images dating from the l840’s to the early 20th century recently opened at the Palais de Tokyo. What makes this show special is that it includes not only legendary photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston but also unknown gems that White has retrieved from history’s ‘lost and found’. In the following interview Steven White discusses his philosophy of collecting, the Tao, and what’s wrong with the contemporary photography scene.

PV How did you put this collection of photos together?

SW In 1985, after haphazardly collecting photography for some twelve years I had a lot of photographs without really knowing what I had. I kept things I liked and could afford to keep which was not always the best material.  They were things that in one way or another I managed to hold on to – photos that didn’t have to be sold or ones that no one at the time wanted.  Some of the photos I would take home because  no one wanted to buy them and since I liked them I kept them. Sometimes I would buy a group of photos and there would be two or three out of the collection that I especially liked. I would sell the rest to pay for them.

In the beginning the collection wasn’t organized in any sense. I kept the photos by country. I hadn’t thought contextually about the photos. I decided to really see what I had.  I realized, since prices had gone up, that I had mate¬rial of serious value, and that I needed to figure out what I wanted and didn’t want. I considered over a period of about six months about what categories and subjects that really interested me. I found that there were certain connections, aesthetically and subject-wise, that I kept bringing home. There were a lot of industrial photos, nudes, and portraits; there were also a lot of landscape, architectural and transportation pieces. I had a lot of twenties and thirties mate¬rial, but I realized that I wasn’t very interested in collecting it, so that was material I put in the gallery for sale.

PV You recently spoke at a symposium on the subject of the Tao and collecting photographs. Other than the legend that Lao-tsu was a ‘keeper of archives’ before he wrote The Book of Tao, what is the connection with collecting photos?

SW It’s a philosophy that teaches the relative values of things in the universe. It’s hard to be an egomaniac and be a Taoist. It doesn’t preclude one’s involvement in the world. It doesn’t preclude accumulating material things. But I think that it precludes the feeling of power and importance of the possession of those things. It gives a lot of peace of mind because once you find your niche, where you fit in to the flow of the universe, you flow along and enjoy it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have a hard time earning a living like anyone else, or that I don’t have problems with my children or difficulties when I travel with airlines. It’s a way of living. With the Tao one learns to relate to the value of things that are not so obvious.

Chung-tsu, who filled out the ideas of Lao-tsu, wrote about the concept of the rungs of a ladder. If the ladder didn’t have the space between the rungs, one couldn’t  go from step to step and move upwards. So the space has as much value as the rungs, although it’s the rungs we see. That idea represents the thought that what we don’t see has an equal or even greater value than what we do see. That was part of my guiding philosophy. I didn’t start from this point and say that was the way I was going to collect photography, but I began to realize, because of my background, I tended to look at images that I enjoyed and brought me pleasure as opposed to images that might bring me prestige.

PV Minor White once lamented  that he was a first-class practitioner of a second-class art. Do you ever feel like a first-class collector of a second-class art?

SW No, because I view photography as a more essential part of the world than art. Most people would say that photography is not as aesthetically appealing as painting. It takes a real orientation to get into photography. The concept that photography is a second-class art form, which White in effect bought into, was shoved down his throat by art history. In the context of the fine arts it is a minor art form, like engraving or etching.  In the context of a world view and a subject that interacts with all forms of disciplines and changes the world, it has had fifty times the impact of all the art in the world.  

PV What do you hope to show people with this exhibition?

SW The concept behind this show, which is titled ‘Parallels and Contrasts,” is that parallel ideas existed and contrasting ideas played off of one another in photography…. Photographers tend to focus thematically. In the 19th century it was very often tied to economics. Photographers like John Thompson, for example, would go to places like China and produce a body of work on that country.

The show has four divisions – landscapes, nudes, portraits and architecture. What one learns from this exhibition is that the traditional art approach really doesn’t work very well for photography. The reason is it tends to seize on specific individuals and develop a mythology around those photographers. The truth of the matter is that almost all of those people were working within a context of a time and a period when other people were doing comparable things. They may not have been doing it as well in some instances or they may have been doing it better, but nobody knows it because the work has disappeared.

PV Is it still possible to find 19th century work  these days?

SW It’s very difficult, and it’s getting increasingly so. The problem from my point of view as a collector, is that only about five percent of the photos I see ever interest me. In the early seventies when I would see thousands, it wasn’t that hard to select images that I liked. But now there are even fewer that I find I really like. There is always the problem that what one likes  is many times not affordable. Prices have gone up considerably.

Fortunately my interest has always been a little ahead of the market, which has helped me build my collection. The areas that I am collecting in now, like scientific photographs, if one can find them are relatively inexpensive.

PV What is the relationship between private and public institution collectors? Is it a case of big fish eating little fish?

SW Certainly that can happen. Large institutions have the financial capacity to do enormous things, that most individuals, unless they are extremely wealthy can’t do. But they don’t have the capacity to act very quickly. They often don’t have the capacity  to attract prime material. An individual who knows what he is doing stands a reasonable chance at competing with institutions. And of course it all comes down to money. How much is an institution willing to spend on photography? Most institutions put photography down in the basement somewhere. The Cleveland Museum has a budget of 6 or 8 million dollars a year to spend. They like photography, but if they spend $150,000 a year, they are spending a lot. But the truth of the matter is that it is a minute part of their budget. They will buy one second-rate drawing by a third-rate artist and pay more than they do for all of photography.

With collecting there is the question of timing. There is the time when other people are buying and  there is a time when there is the material to buy. If you are too early the material doesn’t surface because there is no market for it. If you come in too late the prices have already gone up and all of the best material has already disappeared. So there is a period, whether you are collecting glass, pottery or whatever, when you can use your own creativity and imagination to build what you want. There are other times, like today with photography, that the amount of money you have almost becomes secondary.

Unless you can buy an entire collection to start from, it’s almost impossible to accumulate a major collection just because of the lack of material available. It would be hard today to put together a collection like the one on exhibition at the center. It would take a long time because it takes a lot of searching for those images. That material isn’t available to search through anymore.

PV What does a photo like Weston’s Excusado sell for?

SW The last one that went on auction went for 6-8,000 dollars. Now it would go for considerably more. The top part of the market jumps and the lower part of it goes up at a slower pace. A lot of the anonymous images I have in my collection are valued under a thousand dollars. They aren’t that valuable, but they are wonderful. There are a lot of wonderful photographs that cost under $500. With 25-50,000 dollars one could build a lovely collection by be¬ing careful, tending auctions and going to see what dealers have. It wouldn’t be the big names, but if you have a good eye it could be a nice collection. There is still enough photography to do that. But if one is only content with the gems, the great names, things reproduced in books that’s different. So photography is still collectible from that point of view. Contemporary photography is very collectible. It’s a field that people should look at.

PV Do you represent contemporary photographers in your Los Angeles gallery?

SW No. I can’t afford to. My gallery is by appointment. We don’t do exhibitions.  There just isn’t that wide of market for contemporary work, and the kind of contemporary photography that there is a market for doesn’t interest me that much… people with the hot names such as Mapplethorpe or Cindy Sherman.

I think the problem is that there are too many photographers for the market. And they don’t understand enough about markets. A lot of them have established very bad relationships with dealers, and a lot of the dealers have taken advantage of the situation with photographers. There is a lot of antagonism on both sides, which doesn’t create the best environment. Then there are millions of photographers running around some of whom graduated last month from junior high school and others with the quality of a Ralph Gibson or someone at that level. It’s all a big mess. There are far too many mediocre people who have had the illusion that they could make a living from art photography and that they should get into galleries and be¬come famous.

PV Is there a difference between American and French collectors?

SW Generally the French are a lot more secretive about their collecting than Americans. Americans like to share what they have. The French like to hide what they have. They tend not to be very open about their collections. Secondly, the French have traditionally been rather chauvinistic and consequently tend to have a heavy predominance of French material. If France has a failing it’s that it doesn’t reach out. It waits for the world to come to it, as if it were still the center of the world. It isn’t, nor is anywhere else, for that matter.

It continues with the 19th century illusion that the center of the art world is Paris. The center has not been Paris for many years. French collectors don’t go out; they don’t go to the States and collect American photography, or go to England and collect English photography. On the other hand I think by far the greatest photography that existed in the 19th century was French. The French were among the first to understand photography as an idea…If they were more aggressive about their points of view outside of France that idea might have spread more than it did. But it didn’t.

PV What, psychologically, makes a collector?

SW It has to be a personal involvement with whatever one is interested in- an emotional involvement. It would be hard to think of too many Ph.Ds in mathematics being collectors because it is not a logical process. People come into collecting from a lot of different ways… it gives a context, a definition, an enrichment to one’s life.

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