Pea Pods and Pears

by Maggie Olvey

The Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection: Tradition and the Unpredictable, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
January 16-March 27, 1994

We all collect images. Passively or actively, obsessively or casually, mentally or physically, we accumulate and become possessors of pictures. Collecting begins early. The boy of a few decades ago amused baseball cards and proudly exhibited his knowledge of the trivia imprinted on the back; today’s youngsters plead for all the available video games for their computer/game machine in order to conquer the next electronic challenge. Collecting extends throughout our lifetimes. Grandmothers collect family pictures while travelers regale us with their scrapbooks and slide or video shows. We recall images in dreams, flashbacks, and musings. When it comes to pictures, we all resemble pack rats.
However, the image collector under discussion here is a different breed. His appetite for pictures is more specific and its focus less plebeian. According to a Wall Street Journal article, dealers say that generally photography collections are centered on five categories; themes (e.g. pea pods and pears), styles and periods (Post-modernism), techniques (platinum), master prints (photo perfection), and individual photographers (Paul Strand or Joel Peter Witkin).
Corollary to these five categories, a range of individual approaches to collecting the medium may come into play. The intuitive pursuit of "I like what I like,” or interesting presentations of, say, the hand, to photograph taken in Mongolia necessitates little, if any, intellectual effort. Assembling historical or biographical collections entails some library research and lots of reading and looking. And fine print collecting seemingly requires a lifetime of experience. This is not to suggest, though, that these approaches are so strictly delimited as they seem here. In fact, collecting images that speak to you, or that evoke an intuitive or emotional response, no matter their historical or aesthetic worth, is a universally recommended path to take.
Recently, Susan Sontag published The Volcano Lover, from which severd passages are quoted in this essay.1Beginning the reader's pardon for this digression, I suppose that I should not be overly surprised that the author of On Photography, a pivotal examination of the medium, should turn her attention to a novelized critique of collecting. Both activities are acquisitive, motivated by the desire to possess either materially or by proxy. Her incisive commentary, while describing a single collector, presents a number of different facets that motivate acquisitiveness. Each aspect could well describe an approach attributable to various types of photography collectors: the investor, the exhibitionist, the do-gooder, and the tastemaker.

A gratifying symmetry, that collecting things requires money but then the things collected themselves to turn into more money. Though money was the faintly disreputable, necessary byproduct of this passion, collecting was still a virile occupation: not merely recognizing but bestowing value on things, by including them in one's collection. (22)
Corporate collections often are based on that premise. The pictures themselves may or may not have an emotional appeal to their owner, except insofar as they represent profit as salable commodities. These collections are rarely accessible to the public. If they become so valuable as to constitute an important, major collection, their owners may collaborate with an art museum to provide a forum to exhibit the photographs. A recent example is the Gilman Paper Company Collection shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Another aspect to collecting in general is provenance—where an individual image came from and who owned the picture prior to its acquisition. As Sontag suggests, certain owners, by virtue of the quality of their other holdings, bestow a value and/or prestige on a new acquisition that it might not otherwise have held. Thus both the photograph and the owner achieve higher regard. The investor capitalizes on this duality: he himself attains a degree of personal prestige and power (as an exhibitionist, see following category), and his investment—originally a pragmatic, fiduciary commodity—becomes an object endowed with an aura of worth beyond its insurance value.

Conversely, a valuable object confers value on its owner. A collector is happy to be known, mainly known, as the proprietor of what-—through so much effort—has been collected (138)
Referring once again to recent Metropolitan traveling exhibitions, John C. Waddell’s once private collection, acquired by the Met partially through purchase and partially by donation, provided the grist for "The New Vision" exhibition, seen in Houston during the summer of 1991. An example of an historically-oriented type of collection, as revealed by the smaller-sized exhibition, it also offered an incisive view of the collector himself: cool, intellectual, and thoughtful. Waddell’s reputation as a savvy and dedicated collector was well known to the small circle of collectors and curators of the medium, but not at all to the public at large. The donation certainly conferred a degree of fame and name recognition he did not previously enjoy.

To collect is to rescue things, valuable things, from neglect, from oblivion, or simply from the ignoble destiny of being in someone else’s collection than one’s own. (25)
Ostensibly, as put forth in the owner’s statement to the Met’s “The Waking Dream” catalogue, Howard Gilman felt some of these conservationist stirrings. To save photographs from oblivion and/or desctruction is certainly a laudable motivation, provided that the “savior” knows how to supply the proper environment for their longevity. Good collectors consult with professionals to ensure the well-being of their holdings; neglectful owners sometimes prove to be more dangerous than te attic truck when it comes to safekeeping their charges. As to having to possesss an image so that someone else can’t, just visit an auction...

The sweet doom of the collector (or tastemaker...but tastemakers are usually collectors): to be in advance and, as others catch up, to be priced out of the competition for what they have pioneered. (71)
This moniker most frequently applies to the curatorial enterprise, whether performed in the service of a private collector or for a museum or gallery. Often an exhibition presenting work theretofore unknown to the collecting public engenders a flurry of purchases raising the prices and diluting the market. A good example is the exhibition, “Czech Modernism” presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1989. What once was a moderately priced 1920s composition by any one of a number of accomplished Czech photographers now has a value far exceeding the means of most collectors. This once obscure style/era/technique in photographic history now has cachet.
In light of these various categories and motivations, The Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection, recently acquired by the MFAH, fails to identity itself as belonging to anyone of them. A self-motivated entrepreneur, Chasanoff himself defies classification. Twice-retired, never inactive, and always on the forefront of innovation, this collector acquires photographs to inspire his own work. It matters not whether the print is pristine, made by a known or unfamiliar photographer, or even whether the image is the "best" that may be had for the price. What is important to Chasanoff it seems, is not the object itself, but what the picture stimulates in the viewer's psyche: questions to answer, puzzles to solve, constructions to analyze. Not one of the over 3000 images in the collection does not requite a second look. Whether it involves optical illusion, manipulation, or irony, each image insists on viewer involvement.2

Maggie Olvey has worked with various aspects of the Chasanoff Collection during the past two years and has benefited greatly from the challenges it poses, both from intellectual and artistic standpoints.

1. Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992. Parenthetical numbers following quotations refer to this book.

2. Illustrations for this article are photographs by artists in the Chasanoff Collection but not included in the exhibition chosen to offer a wider appreciation for the depth and breadth of the collection. Parker’s Can Danceinspired the title for this essay. Several instances of pea pods and pears surface within the collection, but they do not constitute a Chasanoff "category" such as "the letter J”—as represented by Denny Moers photo. After Chasanoff had acquired a number of photographs, he recognized certain pattern in his collecting. These patterns were identified and category names designated; some photographs were assigned more than one slot. However, this process was specifically not meant to be a italic outline for future acquisition. It was simply an assessment or what was already there.

Photographs from The Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.