Michelle Hauser

The Leisure of Looking: A Pedestrian View in a High-Speed Era

Edward J. Kelty, Hunt's Three Ring, Circus, Northport, NY, June 26th 1921

Booth Tarkington's novel The Magnificent Ambersons (adapted for film by Orson Welles) glides us through the quixotic fashions of the turn of the century while simultaneously underscoring the degree to which modern contrivances would come to shape and dictate human behavior forever. As trolleys replaced the horse drawn carriage, only to be overtaken by the streetcar and the automobile, Tarkington observes that we’re being essentially robbed of our leisure, noting that “the faster people were carried, the less time they had to spare.”

Today, this could also be said about looking — which is, after all, a form of leisure.

Speed has long had a symbiotic relationship with the success and democratization of photography, particularly as it is disseminated across the World Wide Web. We pose for less time and behave differently in front of each new model of camera. The time it takes to secure our subject matter within the lens has accelerated to the point that we barely need to pause before we shoot. Has the speed with which we access the abundance of images online reduced the discretionary time any of us are willing to spend looking at a single picture? Are we inadvertently being groomed to judge photographic merit based on what looks good as it pops up or scrolls by? And finally, if speed governs our experience online and frames the way we access and appreciate pictures, isn’t our sense of what constitutes a good photograph likely to change?

The current exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography, RE: groups: American Photographs Before 1950 from W.M. Hunt’s Collection Blind Pirate comes from an extensive collection of vernacular group photographs: these are formally orchestrated groups of people posing together due to a shared affiliation via social, fraternal, educational and professional institutions.

RE: groups confronts us with a set of broader questions: What criteria are we using to determine photographic merit? How has this criteria evolved? How did this particular genre of photography come to be marginalized, and why do we find relevance in it today? I began by asking the show’s curator collector.

Michelle Hauser:
Bill, it’s my understanding that your RE: groups collection developed as an offshoot while forming You Can’t See Their EyesWhen did you first recognize the merit in these group photographs, and what organizing principles framed their selection? Did these criteria change over time?

William M. Hunt:
The so-called You Can’t See Their Eyes photographs have a name too — Collection Dancing Bear — magical, heart-stopping images of people in which their eyes cannot be seen. In that collection there are a number of groups: American ones like the KKK, the John Greenleaf Whittier funeral, John Hiller’s Albino Zuni Indians and even some English ones — a great one by Frank Sutcliffe, Excitement for example — and, as you say, a number of vernacular ones, too, though these were mostly press proofs and snapshots.

In my earlier life as a dealer, I made it a point to look at rougher stuff than I might otherwise have done. Edward J. Kelty (how can I not buy The Hunt Circus?) and Mole & Thomas are American originals. I worked on a wonderful American flag show once, attempting to demonstrate a serendipity between American folk and outsider art and photography.

So things crept into the collection, but to the side. It really wasn’t until the Houston Center for Photography approached me about showing the bigger collection. I said no to that, but thought maybe there could be a show in this other stuff. It’s hard to fathom that there were more than 150 photographs put “to the side,” but I had never seen all of these images until the Houston installation. Even then, there were a couple of dozen that didn’t make the cut.

You seem to move back and forth easily between the world of fine art contemporary photography and vernacular photography. Do these two arenas feed and inspire one another? And were you by any chance inspired by the work of Andreas Gursky to collect early panoramic photographs? 

Gursky had no impact on this, although I find his work thrilling. Actually by not wanting to venture past 1950 or to include Europeans like Rodchenko, you could say that Gursky was a negative influence.

Many of these “groups” seem like early performance art to me, especially the Mole and Thomas. As a former theatre person, do you think you’re attracted to these images because they’re so staged? Makes me wonder, since you were used to working on shows with a cast and crew, do you think you’ve been looking for your tribe?

My “tribe” consists of the lookers, the seekers. I respond to the theatrical element but I love the obsessive part of it even more. It is the imagination that I respond to — the photographer framing a group that is either terribly formal or in total disarray. Making these photographs was a lot of work — they were a really big deal.

Would you say looking is a kind of leisure pasttime for you? Maybe this is what people mean when they say you have a good eye. Would you say that the art of looking forms the basis for your collections — and if so, have you found any evidence to support the notion that this activity is being negatively influenced by our online activities?

So many questions, so little time…leisure? What a funny idea! I look all the time. How can this be considered leisure when it’s also work? It’s the same thing.

An eye has to do with instinct or talent; it’s really an ability to see better than other people — like being funny or good at math. I think I can see more quickly than most people. That’s why a dealer or critic gets a good reputation. You can lead people to photographs that you find compelling and tell them why. Real collecting has very little to do with taste and only to do with neurosis, in my opinion. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily — it’s simply my observation.

It’s difficult to judge how looking online is working its way into how we see. I am sure it is. I seem to squint at everything now, but maybe that’s just age. Online viewing is educational and a tool for selling. At this point it doesn’t have much to do with art as it’s been traditionally defined. In terms of collecting, I am sure that folks are collecting everything from jpegs to video games. People collect everything!

One thing, though, is how little we understand about what the eye can see and what the brain retains. I organized a show once with images by the members of the photo agency VII (which includes James Nachtwey and Ron Haviv, among others) with 6000 images and 7 projectors running simultaneously. It took 20 minutes for the pictures to do a complete loop, but people could remember scores of pictures afterwards. It was very surprising, and revealing.

Do you think that hunting for photographs in flea markets and antiques shows has honed your senses? Are you more adept at finding treasures than if you’d strictly been searching online?

This is a good point. The reality of the thing is important — finding that perfect object and holding it in your hands. At this point, when I see something online I can tell a lot. It’s distressing that there are some people dealing in contemporary reprints of vintage negatives. Usually I can sense it, but only because of my experience in the field.

So much of the hunting for me has been weird instinct. I was never one to sort through boxes of stuff. I believe in the “finder’s fee.” I go to you as a dealer because you have pre-screened stuff and edited out the crap. That’s why you trust some dealers and not others. You like their taste.

You founded the photography department at the Ricco Maresca Gallery that specializes in self-taught and outsider art. How has this influenced your aesthetic?

Profoundly. They really look at the object first and the authorship later. They really gave me confidence in my eye and taste. RMG has the uncanny ability to recognize something in a fresh context — for instance, your living room — an object will have uncommon beauty. Further, there is sometimes the sense that supply in the world of collectibles keeps shrinking (and gets more expensive.) It’s valuable to find more stuff to love. Collectors are junkies. 

You seem to really love to look at stuff, evaluate it, consider it, react to it and possess it. You have considered the framing differently throughout the show depending on the photograph. Your collection shows an appreciation for photographs as tactile objects: there’s this implicit sense that photographs as object, is a changing notion.

When I go to sites like Flicker there is a strict uniformity to the way the edge of photographs are handled: it’s all sharp, crisp straight lines. This cleaned-up edge seems to erase the fact that photographs are objects too. Is this something you’ve observed in contemporary art photography, as well?

I ask young photographers why they make photographs with edges. We see elliptically and yet artists are trapped by the pieces of paper. It seems like they overlook a fairly basic component in seeing. Jacques Lartigue made a bunch of images using a two-lens stereo camera with the lens focused in the center so that the resulting single images had slight flair in the middle. He printed them with a curved edge. Only the overmats made them rectangular. Remember the circular Kodak II snapshots? Very cool. Edges are lazy and arbitrary.

Recently, while setting up at an antiques show, an acquaintance expressed intererest in two items from my booth — a painting and a photograph. She ended up passing on the items, which was fine. Since then, I became privy to her Facebook page. A few hours after she left the antique show she posted photos of the two objects she had loved in my booth that she’d taken with her iPhone. She had, after all, acquired them. Like a journal or scrapbook, they were now personalized on her Facebook page with her comments. Do you ever collect in a virtual way, storing images on your computer and playing around with them? Have you run into the virtual collector at the gallery?

So much of my material is in my head, that I find I can play with the pictures there to some extent. I encourage collectors to make books of their collections, and I wish I had started doing that long ago. Not that you asked, but actually I do have book coming out next year — The Unseen Eye from Thames & Hudson. I have always maintained informal clipping files with postcards, newspaper photos.

Photography is such an amazing and versatile medium because it draws all kinds of practitioners from people that make or take photographs — family or whatever — and art and the people who just play with them, who look at the newspaper or magazine then talk about them at the water cooler. That’s a kind of collecting. I am sure that I have run into someone collecting pictures on their phone. Bless them.

In Nicholas A. Basbanes book A Gentle Madness, he introduces the mania of bibliophiles, which describes as a psychological conceit: “With thought, patience and discrimination,” he writes, “book passion becomes the signature of a person’s character.” The idea that collecting reveals a person’s character is obviously not unique to book collecting. Your collections are both idiosyncratic and personal. You’ve even named them — Blind Pirate and Dancing Bear. Why name a collection? Does your collection reveal your character?

Yes. The Dancing Bear is my unconscious manifest. Literally. That discovery was initially chilling then later, empowering. Blind Pirate is much less about my psyche and more about my visual curiosity. Collection Dancing Bear gave me huge insight into myself over a span of about 35 years. Blind Pirate is not nearly as self-reflective.

Do you ever feel a bit crazy as you accumulate all this photographic material?


Norman Brosterman told me once that there is a big difference between an accumulation and a collection. With a collection, he believed, you can’t take anything out without leaving a hole, but with an accumulation you can edit a lot out. Have you honed these groups to be tightly formed collections now?

They’re not that tight in any academic sense: as you said, they’re personal and idiosyncratic. Dancing Bear is pretty good, but at the end of the day, Blind Pirate doesn’t hold together all that well as a group of things. But I was never as invested in it, either.

Has putting them in book form and creating an exhibition allowed you to really step back and evaluate what you have been doing all these years?

WMH: It has been such a trip. Absolutely. The first drafts of the book read like a memoir: they’re very personal.

The Unseen Eye is coming out next year, and groups is now an exhibition. Does this finalize the creative process and put an end to this particular quest? And if so, what’s next?

I think it’s time to find them all nice homes. The housekeeping is unwieldy. And I am interested in moving on. Where to — I don’t know.

Posted in: Culture, Photography

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Comments [1]
Quite a wide-ranging discussion with Bill--- someone who has been involved in this madness of collecting for a long time. And suceeding quite well at it, I may add. I love both of his photo collections (the covered eyes and the group images) and he is neither boring in person or in print, as this article attests. I can't wait for his book to be published.

Robert E. Jackson

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