Books on Private Collections (Part 1)

As collectors ourselves, one of things we are consistently interested in is how other folks have gone about the process of collection building. Over the years, we’ve certainly met many collectors who are single minded and don’t care at all about what other collectors are doing; we fall at the other end of the spectrum – we’re very interested in how other collectors make their choices and how their collections have evolved over time. Perhaps this says something about our interest in the process of collecting; the learning, hunting, sifting, and selecting that is the back story to the artworks themselves. Not surprisingly, whenever we come across a book about a private collection, we buy it, not because there is any particular affinity between our collection/tastes and that of the author, but more to see how they went about it.

So today begins a two-part post on some of these collection books. As an aside, all of the books here are concerned with private, personal collections, not those built inside corporations, museums, or other more public entities. I’ve prepared a list of a dozen books that I think are particularly interesting – we’ll cover half today and half in the next post (sometime soon). Some are out of print, but I’d guess they’re all available on Abebooks or elsewhere on the Internet. I’ll tackle them in alphabetical order of the last name of the collector, rather than trying to order them in some other way.

For each book, I’ll take a look at the major themes or approaches taken by the collector and try to consider further how they went about their own process. It is clear that the process of making a book or exhibition catalogue cleans up many of the messy loose ends of collecting; less strong works are edited out, risks taken and mistakes made are often omitted. A clear narrative is told where the actual events might have been more circular or serendipitous. But I think there is still plenty to learn from each collection’s point of view, even if it is pared down and gussied up a bit. And just like in a museum, when you look around a specific room and try to pick the one picture you’d want to take home with you, I’ll select a handful of pictures from the collection that we’d love to have and that would fit well into what we are doing as collectors.

1.) From the Heart; The Power of Photography – A Collector’s Choice, Aperture, 1988

The is the personal collection of Sondra Gilman. It is a strong selection of Modernist and particularly Post-Modernist works, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing through until the present. There are no 19th century works in the book.

The book is divided into 5 sections:

Marking Time – this group is about images capturing a fleeting moment
Picturing Pictures – these works center around the ideas of appropriation and image selection
Uncommon Familiar – these are unusual still lives and portraits
The Divided Self – more portraits and images of people
Telling Tales – these pictures are about narrative

My guess is that these divisions are an artificial construct for the book/exhibit, but they do in some sense help focus how Gilman might have thought about pictures. This isn’t by any means a “greatest hits” collection – there are lots of lesser known or obscure images. But the editing eye that has selected these works was pretty consistent and strong, especially given that she was buying work that hadn’t already been canonized. She doesn’t appear to have been interested in an encyclopedic view of post-Modernism; rather she has carefully selected images here and there that are challenging, thought-provoking and beautiful.

My favorites here would be (acknowledging that this collection doesn’t match ours much):

  • Andre Kertez, Cyclist, 1948
  • Walker Evans, Roadside Gas Sign, 1929
  • Bill Brandt, East Sussex Coast, 1957 (nude)

By the way, there is a great shot of the staircase in their house, with the walls covered in pictures. How collectors hang their collections in their homes is another interesting topic.

2.) Degrees of Stillness; Photographs from the Manfred Heiting Collection, SK Stiftung Kultur, 1998

The Manfred Heiting collection has 5000+ works in it, so any particular catalogue is clearly reductive in terms of telling the whole story. The collection spans the entire history of photography, and seems to be a bit heavier on European photographers.

The particular sample of works found in this book are all built around the concepts of pairs, series, multiples, and interrelation. There are several works from a single artist, all part of the same body of work or from the same shooting session. There are photographs from different photographers working with similar subject matter. It is a selection full of echoes and recombinations.

My learnings from this book center around just how powerful these associations can be, and that pairing works together or grouping like images can dramatically increase the overall energy of the point of view. While a single image might be interesting, a grid of four, or a combination with something else may be even more intriguing.

Here my favorites were:

  • Peter Keetman, Ohne Titel, 1959 (striped building multiple
  • Berenice Abbott, 3 images of the Third Avenue Lines,
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers, 1978-1982

3.) Chorus of Light; Photographs from the Sir Elton John Collection, High Museum of Art, 2000

In the 1990s, Elton John was one of the most visible collectors in the photography market. From a standing start, he quickly built up a collection of several thousand pictures, routinely set auction records, and supported many new and emerging contemporary artists. This book is a catalogue from a show in his hometown of Atlanta, at the High Museum of Art.

As evidenced by this book (and I believe some of the works here have been sold off, so the collection is clearly evolving), John’s collection was/is dominated by fashion images, portraits (often of celebrities), and male nudes, with a strong mix of iconic, trophy pictures by the likes of Man Ray and Andre Kertesz. Irving Penn and Robert Mapplethorpe are represented in depth. I don’t believe there is any 19th century work.

While there were clearly some collectors of fashion photography before John, he really (for me) was the first major collector to collect fashion and related work in such a depth and breadth. I imagine there are those in the photography establishment who initially scoffed at some of the work he chose, but the end result is a remarkably consistent vision. Elton John is a flamboyant guy, and this collection isn’t meek and quiet; it’s large, loud and fresh. My conclusion from his collection is that taking more risks, especially with contemporary work, can be a good thing.

As far as favorites are concerned, I would choose:

  • Margaret Bourke-White, Radio Transmitting Tower, 1935
  • Margaret Bourke-White, Chrysler Building Spire, 1930
  • Aleksander Rodchenko, Shukov Tower, 1920s
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, From Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928
  • Edward Weston, Nude, 1927 (knees)
  • Edward Weston, Nude, 1937

There are also some crazy shots of his home and the photographs on the walls in this book, well worth checking out.

4.) The Graham Nash Collection, Nash Press, 1978

The fact that this book was published in 1978 tells you something pretty important; Graham Nash was a very early collector, way ahead of his time. He was buying when no one else was. His collection seems to be centered on humanity, on storytelling, on images of people in surprising or evocative moments. It is almost entirely a 20th century collection, with no color photography included.

Since the ironic, self referencing, and challenging ideas of Post Modernism were still just emerging when this book was put out, this collection feels a little like a time capsule, taking you back to a time when all the images were true, the emotions real, and the issues meaningful. While there are images of death and other atrocities, none of them have the harshness of later work. This collector chose images of the beauty of people, in all forms.

Given the focus of this collection, there isn’t really a single image that would fit well into what we are doing (we have virtually no narrative pictures of people). Given all the greatest hits assembled here, it is a strong reminder that there really are an infinite number of ways to collect photography. I would be interested to learn how his collection has evolved since the publication of this book.

5.) Taking Place; Photographs from the Prentice & Paul Sack Collection, SFMOMA, 2005

The Sack collection began with the unifying subject matter theme of the built structure, and has evolved into a behemoth, spanning the entire history of photography (up until about 1975). Sack’s approach resonates with me strongly, as we too have defined a sand box that encompasses our collection, and those boundaries help define what to spend our time on. It’s easy to say that this approach is simplistic, but we have found that limits have forced us to focus and define our collection more fully and have prevented us for ending up with a grab bag of unrelated pictures. The collection has also tried to deliver on depth, with 8-12 pictures for each of the important photographers. Again, I like this kind of plan, even if you break the rules from time to time.

The collection catalogue breaks the Sack collection up into a handful of categories:

Beginnings – early photography
Territories – Grand Tour and 19th century travel images
North, South, East and West – 19th century America
Progress and Its Discontents – Pictorialism, 1900-1930s street life, FSA
The Modern Eye – Classic Modernism 1920-1940s
Inhabitants – People, inside and outside

Many of these categories don’t fit well with our particular collection, but the Modern Eye is almost a direct match. There are plenty of pictures in this group that we like. Here are a few that would fit for us, from across the collection:

  • Charles Sheeler, Side of White Barn, 1917
  • Margaret Bourke-White, Ammonia Storage Tanks, 1930
  • Martin Bruehl, Untitled (Grain Elevator), 1932
  • Ralph Steiner, Bank of New York, 1926
  • Germaine Krull, La Tour Eiffel, 1928
  • Alexander Rodchenko, Courtyard, 1928
  • Florence Henri, Paris, 1930
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Helsinki, 1930
  • Art Sinsabaugh, Midwest Landscape #60, 1961
  • Ray Metzker, Philly Walk, 1965
  • Gordon Matta-Clark, New York City, 1972

6.) Beyond Time; Photographs from the Gary B. Sokol Collection, Israel Museum, 2006

The Sokol collection is perhaps my favorite collection that I have not seen in person. Since finding this book among the shelves at the Strand bookstore a year or two ago, I find that I am continually pulling it off the shelf. It is full of post-it notes and scraps of paper.

The collection (at least as shown in the catalogue) has two distinct parts:

  • 19th century images of buildings and trees
  • 20th century Modernism, both American and European, extending all the way into the 1970s

This collection reminds me of several important collecting ideas, which is why I think I continue to be interested in it:

  • Focus can be good, when it forces a narrowing of vision and a subsequent deepening of understanding of a particular sub-section of work
  • Great images (beyond the best known ones) can be found in the work of known and unknown artists if you take the time to look carefully and thoroughly
  • Resonance and interrelation of images are a byproduct of discipline in selecting works for a collection

For us, if you stripped out the 19th century work, which we find intellectually interesting, but not to our tastes, and left the Modernist work in the collection, we would enjoy having 95% of the images in our own collection; the consistency of quality is staggering. I can literally flip through this book and say, yes, yes, yes, yes, to page after page after page. (Compare this to Nash’s collection above where there wasn’t a single image that was a real fit.) What is exciting is that most of these aren’t well known images. So while we may know the photographer, the image in this collection is one that is less familiar, but just as amazing as the ones we all know and love. I am hard pressed to select favorites, as there are just so many that are wonderful. This is why I keep coming back to this collection; I can use it as a guidepost to look for things we might like, and use it as an encouragement not to settle for weaker work that we might come across.

Go out and find this book for your library!

As I mentioned above, Part 2 of this post, with another 6 collection books, will come along sometime in the next week or so. And if I have missed any great collection books (collectors up to the letter S), please post them in the Comments.

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