Re: Groups, An Interview with photography collector W.M. Hunt
by Dr. Jörg M. Colberg
Ten years ago, New York-based collector, curator and consultant W.M. Hunt (Bill Hunt) began assembling his Collection Blind Pirate. Currently a selection, RE: groups, is being exhibited for the first time at HCP. Recently, he spoke at length with Dr. Jorg M. Colberg, editor of the contemporary fine-art photography blog Conscientious, about photography, collecting and this very remarkable and fascinating collections of images.
Colberg: Your collection of photographs of large, often anonymous groups might come as a surprise to many who wouldn't have expected something like this from someone who has been dealing (with) photography for a long time. Why these photographs? What is it that appeals to you?
Hunt: It even comes as a surprise to me. Part of collecting it has been subversive, so thanks for noticing that. There were a few group images in the larger-known Collection Dancing Bear - magical, heart-stopping images of people in which the eyes cannot be seen - that were spectacularly odd: Klu Klux Klan, John Greenleaf Whittier funeral, some press prints. They have been included in the major exhibitions of the collection in Arles, Lausanne and Amsterdam. But then some oddities have crept into the collection.
There were some E.J. Kelty images, one with Hunt Circus on the left of the image, and Bears on the right, and another of Madison Square Garden filled to the rafters. I also love Mole & Thomas, their amazing formations of thousands of service men and women creating the Liberty Bell or whatever. These images may seem to fall outside the criteria of the collection, but I was so attracted to them that they got acquired. Collectors make rules and then break them.
Colberg: All of these photos also show American groups. Why only Americans?
Hunt: It was arbitrary, initially, but then it eliminated the need to include any of those totalitarian regimes.
Also, there is something rambunctious about this kind of work. We deem most of this work as vernacular. It is, at the very least, a part of popular culture. I respond to its direct nature as a kind of American folk art.
Colberg: I like the idea of turning this kind of American folk art into something bigger. There always is this distinction between high art and the rest and your collection shows that there really is only a barrier in our minds. This seems to tie in with how people look on places like Flickr for images; it's like visual data mining. Your collection would indicate that such an idea is not really new though?
Hunt: I try to resist categorizing. It works or it doesn't work, no matter the intentions. There is increasing recognition for collectors as artists when they demonstrate a unique ability to gather together disparate works into a coherent grouping. The National Gallery and the Met have both done exhibitions of vernacular, snapshot collections belonging to private individuals.
My collecting really has had no agenda beyond the visceral. I saw it; I liked it; if I could, I bought it. As a dealer, the idea of stroking the collector through the purchase was initially completely foreign to me. I have never brought any sense of investing to this either. (This is colossally ironic because the collection is probably my annuity.)
Responding to your statement, though, collectors like Andre Jammes and Sam Wagstaff loved the "stuff" in photography, not just the classic beauties. Look also at Walker Evans' collection of road signs. Totally wild.
Colberg: There seems to be some rules that come with your collecting. Did you have these rules in place before you started, or did the rules evolve along your collection?
Hunt: Most often I imagine that one doesn't know they have a collection until they look at all the stuff in the room, and then they realize that it is a collection. I don't think I consciously set out to collect. Initially, I did look for a photograph of someone in which his or her eyes were covered, then I looked for another and so on. Then one day you look around the room and you've got a collection.
With RE: groups I discovered that there were more than I had imagined, enough for a show, and that they were indeed mostly American and mostly made before the contemporary era. Once I recognized the "unconscious" rule, it became a conscious rule. Part of the reason for maintaining the cutoff date is to avoid dealing with a living artist. No offense, but I deal with artists all the time. The Collection Blind Pirate gives me the latitude to work alone, in monologue as opposed to dialogue. It's funny, but I was showing the RE: group photographs to the photographer Nadav Kander last week and he made a comment about them, that they lack tension, and I recognized that I haven't had any sort of real conversation with anyone about these pictures. Houston will be a major unveiling for me.
There is a second guide point that the groups either be orderly - the image should look like a musical score with the blacks and whites mixing in an engaging design - or that there be total chaos like ants spilling out over the ground. Either the group acts in a coordinated fashion strictly outlined by the photographer, or it is a mess and the photographer must decide how to capture that.
Colberg: I am focusing on the collector bit so much, because I just finished reading some books on collectors, and in each of the cases mentioned in those books the collectors are usually driven by very strict rules. If you don't mind, one more question about the collection itself: Do you actually look at what you have regularly? In those books, many of the collections are so huge that the collectors have no time to look at what they have. And some don't even know what they have; they re-find stuff in their own collections occasionally. Does that happen to you?
Hunt: Your instinct is correct that I don't actually look at the collection piece-by-piece very often, even much at all. There is a good assortment around the apartment, but do I take them down and consider them for a while? No. I do, however, play the collection through my mind's eye all of the time. And I do look at the collection as a whole. I literally stand there and think, "Wow, look at all of these pictures!"
At a walk-through of an exhibition of the big collection, a young student asked me, "Why do you have to own them?" Deathless pause. "Because then they're mine!"
Again, I stand in the middle of all of them and marvel at how strange it is to have become a collector. So much stuff. Last summer I kept having Collier Brothers fantasies that something would fall on my head.
I do have a theory about collecting that it has to do with a lack of nurturing in childhood. I asked a client how long he had been collecting. "7 years ago ... since my wife died." Heartbreaking.
You know, Joe Baio in New York? He was a child actor, and I would offer that he might have been robbed of a certain part of his childhood. The photographs are his way of handling that.
Collecting certainly has to do with insisting on a certain order in one's life.
Colberg: I actually don't know what it is about collecting. Why do I collect old plastic pocket transistor radios even though I never even listen to the radio? I have no idea.
Hunt: Maybe they're like shells and rocks? They feel good.
Colberg: So where/how do you find these photographs? Do you go to flea markets, Ebay...?
Hunt: I always maintain that the photographs find me. I found a killer photograph at the Rhinebeck Antiques Fair several years ago, The Radio City Music Hall staff, 1939. It is unusually large with everyone from the Rockettes to the ushers. It didn't look like much at the fair, but I framed it and "shazam!" I sold it to my neighbor and will always regret it, although she may loan it for the Houston show.
I look at antique markets and some flea markets, although Ebay seems to have killed that. Lots of times these photographs are in the wrong places, antique stores that have them as part of an estate. But Ebay has been a major source. I have lots of keywords and then I get an alert and I can look online.
Part of the growth of this collection is due to still having the collecting addiction and finding that keeping costs to a couple of hundred dollars doesn't break the bank. I am not as obsessed with this Collection Blind Pirate although it has gotten out-of-hand in a most remarkable way.
Colberg: Let's maybe talk about some of the images you have. If you would have to pick just one favorite which one would that be and why?
Hunt: The Klan. It is crazy. The idea that all of these men would assemble for a group "banquet style" photo and that some of them would forget their hoods and put napkins over their faces. Mind blowing. Insisting on anonymity in a photograph that is a representational report. Where in the U.S. was this made? Hanover ? Where? Chilling.
Colberg: Images like the Dance Club grouping, what appeals to you in those kinds of images? There must be thousands and thousands of those around.
Hunt: Undoubtedly, but there is only one with my parents in it, The St. Clair River Dance Club. I grew up knowing most of those people. There is a Sam Wagstaff story that the first picture he bought was a sports team photo he found at a flea market; it had his dad in it. Once upon a time with these images, someone knew all of these people. They were quite personal. An extended version of this interview can be found at http://jmcolberg.com/weblog.