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Michelle Dunn Marsh on Collecting

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday January 26, 2012

Michelle Dunn Marsh, a longtime friend and colleague, will be giving a talk this Saturday at G. Gibson Gallery, in Seattle, WA, in conjunction with the current exhibition LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK: Classic 20th Century Photographs. We had a chance to catch up for an email Q&A last week and here’s what we wrote:

Peggy Roalf: You’ve been associated with photography as long as I’ve known you, going back to your early days as a book designer at Aperture. What advice would you give to people who are considering building a photography collection but might be a little hesitant due to their lack of experience? Above: Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan, 1940; courtesy Bruce Silverman Gallery

Michelle Dunn Marsh: Spend time looking at photographs, real photographs—not just jpegs and book reproductions. There are so many opportunities today, nationally and internationally, to see exceptional work in museums, galleries, art fairs large and small, even in public art installations at airports! Ask yourself: What images remain in your mind? What do you want to return to see again? Make notes.

You may not initially be in a position to buy the Avedons or the Arbuses you respond to, but perhaps you will discover your personal trend toward fashion-related photographs, or social documentary, and that could lead you to an initial purchase. Sometimes the art world can seem impenetrable, as if there are rules that everyone but you are aware of. But if you’re interested in the work and you want to own something, you’re in the club. If you have specific ideas about collecting, share them with the dealers or auction specialists you visit—they can help you.

PR: When did you realize that you had become a collector?

MDM: Actually, I resist identifying myself as a collector. Something about the word “collector” seems loftier and more intentional than I feelHaving grown up with my father’s car collection, the act of gathering like objects together was a familiar one. By eventually inheriting one of Dad’s cars, I came to think of myself more as a “custodian,” and that is how I also think about the photographs on my walls. I’ve earned or paid for the privilege of living with them for my lifetime, but I like the idea that they will continue on in the world, inspiring others, when I am gone.  

 PR: Living with photography seems to be a theme in your life—how did you get so badly bitten by the bug?

MDM: Aperture’s longtime director Michael Hoffman believed in the importance of living with photographs, and launched its limited-edition print program in the 1970s to make iconic images from master photographers more widely available. During his tenure, people who served as interns were given a gravure or print in thanks; staff sometimes received prints to mark years of service, or in lieu of a bonus. He gave people a chance to live with art, and it transformed many—including me. The first print I was given, for launching the company website ahead of schedule, was a photogravure of Paul Strand’s White Fence, which hangs in my dining room. It still takes my breath away.

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Left: Walker Evans, Farmhouse, Westchester County, N.Y., 1936. Right: Diane Arbus, Coney Island, NY #3, 1958. Courtesy G. Gibson Gallery.

PR: How did you develop a discerning eye for strong photographs?

MDM: I interned in the publications office of Bard College when I was a student there, and observed director Ginger Shore making photo selections for various projects we were working on—she has a great and decisive eye, and she selected fantastic images from great photographers. Throughout my career I've sequenced books with many photographers and editors, and I’ve studied a lot of books, to see how they were constructed visually. Legends like Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Minor White etc. were not just historical figures in photography—I was working with people who knew them personally, and shared anecdotes. Those connections enhanced my experience of their photographs.

Eventually I worked with, and got to know many stars in the galaxy of contemporary masters: Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Sylvia Plachy, Eugene Richards, Robert Adams, Keith Carter, Jim Marshall, William Christenberry, Carrie Mae Weems, Stephen Shore, and many others. Their way of seeing permeates my experience of the world. I live with prints by some of them, and I value many of them as friends and mentors.

PR: How did you begin your own collection?

MDM: When I entered this arena nearly twenty years ago it was not uncommon for a photographer to make a gift of a print at the conclusion of a project. Sometimes the photographer chose the image; sometimes they asked me to choose. That still happens occasionally. Nearly half of what I live with was given to me, or was acquired through trades. But like anything, once you get into the habit of purchasing, it’s easy to keep going.

PR: What was your first acquisition?

MDM: My first photo purchase was two Barbara Morgan photographs of Martha Graham. One of the prints was badly damaged, but its tenor was still beautiful. I spent $150, kept one and gave the other to my sister. She has since started a small collection of her own from the prints I have given her, and from purchasing at a gallery and at an auction with me.  At the time, $150 was a lot of money—I lived on about $40 a week after paying rent and buying a Metrocard. But I’ve never regretted the decision to take them home.

PR: As a collector, how did you develop a sense of a photograph’s value, with respect to your own finances—and what advice would you give to new collectors in terms of setting goals that jibe with their budgets?

MDM: I learned early that it’s better to carefully consider, and ask for options such as paying over time, to obtain a piece you really want. It's not always how much you pay for a photograph; what matters in the end is living with work you truly value. When budgeting I have to balance buying new work with investing in framing the pieces I have—I'm more interested in experiencing work than in simply owning it.

PR: What do you look for when considering a new addition to your collection?

MDM: I operate under Minor White’s philosophy that the viewer is as responsible as the photographer for activating an image—so I respond to work that embodies calm and chaos, the elements that I seem to need in my life. I recently decided to only purchase contemporary work by people I know personally, because if I have money to spend I want it to benefit the artists, dealers, and institutions I care about. I’ve gotten to know many incredible people, and I continue to meet and work with new artists, so it’s hardly a limitation.

PR: What are some areas a new collector might think about as they develop a sense of what to look for?

MDM: Some collectors have defined parameters for their collections, and that guides their choices. Maybe there are interests in your life that can be explored through photography—a love of literature, for example, could lean toward a collection of portraits of writers. You might want to focus on lesser-known images by well-known photographers. There’s no right or wrong answer—as long as you take joy from experiencing those photographs visually.

PR: The 2012 exhibition season has launched with the announcement of dozens of exhibitions of black-and-white photography, from coast to coast, from vintage mid-20th century prints to contemporary work. It’s inevitable that there would be a black-and-white backlash, but have you had any thoughts on why, right now?

MDM: I’m so glad you asked that. I think the industry decline of many aspects of traditional photography has brought the scarcity and preciousness of black-and-white to the forefront. The travails of brands like Kodak and Polaroid speak to the masses—but photographers have been grappling with these changes for some time.

I think that many collectors are now responding to the craft of the print, in our increasingly digital age. We’ve finally accepted the photograph as object again, not just an image. Where once darkroom work was perceived as mechanical compared to the artistry of painting, now the “wet” darkroom is seen as a place of alchemy, and digital printing is deemed, by many, as rote (but it is no easier to get a consistent digital print than it is to get a consistent darkroom print. Finesse is required in either process).

I find a richness and a depth that is seductive in a silver or platinum print. I take respite primarily in black-and-white images because I experience the world each day in color, so the graphic quality of a tonal range from light to dark, free of chroma and without a light source burning into my eyes, transports me. That said, I recently bought a William Christenberry print because his green warehouse is the exact shade of the barn I grew up with.

With the general state of the world feeling a bit fragile these days, I think that many people are turning away from the physically monumental to the wonder that can exist within an environment the eye can absorb in a glance, and then revisit slowly, over time.

You can meet Michelle Dunn Marsh this Saturday, January 28th at G. Gibson Gallery, where she is giving a talk at 2pm on the subject of collecting photographs, in conjunction with the current exhibition LOOKING FORWARD - LOOKING BACK: Classic 20th Century Photographs. 300 South Washington Street, Seattle, WA.

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