Interview: WM Hunt
W.M. Hunt Talks to Elizabeth Avedon
L’Oeil de la Photographie, September 30, 2011
W.M. Hunt at Home, Oct 2011. Photograph © Elizabeth Avedon
“When I turned 50, I decided my life’s mission would be to promote the pleasure of photography.” William Hunt
The first U.S. exhibition of over 500 photographs from W.M. Hunt’s extraordinary collection will open at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film on October 1, 2011. Selected works include photographs by Man Ray, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Edward Steichen, Robert Mapplethorpe, Berenice Abbott, and Nadar in a range of formats from daguerreotype to digital. Highlights from the collection have previously been shown at the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France; the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland; and Foam-Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Thames & Hudson in the UK, Actes Sud in France and Aperture in the U.S. are simultaneously publishing his book, The Unseen Eye: Photographs From the W.M. Hunt Collection, to accompany the show.
W.M. Hunt began collecting over forty years ago with his first acquisition, Veiled Woman, by Imogen Cunningham. Hunt, a curator and educator, was founding partner of the Hasted Hunt Gallery (now Hasted Kraeutler), former director of photography at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, and served on the Board of Directors of AIPAD. He is currently on the Board of Directors of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund and The Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY. and was profiled in the BBC series, appropriately titled in his case, The Genius of Photography.
Hunt’s collection follows an unprecedented theme in which the subject’s eyes are averted, hidden, concealed, pierced, or missing in every photograph. In The Unseen Eye, he writes of To El-Mochuelo”(Boy Behind Post) by Ralph Eugene Meatyard: “This is a photograph of me. I am the young boy, ten years old, standing behind the post at the base of the stair, out of focus, hidden, unseen. I’m scratching my head, wondering. The image is by a visionary photographer from Kentucky, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and it was taken in the early 1960s.
“OK, it’s not me. I would have been older than that by then, but this image is a key to understanding this collection. The photographs in this book are meant to flow easily, like a dream, from one to the next, with birth and death, pleasure and pain, the everyday and the infinite.”
I spoke with Bill in his New York penthouse recently as the collection was being packed for the Eastman House exhibition:
Elizabeth Avedon: What came first, the exhibition or the book?
WM Hunt: The book was commissioned in 2005 based on my Arles show. The publisher at Thames and Hudson, Thomas Neurath, who is a lovely, lovely, lovely fellow, wrote me this letter that was very flattering and said he’d enjoyed the show. He totally got it, but he thought it had commercial potential. I said, “Are you really sure about this?” When he said, yes, I had a rendezvous with his sister who was their long time Art Director, Constance Kane, who I also adore. It’s a family held company, so I’m doing this book and the only two people I know there are the family. The book was set into motion slowly and then there’s a show in the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland with Bill Ewing and at Foam with Marloes Krinjen. Fabulous.
So the show is kicking around and it’s about 360 pictures and that takes place over a three-year period. We’re working on the book, it stops and goes. Part of the problem is I’m in New York and I’ve never done a book before, and they’re in London. Then there’s this period when it’s not happening and I’d tried to get the show to Paris at the Maison Rouge or the MEP (Maison Européenne de la Photographie). The Maison Rouge is much funkier, better for a collector situation; the MEP can’t do as many pictures. It’s funny that France has been this welcoming place. The Arles show was just fantastic.
One of my very good friends is Alison Nordstrom, senior Curator of Photography at the George Eastman House. She stays here all the time in the artist studio downstairs where the collection is. We talked about doing this show and when the book was becoming a reality, Alison got Eastman House to commit.
The good news is it’s not collaborative; I’ll put it up. When people agree to do the collection, it comes with the understanding I’ll do the installation. My line about installations is “That’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” It truly is. It’s four days of great problem solving. My thinking is very much about engagement; I want the audience to come in and I really want to amaze them, astonish them. I want them to go, “I’ve never thought about photographs this way.”
We did this cool thing in Amsterdam. The Foam people were great, but they had a very big ballroom that was awkward in a way with windows on one end and two walls too far apart. So I built my speed bumps and then I asked them to get two-dozen chairs and put them in the middle of the room. Opposed to the photography gallery as egress, in and out, Foam wanted you to stay there, and the chairs made it easy. People came in and would sit there and talk; it looked like a bus station. And I loved the idea you would come in and look at one picture and talk to your friend for 45 minutes. I was thrilled.
The show that’s coming up in Rochester is by design a very big show at 550 photographs. One idea is nobody has ever done a show that big. The Friedlander show was 477, Family of Man was 517, so I’m looking to that being news value. I just want people to come and be amazed.
EA: Do you own all of the photographs in the book?
WM Hunt: There are a couple pictures that I don’t own, but they have history with me so they are in the book. One is a Weegee picture I used in a project early on, so it was meaningful and also you don’t ever see it.
There’s a picture that Hans Krauss had that was so cool. I used to have the slide and the postcards and I would put it in talks about collecting – the one that got away. It was too expensive. In the foreground there’s this skull. It’s small at an angle. It’s the ultimate post mortem photograph before anyone had a post mortem photograph. (Humphrey Hime, The Prairie, on the Banks of the Red River, Looking West, 1858)
Mitch Epstein had a picture I just loved. (Mitch Epstein, Untitled, NY (Man on Escalator), from ‘The City’, 1998). We worked out something and now I own it. It did this weird thing. Once I got it home, it completely changed and my reading of it was really different. It’s cut on the diagonal, the escalator, bright red background, middle-aged guy facing away from the camera. I always thought he’s going up on the escalator. It was this optimistic dynamic. Then I get it home and the escalator is stopped – the guy’s just in place. That actually for me is one of the pleasures of it. You look at them and they are different from you.
EA: I’m interviewing Joel-Peter Witkin next week. Don’t you own several of his photographs?
WM Hunt: There’s a Joel-Peter Witkin story I like. The thing that gave this collection increased visibility was the Witkin, Man without a Head, 1993, which is a brilliant photograph. That’s a photograph that people cannot stand to look at. It just gives them the spilkes. In the show in Arles, they gave me the most contemporary feeling venue on the inside. I’d built these speed bumps in it because I don’t like you to be able to walk into a show and see it all, so I had these big triangles that were in the way. The show was on two floors and the end of the second floor my sister-in-law is suddenly doing this very weird walk. She says, “I know it’s here. I KNOW it’s here and I DON’T want to see it.” I’d put it behind something so you wouldn’t catch sight of it when you first walked in the room. I want to deny the experience of jumping out of your skin when you see that picture.
That was a really big deal picture because it was expensive and it was empowering because it was a picture you shouldn’t have. It’s just a ‘bad boy’ picture.
[Paolo Ventura comes into the apartment during our talk. His exhibition The Automaton of Venice opened at the Hasted Kraeutler Gallery (through October 15) and he’s visiting for the day before returning to Italy. Ventura and Hunt discuss some 19th century photographs of nude women, prostitutes, Paolo saw in a flea market. Somebody had drawn beautiful masks to cover the eyes on the negatives.]
WM Hunt: The mask thing is a strange thing in the collection, because masks let the eyes in and this is very much about not letting the eyes in. For the show at the Eastman House I took out all the masks, so there are pictures in the book that aren’t going to be in the show.
My sister is the only one who’s seen all the different incarnations of this collection, so I’m curious to see what she thinks. This one will be really dense. And we’re using a different color this time. We’re using green for the entrance hallway.
EA: Talk to me about your Arbus pieces.
WM Hunt: The cool Arbus is the one nobody knows, which is the Man from World War Zero. (Diane Arbus, Man from World War Zero and His Wife the Alligator Skin Woman, 1968) and it is elegant. Doon turned me down the first time, which I had expected, and I was in the process of writing the letter that said, “Oh please, oh please, oh please…” when she wrote me back the next morning and she said she’d changed her mind, that it was OK. That was great.
EA: Is he moving or is that his face?
WM Hunt: That’s a very good question that people don’t usually ask. I don’t know if he has three eyes or one eye. You realize that the photograph is a completely banal portrait done in a very relaxed setting, all these formal considerations that you would bring to it anyway. When you look you say, “Who are those people?”
[In The Unseen Eye, W.M. Hunt writes: “The Arbus portrait is alarming in its unaffected and affectionate capture of a shockingly odd couple. Their appearance is so unexpected but treated here in such a matter-of-fact fashion. The man is a Cubist curiosity. You don’t even notice the wrinkled condition of the wife’s skin.”]
I have a lovely Avedon story. I had been the Chairman of Photographers + Friends United Against Aids. It was a really amazing time because as an actor I had no single mindedness and as a fundraiser, I was ruthless. I would call anybody. When I left I was casting about for things to do and figured I’d go back to show business. Then this crazy gallery, Ricco/Maresca, sent me a presentation on Gerald Slota, the photographer you looked at on the way in [at the entrance to Hunt’s apartment]. I went to meet these guys and thought they were different from any dealers I had ever met. I didn’t buy a Gerald Slota, because I thought they were over priced, but I was completely beguiled. They proposed that I curate a show; either do it now or a year and a half from now. I said, “Now would be good.”
I had a three month lead and I did this show called Delirium; pictures about people in a delirious state. It was very much everything that I’d been working on as a collector, as someone looking at photographs. I put the call out to people I trusted and asked, “What have you got?” This picture came to me by Keri Pickette, who lives in Minneapolis, of a little boy who is on a staircase and he looks like he’s been hit in the knee’s, but he’s in a really heightened state of pain, sadness. I really liked this picture. It was very odd, a painful picture, so I put it in the show.
Later, Aperture came to me and said, “Can we do this as an issue of the magazine?” I then got to recurate it, write an essay and I put all these blocks of text in it. It’s a really good issue of the magazine.
I saw Keri this summer and said, “I’m going to put you in the Eastman House show.” And she said, “Oh, did you ever see this letter from Dick?” I knew who she meant, but I didn’t know what she was talking about. Some one had given him a copy of Delirium and he wrote her a letter saying that he’s had her “picture up for weeks and how wonderful the picture was. Thank you very much.” I thought what a swell letter to have. So good for her and that was cool he saw that.
EA: How did you acquire Richard Avedon’s photograph of Sophia Loren (Richard Avedon, Sophia Loren, New York, October 1970), when did it come about for you?
WM Hunt: I saw the Sophia Loren in the Marlborough show.
[In “The Unseen Eye,” W.M. Hunt writes: “This is a photograph of a beautiful woman – Sophia Loren at her best. She is gorgeous, dynamic, breathtakingly exciting, something we all imagine at some point about ourselves. Richard Avedon’s photographs are celebrations of a certain kind of beauty. The Loren portrait is as much sculptural as photographic. The instructions Avedon gave for the printing of a negative like this were so detailed that they look like a ‘paint by numbers’ map. Beauty is completely subjective.”]
The two other Avedon’s, Nureyev (Richard Avedon, Rudolf Nureyev, New York, May 29, 1967) and Capote (Richard Avedon, Truman Capote, New York, October 10, 1955), I bought from the Fraenkel Gallery. Fraenkel was always reasonable with me.
There were a couple of dealers who were good ‘Spirit Guides’ Janet Borden and Frish Brandt. They had a sense of what I was up to, they had a sense of what money I didn’t have, they had a sense of the economies of the time, so if they each sent me six pictures in a year, which was a really judicious way of dealing with me, I would probably do two from each place. That’s pretty good because I didn’t have a lot of money and that was for me a lot of money. The irony, of course, is now those pictures are a huge deal.
The Irving Penn, The Two Guedras, Morocco, 1971, was $5000 at Christies 25 or 30 years ago, which was a fortune then. A fortune! If you’ve ever seen those Penn platinum’s close-up, they change, like that hyperspace moment in movies when you see the constellation, then you’re IN the constellation. They just explode in your eye and become this matrix of silvers. I spent more money than I thought I could ever find on that print and now it is worth – a lot. [Sold at 2010 auction for $314,500.00].
The Two Guedras, Morocco, 1971, is the cover of Worlds in a Small Room. Two ladies, one stands, one sits; and there’s a variant where the seamless is blowing, but this is the pure one. The tragedy of this book is the Penn people wouldn’t give me permission to use it. I miss it like mad and I wrote really well about it and that was cut too, so this panel I’m doing on the 12th of October with Susan Bright (Unseen in The Unseen Eye, SVA Theatre, NY) is actually to talk about the stuff that’s not in the book.
EA: What was your first success as a dealer?
WM Hunt: Larry Gianettino was my first success, someone who nobody knew about. I showed him and let people know about him and we did a book. When Elisabeth Biondi had only been at the New Yorker about six weeks, she ran a photograph by him and it looked great. We sold pictures based on it being in the New Yorker. She and I have logged in a lot of time together since.
EA: Tell me about the diptych behind you.
WM Hunt: Gary Schneider was doing a talk at ICP one night, just beginning work on the Genetic Self-Portrait series, and he showed aqslide of this diptych. (Retinas, from ‘Genetic Self-Portrait’, 1998) When the lecture was over, I made a beeline for him. I wanted it. It looks like this moonlit night in the haunted forest; it looks like a lot of things. I think it’s very exciting.
[In “The Unseen Eye,” W.M. Hunt writes: “This is part of Gary Schneider’s ambitious self-portrait series, based on the extraordinary conceit of appropriating X-rays of the interiors of his own eyes – this really is the ‘unseen eye’ – and then printing these in his exquisite and exacting fashion. This image is a haunted landscape of the soul under a full moon, eerie and rapturous.”]
I think that collectors who have an investment in friendships with the artists that you end up collecting the artist also and that’s really fun. There are a couple of artists that I was the first person who bought them.
I’ve known Gary a long time and think he’s a real talent. His skill as a printer always preceded him. He had a photograph of a friend of ours daughter, Fotofolio’s Julie Galant and Martin Bondells’ daughter Anya when she was about 8 or 10. I bought it. It’s a great, great picture. It’s in the book. (Gary Schneider, Anya, 1994)
There’s a very big mask picture (Gary Schneider, Mask Self-Portrait, 1999) on stretched canvas, about 2 meters x 2 meters, that will also be at Eastman House and it’s in the book. I’ve never exhibited it before. I’m pleased to show it because where I’ve put it in a space it will get a lot of light around it. It likes a lot of space.
EA: Is there a photograph in your collection you could not live without?
WM Hunt: The Penn.