Richard B. Woodward – An Appreciation

On April 29th, our friend and colleague Richard B. Woodward passed away, and as I think he would have wanted, we’ve already begun to see edited gatherings of his writings for various publications (at the Wall Street Journal here, as an example) starting to pop up. Over the years that Rick and I worked together, we often came back to the idea of “being read”, of actively and consistently reading each other’s work and that of various other photography and art critics, and how important it was for a critic to have his or her ideas woven into the fabric of the larger artistic and cultural discourse. Being read was the respect that we might hope to develop with our audience and with the public at large, and we understood that we had to earn that respect incrementally, with every single piece, day after day after day. So the fact that in these days after his death Rick is being read widely, and with much appreciation and admiration, would likely have appealed to him.

As I remember it, I first met Rick in early 2012, having been introduced to him (virtually) by the gallery owner Janet Borden, a mutual friend. Back then, Collector Daily was just transitioning from its first improvisational blog phase and starting down the path to professionalization; we would soon redesign the website, start the newsletter, and scale up our efforts to cover more of the world of fine art photography. I of course knew who Rick was, at least indirectly; I had been reading him for years, as he had been an esteemed photo critic for decades, with consistent bylines for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among many other publications large and small. He wrote book essays and introductions, glossy magazine features, obituaries – in a sense, he had already done it all, and was a well-established voice in the photo world. From my perspective, he was exactly what I needed to energize Collector Daily, and given the waning art criticism opportunities at many of the leading newspapers at that particular moment, I was just delusional enough to think I might be able to somehow convince him to write for this small publication.

Before we ever met in person, Rick worked with me on two informal review “conversations” that we did jointly, and it wasn’t until more than a year later, in the summer of 2013, that we met for a beer one afternoon at the Half King, a casual bar that was once located on 23rd Street in Chelsea. We sat outside in the sun, each of us in the midst of our gallery rounds, and I was admittedly a bit nervous. Looking back at it now, that first meeting has an unlikely echo of a 1950s samurai movie, with me cast as the one recruiting specialists for a vaguely plausible but likely impossible mission and Rick playing the role of a masterless samurai looking for a side gig, sizing up whether this particular against-the-odds adventure was worth the risk and the effort. As it turned out, Rick did indeed join our merry band as a regular contributor later that fall, and proceeded to write for Collector Daily for the better part of the next decade, ultimately tallying up over 200 individual reviews and essays, ranging from museum and gallery show reviews to photobook summaries and broader opinion pieces. I can say without hesitation that Rick brought immediate stature and credibility to what we were doing, and many, many readers came to the site or the newsletter in the following years simply to see what Rick had to say about whatever he chose to write about that week. He had already honed his voice – we just gave him a flexible (and photo-targeted) platform from which to speak.

I have to say that the idea that I was going to “edit” Rick’s work always seemed somewhat ridiculous to me. Rick’s prose was always solid, and came with an embedded vantage point that was entirely and obviously his own. I could of course fix typos and misspellings, handle formatting tweaks for our software system, and assist with the data-heavy sections of our reviews (“JTF” and “Collector’s POV”) which tended to be more of a burden for big museum exhibits and group shows, but aside from a copy edit here or there, his words generally didn’t need my once over. And so we evolved to a different kind of editorial back-and-forth, where we would exchange broader ideas catalyzed by the specific body of work in question – potential connections to other overlooked artists or history, alternate approaches we might see into the work, ways to amplify this or tone that down, or different ideas for how to get into or out of a review. Over time, this impromptu call-and-response refined itself into an intermittent email commentary on what we were both writing, not just Rick’s pieces for CD, but my own pieces for CD and Rick’s pieces for the WSJ and elsewhere, a low level flow of reading each other and commenting back on what we appreciated, absorbed, or disagreed with. I imagine that this “I saw your review and thought you did well with that thorny topic”, or “you missed this angle”, or “you found much more in it than I did” active (and supportive) re-thinking is what I will miss most now that Rick is no longer dropping into my inbox. We were both curious about all kinds of photography, and writing about it was a way we could indirectly share that interest.

The informal deal Rick and I had was that the WSJ had first dibs on his reviews of the big museum shows of photography in and around New York, but once they decided not to have him write about a particular show, it was then fair game for us. With the slowly declining coverage of the arts that was taking place there (and elsewhere), this meant that Rick was able to write about museum shows quite a bit for CD, in addition to gallery shows and photobooks, which the newspapers generally didn’t care about. And since CD was online only, we didn’t have any restrictions on space or word count, so Rick could also wander off into other longer essay topics, which he did eloquently when something seemed to him to require a deeper discussion.

Rick’s entire astonishing output for Collector Daily, a total of 209 pieces, can be found here, in reverse chronological order from when the reviews and essays were first published; the list runs eighteen pages long, so picking “favorites” feels like a fool’s game. When it first became clear that Rick could no longer write for us, as his health was declining (last summer he wrote poignantly, and pointedly in a style only he could pull off, about his disease and prognosis, here), we talked about how impressive and expansive this body of work he had done for CD actually was, and in particular, that it could be used to succinctly sum up an entire decade of contemporary photographic history (the 2010s); we mused that perhaps it could be slimmed down to thirty or forty reviews, in a neat little book, but unfortunately, time ran out on that idea.

If you’ve ever read Rick’s work and enjoyed having him as your guide to the world of photography, click through to that link above and flip through the pages of reviews, if only to marvel at the scale and breadth of what he accomplished just in this past decade alone for CD. Avedon, Penn, and Arbus were particular recurring and in-depth subjects (including not only their photographs but their life stories), but the list of artists he thought about critically is impressively exhaustive, running from early 19th century practitioners all the way to early career photographers whose work was made in the year he reviewed it. He voluntarily took on the biggest shows, the hardest assignments, the longest books, and the most important new artists and bodies of work of the moment, and engaged them with consistent thoughtfulness, clarity, and insight. He passionately celebrated some, deliciously dismembered others (largely well known photographers who should have known better), and did his best to authentically think his way through whatever work he found in front of him and its connections to the larger arc of photographic history. He hardly ever took the safe way out of critically straddling the fence or just blandly describing the pictures – he tended to make an argument, however eclectic or idiosyncratic, and he wasn’t afraid to stand behind his critical judgments.

What we leave behind when we are gone is often captured not only in the archives of words that a writer like Rick carefully crafted over a lifetime, but by the impressions and influences on others that those words create. For the small team of writers (past and present) here at Collector Daily, I can safely say that every single one of us has learned from (and to some extent emulated) Rick’s writing, and we are each better writers for having known his work and watched him elegantly solve some of the nuanced problems that we now face ourselves in our own reviews. It is also my belief that Rick and his work were widely appreciated by the photographers that were his subjects; of course, Rick’s words could be prickly and dismissive, and that criticism can’t always have felt fair or even informed by some of its recipients. But in my experience, most artists (and gallery owners) I have ever asked would have selected Rick as their reviewer of choice – he had undeniably earned their respect, and in a sense, they all wanted to be measured by the worthy and perceptive thinker he was known to be.

To the extent that there is a mythical photography critics hall of fame, Richard B. Woodward deserves a fancy plaque hanging there – among American photography critics of the late 20th/early 21st century, his name certainly belongs on a short list of the most widely read and influential writers of the time. Deciding to write photography criticism inherently brings with it the almost incomprehensible challenge of interpreting art history in real time, and the idea that there is a single “right” answer to be found in that effort quickly goes out the window. Rick’s chosen path was to mix rich historical knowledge with contagious enthusiasm and a sharp uncompromising wit, leading to a kind of engaged and conversational photographic storytelling that collegially brought us along for the ride. His durable success across the decades is a testament to his willingness to grapple with the artistic unknown time and time again, and to do so with consistent curiosity, integrity, intelligence, and compassion.

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3 comments

  1. Susan Stevenson /

    Wow. What a thorough and thoughtful tribute. Rick loved art and he loved writing about it.
    He very much enjoyed working with you.

  2. Pete /

    So sorry to hear this.

    In my mind he was always the ‘heavyweight’ of the collectordaily team. His pieces revealed a big personality; someone who was deep thinking, informed, insightful, and ready to say what he wanted to say.

    As you hinted at in your appreciaton, I sometimes had a feeling he particularly liked the photography of Avedon : D

  3. Sandra Phillips /

    Thank you for this very thoughtful response to Rick’s work, itself always thoughtful. He was a very good guy and a good friend and we miss him, Sandra Phillips

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