Published on Friday, June 21, 2019
Deborah Bell Talks Dealing, Then and Now
Deborah Bell at The Photography Show, 2019.
Photo: Kristina Nazarevskaia, Gallery Intell. © The Photography Show
Deborah Bell has been a member of AIPAD since 1992. She’s seen it all since she moved to New York over forty years ago, first as a photographer, then as a private dealer, and now as the owner and director of Deborah Bell Photographs, whose exhibitions have been reviewed everywhere from The New Yorker to Vice. We sat down with her to talk about how she approaches her work and how she’s seen fine art photography evolve.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you come to be a gallerist dealing in fine art photography?
I moved to New York City from Minnesota in 1978, two years after I finished a BFA in photography at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1976. For several years I was a practicing photographer, darkroom technician, and studio assistant. I was kind of in the background of the gallery world until 1984, when I got an internship with the Sander Gallery, but it was a critical time for me. I went to all the gallery and museum exhibitions – I actually attended the first AIPAD show in New York City. I learned so much from being in those rooms, watching the scene develop. In 1988, a photographer I knew asked me to be his dealer, as the gallery he’d been with was closing down. I was a private dealer from then until November 2001, when I opened my first gallery, which was in Chelsea.
Perhaps because I started out as a photographer, like many of the curators and dealers in our field, I'm always thinking about how pictures are made. I think that my background helps me understand a photograph as a product of human labor – it’s always connected to the process that made it, whatever that may be.
Are you interested in any particular subjects or mediums? How have you seen your areas of interest change since you started collecting?
Well, I deal in a broad variety of subjects and print processes. One thing I always come back to is pictures of people. I’m especially interested in portraits of artists – the mystery of how and why artists make art fascinates me. I’m also interested in street photography – pictures of the real world, if you will – and experimental photography, the boldness it displays, the barriers that the artist chooses to break. In a way, the pictures a photographer, or any artist, chooses to create are all a sort of self-portrait. It’s all about unravelling the relationships in the world that the artist inhabits – between them and their subject, or, if it’s not a portrait, it’s about how they react to their environment.
I think that technology has had a profound impact on photography, especially the portrait. Thanks to new lenses and formats, contemporary photographs look fundamentally different, often much sharper and more high-definition.
Yet there’s a certain mystery to the photography of the early twentieth century. Advances in technology and the birth of the popular magazine meant that photographs were suddenly everywhere in front of us, and this created many more opportunities for photographers. In terms of craft, a twentieth-century image is very different from a contemporary one, and I think the “imperfections” of pre-digital photographs make them all the more compelling. The longer exposures allow the subject to relax more into the act of being photographed – it’s a passive act, but an act nonetheless – and I think that adds a profound social dimension to the photograph.
How has the photography market changed since you first started dealing?
When I moved to New York, the photography scene was in a heady and exciting period of discovery. The history of photography was expanding. There were more monographs and exhibition catalogues being written, and museums were establishing departments dedicated to photography. With the celebration of well-known living photographers like Ansel Adams, the photographer had suddenly become an artist, and the market boomed. A lot of older bodies of work were being unearthed, and auctions offered a lot of new material. Since then, a great deal of the older work – from up to about the 1960s – has been acquired - and so the supply has dwindled.
There is also a generational shift happening in terms of collectors. When I started, there were more collectors who acquired work in depth, and ended up donating their collections or forming educational centers. Their collections were instrumental in advancing the history of photography. Now, many of those collectors are pretty much done, and the collectors emerging to replace them have different tastes. Maybe it’s the impact of digital photography, but it seems that in the popular realm and in media, contemporary photography is more about the image than the object.
The image made for reproduction is not usually made from a negative and a print anymore, so the result is not a physical object to own. I’m interested in how this will change the photography world. How will dealing and collecting adapt? How will digital photographs be preserved?
With so many outlets now for purchasing artwork (from auction houses and online marketplaces to private dealers and traditional galleries), what intrinsic value does the dealer provide to collectors?
There may be many ways to acquire work, but dealers are uniquely equipped to navigate the process of acquisition and de-mystify it for new collectors. Dealers can guide the collector in critical ways by showing them a broad range of material, answering questions, sharing relevant information and learning their interests in order to come up with new offers.
When works come up at an auction, dealers can employ their expertise to point out and suggest specific prints and then conduct the auction process by inspecting the material that comes up, advising the client and bidding for them. Dealers can also help collectors with connoisseurship, which can be an elusive and difficult matter in the case of vintage photography.
If you could give one piece of advice to collectors, what would it be?
To private collectors, the most important thing is to ask yourself is, “do I love it or not?” That’s really the essence of collecting, and I’d even say it goes for curators, too. You might be acquiring work to fill in a gap in a collection, but you still need to listen to your own responses to both the image and the object. You have to be proud to put it on display and to feel that aesthetic correspondence.