W.M. Hunt: Talking Pictures

By Peggy Roalf   Monday November 28, 2016

W.M. (Bill) Hunt, a self-described “champion of photography,” will give a one-day workshop at Aperture on Saturday, for people who love photography. Called “Talking Pictures,” this promises attendees a day of self-discovery as much as a chance to refine their taste and intentions—about collecting, making, enjoying photographs. I invited Bill to do a Q&A and here is how it went:

Like you I am a fierce advocate for enjoying and exploring the delight of photography. My "Talking Pictures" workshop at Aperture is intended for a wide audience, people who look at photographs and who want to challenge and to heighten both their sense of seeing and their ability to talk about what they see. It is for photography lovers—artists, writers, collectors—anyone who wants to be sharper and more confident in their own taste. Collectors and would-be collectors are welcome, but I am interested in encouraging a whole range of people to be less intimidated about what they see and how they feel, to be more assertive in their looking and to be articulate about it.  I love when photographers take it.

Q: Your Collection Dancing Bear consists of images of people whose eyes cannot be seen, or whose faces are obscured—anti-portraits, if you will. Sounds strange, but it makes for a compelling collection. What advice would you give to someone new to collecting on how to get started?

A.  The first advice is to look, look, and look, to follow Walker Evans’ advice to “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”  Then listen to your yourself, your heart.  Try to sort that out.  It is all well and good to study Swarkowski and Stephen Shore but make up your own mind.

Elinor Carucci (Israeli, b. 1971), My Mother's Lips, 1997

Q: I remember the story of how you came to purchase the first photo in your now extensive collections. Could you fill in the readers?

A.  There are two stories. The published one is about my going to an auction 40 years ago in pursuit of a romantic image of a veiled woman.  It was literally as if voices in my head directed me to do this. I found an Imogen Cunningham, The Dream (1910) and I bought it for what would now be a comparatively small amount of money. It was such a unique and intense experience, I thought to do it again.  And a collector was born.

Actually a few years earlier than that, I had been doing a theater job in Cambridge Mass, and I was depressed out of my mind. Crazy. I kept passing a funny little frame shop that seemed to be perpetually “going out of business.” I was very, very broke but managed for $40 to buy a very queer still life of a faceless figurine in a silly gilt frame. I took her home. I would get stoned, and the lady would come out of the frame and assure me, "Hang on, it’ll get better”. The power of  photography, huh?  

Those were my unlikely and mystical introductions to collecting photography.  

Q: People say that you have an amazing eye for photography—is that something that a new collector can develop for themselves?

A.  Thanks. Twenty years ago a dealer was trying to sell me something and insisted that I knew what I was looking at because I had a good eye. I thought he was needlessly flattering me, but I gave it some thought and realized that it was and is, in fact, true. What’s an “eye”? It is the ability to see quickly and confidently, to recognize the sum of the parts as worthy. Yes, I think a collector can develop that. Time, experience, commitment.

Q: For someone who loves photography but might not have any idea as to what type of images they might want to collect, what advice would you give them?

A. Do the work.  Look and listen. Sort it out.  Commit. That’s the hardest part of collecting, actually buying the damn thing. Otherwise you’re a looker, an outsider, not a collector.  

Andre Kertesz (American, b. Hungary, 1894-1986), Martinique, 1972

Q: For someone thinking of building a collection, what should they do to focus their resources on the kind of images they are interested in?

A. Buy the piece that speaks loudly to you, that fills you up each time you see it, that makes your heart beat, that makes you grin with the weird knowledge and satisfaction that it is yours. It is love, it is sex, it is fantastic. This may seem cruel to hear, but you can never spend too much money, if you really love something.  

Q: Where did you even start looking for the photographs that have found their way into your collection, and how would you advise a newbie collector to start looking?

A. I say that anyone in the Western world has been looking at photographs all of their lives. You can tell at some basic level the good ones from the bad ones. It becomes a question of sorting out what you might want to live with and keep  nearby. I have piles of photos, in folders, in my computer, books, magazines, in boxes.

Find a dealer you like and trust, who seems to be interested in you as a collector, not simply as a client. Good dealers  are wonderful. I think I was a good dealer.  

This never comes up but note that the completely strange thing about real collectors is that eventually it is possessing  the object that is as important as actually exhibiting it. It is enough to know it’s yours, even if it is storage. We are a covetous group.

Q: Do you have any rules about how to shape your collections, or subjects to look for?

A. Be happy.  Seek the light, or rather, the de-light.

Q: In the workshop at Aperture next week, what do you hope they will take away?

A. New muscles and confidence in themselves. It is like finding a coach at the gym who actually intends to gets you into shape. 

W.M. Hunt: Talking Pictures. Saturday, December 3, 2016, 11am-6 pm. Aperture Foundation, 547 West 23rd Street, NY, NY. Info

Unknown Photographer (press print), Hooded Witness (UPA), n.d

W. M. Hunt
 is a champion of photography and frequent presenter both in the US and internationally, from Shanghai to Sao Paolo. He is a longtime adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and organizer of the W. Eugene Smith Talks at Aperture and the Your Picture . . . series for PDN’s PhotoPlus. Hunt’s Three Ring Circus: American Groups Before 1950 was exhibited in New York last year in collaboration with the ICP after traveling to Arles, Bologna, and Houston. His book The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious (Aperture, 2011) was the basis for a large show that debuted at the Rencontres d’Arles, France, then toured to the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland; FOAM, Amsterdam; and the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.


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