The Culture Trip: You did a lot of travelling in the past to educate yourself in photography and art – going to exhibits and auctions. Did this inspire you to become a curator and do you think it’s necessary to go abroad to gain the experience needed to be a savvy curator/art dealer?
Dr. James Hyman: I have travelled a lot, but I think you can learn anywhere. What is really important is to see the actual art works, not just reproductions. This is just as important with a photograph as it is with a painting, sculpture or drawing. It is the presence of the object and your relationship to it that really matters. The more you see the more you understand about the difference between a vintage photograph printed at the same time as the work was taken, generally by the photographer, and later prints which can have a quite different feel. Condition is also crucial and it is only by seeing and comparing multiple prints, if they exist, of the same image that you can appreciate the merits of a particular photograph. Photography is not just about the image, the object quality is also crucial. So reading books and researching online is great but it is not a substitute for spending time with actual artworks. I’ve also learnt an enormous amount from visiting collections and talking to people. Although one or two dealers have been guarded, most are generous in sharing information. I always recommend to potential collectors that they establish a relationship with someone like myself who can act as a guide.
TCT: What city did you find the most inspiring in terms of learning about art and photography? Or was it more so the people that you met in those places?
JH: I’ve met wonderful people all over the world. Without being over-sentimental, the community of vintage photography lovers is passionate, knowledgeable and supportive. I’ve learnt a great amount from curators, collectors and dealers from Chicago to Shanghai. Paris has also been hugely important. There is a depth of knowledge there that is incredible and it is always a pleasure to be there.
TCT: How do you feel about photography today in comparison to vintage photography––do you think digital has taken the art out of photography?
JH: On the contrary, I think it has never been harder to be a photographic artist. The fact that everyone has a camera on their phone means the challenges have never been greater. But to take a photograph is not to see visually. I want a photograph to surprise me and to make me see and think differently. A great photograph changes your perception. As with all art it’s a question of vision not medium.
TCT: When compiling work for an exhibit do you think of what the viewer wants to see or do you prioritise your own vision/theme?
JH: The most powerful shows work on multiple levels. They give an insight into the mind of the artist but they must also connect with the viewer. A show should not be over curated. A curator should be a facilitator not a dictator. There are super-curators who can make you rethink a subject, but generally art works are best left on their own to speak for themselves. In putting on our André Kertész show here in London it was wonderful to discover the Estate pictures of Kertész that have never been exhibited and are appropriate for a show here in England. So a good show can mix iconic works and unfamiliar ones.
TCT: When did you first come to know about André Kertész and what was it that drew you to his work?
JH: As a child I wanted to be a photographer and when I was at school the first photography book I ever bought was a little paperback called André Kertész, On Reading. I loved the wit, the humanism, the formal, compositional qualities. I liked the way he structured the work, finding order in disorder. It’s wonderful that all these years later we are staging a show of his work and that I’m working with his Estate to bring these great pictures to a London audience.
TCT: What is your favourite piece by Kertész and why?
JH: In the exhibition we have a beautiful, classic Kertész: a scene of chairs and shadows taken in Paris at the Jardin de Luxembourg. A month ago I went to Paris and while there went especially to the park to take a photograph in the same spot. I was waiting for a moment when, as in the Kertész, there would be no people, but as I did so the young man in front of me dropped to his knees and proposed to his girlfriend. I took a photograph at that very moment. It was a perfect homage to Kertész. I’ve given the couple a copy of my photograph! It’s made Kertész’s original all the more special to me.
TCT: Are there any current photographers that you think come close to replicating Kertész’s work or that you find as compelling as his?
JH: I think contemporary photographers, old and young, have different priorities, often more conceptually based.
TCT: You teach, write essays and books, work as an art advisor, you’re a curator and art dealer. Is there anything else that you would love to branch out into or have you got enough on your plate?
JH: I originally wanted to be a photographer. I would like to spend more time taking photographs, but I wouldn’t have the audacity to exhibit them in public.
TCT: In an ideal world what would be your dream exhibit?
JH: Staging the Kertész show was a dream come true. But I would also love to curate or co-curate an exhibition of our British Photography Collection. It’s enormous and I would love to find a big enough venue to show the work in depth. My wife Claire and I have been collecting for years. We recently launched britishphotography.org as an educational resource, based on this aspect of our collection. I would love it if a museum came along and wanted to stage an exhibition on British Photography based on the collection. We have fantastic photographers in this country that deserve to be much better known and appreciated both here and internationally. We are doing what we can to make their work better known.
The James Hyman Gallery will be showing the Kertész exhibition until the 13th of June.
Interview conducted by Jenna Meade