Howard Greenberg: Life lit up
Because my father loved art, and because he had the courage of his convictions and didn’t wait for the approval of cultural savants before buying it, the home I grew up in was overflowing with paintings, drawings and sculptures. Since he was a high school teacher, his budget was limited. Yet he trusted his eye and bought Joseph Stella, Abraham Walkowitz, George Grosz, Louis Eilshemius, Chaim Grosz, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and William Gropper, at a time when most of these artists were not well-known. There was art everywhere in our home, including in my third-floor bedroom. I remember protesting when one of the images, a Kathe Kollwitz lithograph of a father and his children sitting beside the bed of their dying wife and mother, was hung in the hallway to my room. “C’mon, Dad, it’s so depressing.” His terse response: “That’s life, too, Peter.” The print stayed there.
As discerningly, my father collected photographs, which assumed pride of place next to the Stella oils and Kuniyoshi prints. There was no hierarchy. The process of producing images by radiant energy and light on a sensitive surface, was, for my father, as much of an achievement as mixing color on a palette and composing, either representatively or abstractly, a work on canvas. In the late-‘60s, shortly before he died, I remember my father’s excitement at finding and buying three gelatin silver prints from Margaret Bourke-White’s series of images on the construction of Fort Peck Dam, near Billings, Montana. My father, in great detail, explained that one of the images, that of massive buttresses of what appeared to be battlements (actually elevated highway supports), had, on Nov. 23, 1936, been the cover of the first issue of Life Magazine. And he told me about Bourke-White’s remarkable life.
I’d like to say it was a transformative moment, but truthfully at that age I was more consumed by football, baseball, movies and girls. It wasn’t until approximately 20 years later, when I was living in Los Angeles, while on a 1986 holiday visit to New York, that I had my photography epiphany. It began with my wandering Wooster Street in SoHo. On the Wednesday of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I stopped at a nondescript building at 138 Spring St. Looking at the building I saw that Photofind Gallery was on the second floor. I liked the name, so I pressed the buzzer and waited for a response. None came. After buzzing again, but getting no response, I assumed the gallery was closed for the holidays. I wrote done the number on a piece of paper (I know, how quaint, but there were no smartphones in1986) and made a mental note to call from Los Angeles.
Upon returning home to the West Coast, I reacquainted myself with my father’s collection, most of which was in storage. I noticed on the inventory list that many of the photographs had the notation “F.S.A.” Because it was 1986, there was no internet. However, since I was taking some extension courses at UCLA, I did have access to Powell Library. I quickly discovered that F.S.A. stood for the Farm Security Administration. After more research, I recognized many names from my father’s inventory list: Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon and Russell Lee. I also discovered, and borrowed from the library, two seminal books: “The Bitter Years: Edward Steichen and the Farm Security Administration Photographs” and “In This Proud Land: America, 1935-1943.” I was hooked.
In mid- January I called Photofind. After a receptionist put me through, the first thing that struck me about the voice at the other end was the unmistakable Brooklyn accent. The second thing was the passion and enthusiasm in that voice. The third was the complete lack of pretension and snobbery. And, the fourth, and most astounding, was that this person — it was, of course, Howard Greenberg himself — even took my call. Wow, what a concept! Being accustomed to Seven Sister brush-offs from Madison Avenue gallery assistants, I was struck by the accessibility. And the genuine interest.
In the course of our discussion, Howard told me that he was making a Los Angeles trip in March. Would I like to look at some of his FSA photographs?
Now my mind was completely blown. A New York dealer would make a 3,000-mile house call? (Well, not exactly; he was also seeing many others on his Los Angeles trip.) We quickly set a date. Two months later, Howard arrived at my Hancock Park bungalow with a wunderkammer of exceptional photographs, two of which I bought: Russell Lee’s heartrending portrait of a migrant worker’s daughter in the doorway of her Texas trailer and Marion Post Wolcott’s image of an African-American couple jitterbugging in a Mississippi juke joint. There were easily another half dozen I could have bought. Howard had put together a remarkably discerning collection.
Thirty years later and Howard is still discovering, selecting, curating and selling great photographs. Only now on a much larger scale. The cozy dimensions of Photofind have segued smoothly into the current home of the Howard Greenberg Gallery in the historic Fuller Building on East 57th Street. The Gallery now has a website, a worldwide mailing list and an inventory of more than 30,000 photographs. Howard is considered one of the top photography dealers in the country.
Recently I sat down with Howard and asked him about his notable and influential impact on collecting and selling fine art photography. Alternately wry and reflective, self-deprecating and passionate, Greenberg chronicles a most remarkable life and career.
The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Eagle: You have been instrumental in discovering, nurturing and resurrecting many prominent photographers. After 40 years, do you think there are still more discoveries out there?
Howard Greenberg: That’s a good question. Yes and no. Not too many weeks go by that I don’t hear about a photographer who’s had a long and distinguished career, but whose name I’ve never heard before. There are many, many people who photographed professionally or as artists, especially since the ’50s because that was the age of all the magazines (Life, Look,
Time) — photographers could get a lot of work. That was also the beginning of colleges and universities starting to add photography courses to the art history curriculum. There were just a lot more opportunities and there was a lot more impetus. So now, 60 years later, a lot of those photographers have died and suddenly estates and archives of those photographers are being brought to light. That’s one part of the answer; the other part is that, unfortunately, the market is not ready for all of this, or is past it because, as I always say, (chuckling) the blessing and the curse of photography is that there is too much of it. It’s a blessing from the point of view that there’s been enough to go around to create a global interest and a global marketplace. But there is already such a repository of so many photographs, and so many photographers — again, especially when you get to the second half of the 20th century — that the global market cannot possibly absorb it all.
Eagle: That’s a good segue to my next question: When you acquire, by purchase or consignment, a body of work by a photographer, do you do so feeling confident that there is a market for it?
HG: In the beginning, the “older days,” I did it because I liked a certain photograph, or body of photographs and I enjoyed the process of education for myself (whether or not I knew who the photographer was) and I was a cockeyed optimist in that I felt I would find a way to make a living by buying all these photographs. I discovered early on, in the 1980s, that if I appreciated a picture for a certain reason and that if I imparted that knowledge to a potential buyer, there was a “turn-on” factor; they often would pick up on my interest. And if they could afford it and thought they’d like to put it on their wall, then they would buy it. So I learned that if the photographs were good enough and interesting enough and historical enough, I could sell them.
Eagle: Another good segue: Do you find that, even after all these years of people collecting photography, you still have to “hand-sell” and make your case for your photographers? Or by this time are most of your photographers well-known enough not to need your imprimatur?
HG: (laughing) That’s another good question. In my case, no, even with all the years under my belt I do still have to make the case for most of my photographs. Not, of course, with very well-known photographers. I mean if I have an Irving Penn or a Robert Frank or a handful of others with reputations like that, no explanation is needed. I may have to explain my price for the particular print of the given image, but I don’t have to make the case for the photographer. However, as you know, I have always also collected and shown works by a lot of photographers who are less celebrated or not as well-known. In some cases, I think they’re as good as the established photographers, but they’re not at the same level. So I often have to explain why they are important.
This show that we’re opening tomorrow night is the perfect example: Sid Grossman — in his time in New York — was somewhat of a giant; everybody knew who he was. He was not just a founder of the Photo League, but, more importantly, he ran the Photo League School and he was a very charismatic, outspoken guy. He pushed photography in certain directions after World War II. He died young and 20 years ago there was the beginning of a new appreciation for Sid because of his inclusion in Jane Livingston’s seminal book “The New York School.” She makes the case for two people in particular in that book — Sid and Alexey Brodovitch [Note: Brodovitch was a Russian-born photographer, designer and teacher, who is best-known for his art direction at Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958]. But in Sid’s case, even with all of that, he is still mostly unknown, except by people with a deep knowledge of the history of photography. So here it is 2017 and I’m doing this show and I still have to explain him.
Eagle: Is there such a thing as having too much inventory? Is there a certain point where you say, “I’m not going to that auction, I’m not going to buy that image?”
HG: (laughing) It’s much, much easier to buy than to sell. It’s much easier to accumulate inventory than to have an even flow of it.
Eagle: How is that as a business model?
HG: (once again laughing) Not very good! Except for this: I have an enormous inventory; it’s almost embarrassing, it’s almost not functional. However, you have to consider when I acquired so much of this inventory. Several thousand photographs go back 20, 30, 40 years from now. Back then I could buy a group of 500 photographs by a second-tier photographer, who nobody liked or ever heard of, for $2,000. And even though over the years I may not have sold more than 15 or 20 of them, the multiples are amazing because I was able to build a market at a certain value for their work. And therefore the 486 or so photographs left in my inventory by that particular photographer have paid for themselves. In other words, so to speak, I am in the black. So I don’t mind “carrying” them. That’s kind of how it works with most of my inventory. I don’t really have inventory that hasn’t returned at least the initial investment already. The inventory, in essence, becomes a profit.
Eagle: Do you feel there’s a buyer, potentially, for every photograph?
HG: No, not at all. I mean there are a lot of photographs that are good, but not good enough. And I will say that in the vintage photography marketplace today, it’s rarefied much more than 15 or 20 years ago.
Eagle: In what sense “rarefied?”
HG: There are simply fewer vintage photographs that will sell than in the past. I’m not talking about the popular prints of later stuff. There’s still a good market for those, albeit at lower price levels than five or six years ago. But I’m talking about the more sophisticated vintage prints where buyers may not know the photographer but they’re taking a chance because they like the image. There’s less of that kind of buying going on than in years past.
Eagle: I have a friend who’s the director of an art museum, and an art historian, who feels photography is “too easy,” that you can’t put photography in the same category as painting or sculpture. Two questions: Do you still encounter pockets of resistance like that? And what is your response when you do?
HG: Well, yes, the “pockets of resistance” will continue forever. It’s just that some people don’t understand the medium and can’t relate it to the other forms of art you mentioned. I mean, it is easier to make a photograph; anybody can make a photograph. But photography’s simply a different medium. And if you address photography within its own set of standards, within its own set of rules and then discern what’s quality within those standards and rules, it changes the equation. In all fairness, critics, historians, curators of necessity have to look at photographers in terms of their overall work. And if you do that, from a historical point of view, understanding what makes a great photograph, I think it opens up the argument and it proves that great photography can sit side-by-side with great painting and sculpture.
In fact, [photography] stands up very well and that’s attested to, in the last 20 years, by the many art museum exhibitions that include photography alongside painting and sculpture. And that tendency is intensifying. I just saw a show at the Whitney where photography is incorporated into other media effortlessly and perfectly. Years ago, at the old Whitney, there was a show curated by Barbara Haskell called “An American Century” which was the first show in which masterpiece photographs were integrated with masterpiece paintings. And it was a major triumph. You know those photographers who made those pictures at that time — Strand, Stieglitz, Steichen — were right in step with what contemporaneous painters and sculptors were doing. They were just using a different medium. And when you see the work properly put together (i.e., exhibited) it’s obvious.
Eagle: Let’s change topics. Tell me about growing up in Sheepshead Bay in the 1950s. Do you think Brooklyn shaped you?
HG: Absolutely! I always credited my Brooklyn upbringing with my success in life. There’s no doubt about it. Because when you grew up in Brooklyn, at least when and where I grew up, you learned (chuckling) how to dance on the streets.
Eagle: What do you mean?
HG: You learned how to navigate the waters. You also learned about humanity and to have a great appreciation for humanity. It sharpens your perceptions and enhances your intuitions. When you walked the streets of Brooklyn in 1957 or ’62 the skills you learned — and I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself, but for literally millions of other Brooklynites — served us well in whatever we ended up doing in life. And I daresay you wouldn’t find one person who grew up in Brooklyn at that time who wouldn’t say the same thing.
Eagle: Where exactly in Brooklyn did you grow up?
HG: I was born in Borough Park and then when I was 2 years old we actually moved to a federal housing project in King’s Bay, a few blocks from Sheepshead Bay. And it was a large project; there were, I don’t know, 30 or 40 buildings. And all the buildings were racially and ethnically mixed.
Eagle: Funny, because I would have thought it was almost all Jewish.
HG: Well, sure, probably 50 percent was Jewish, but there were a lot of African-Americans, a lot of Italians, the occasional Hispanic family — and, of course, Irish Catholics. Now, if you wanted to stay “segregated,” with only the Jews, you could, but it wasn’t really like that for most of us. We wanted to experience it all.
For Gallery exhibition information, location and hours, go to www.howardgreenberg.com
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