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December 11, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:33pm

Michael Hoppen on 20 Years of His Photography Gallery

By Spear's

Michael Hoppen is celebrating 20 years of his Chelsea gallery, one of the first to show serious photography in London, with Finders Keepers, a show of photographs from his private collection which opens tomorrow. Here he talks to Josh Spero about the rise of photography in art and life, selling photos to Lehman Brothes and why Photoshop isn’t always a bad thing for art

When you started the gallery twenty years ago, what was the photography scene in London like?

It didn’t really exist. I mean it was tiny. I don’t want to say it was fledgling, it’s just that it was not relevant or terribly important. There were huge champions of photography in London like Mark Haworth-Booth at the V&A who’d been there for twenty years or 25 years and there were people lurking in various museums and libraries and business who believed that photography was important, that it infiltrated all our lives in many ways.

Remember this is pre-internet or pre-real-internet that was publicly available to everyone. It was considered to be a new trend. People had seen American films and had gone to America and seen photography being used in all sorts of environments from restaurants to businesses to clubs to museums to private collections but it seemed like an American thing. It wasn’t something that seemed to fit in the English way of life.

We hadn’t had a tradition of taking holiday snaps or documentary photos?

We used to under Henry Cole at the V&A. He was one of the first men to collect photography. The Victorians loved the whole idea of photography. Britain was in love with photography but unfortunately when television came along, one of the great periodicals that used photography, Picture Post, went into demise. It just wasn’t at the cutting edge.

Pictured above: Desiree Dolron, Xteriors VIII, 2006. © Desiree Dolron

Why was it more important in America than over here?

Because it was culturally viewed as an American culture. Kodak as a company and the champions of photography; Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White – these were people who were revered – [Alfred] Eisenstadt had his own office at Life.

They were given import whereas here, if you go to the Hulton Archive, you’ll see many great photographers’ photographs without a photographer’s name. You don’t find when you get your plumbing done, the plumber signs off the pipework. When a photographer went to go and make a photograph, he was paid to be a photographer.

Why didn’t the importance of photography in the Sixties and Seventies, for example David Bailey, filter through into a more artistic recognition of photography?

It’s a very good question and when I started the gallery it was the question that kept raising it’s ugly head. What are we dong here? We’re about to open a gallery that devotes itself mind, boy and spirit to the photograph and nobody’s totally interested.

Well, my view was people were interested but the story hadn’t been adapted for a 1990 crowd. There was a difference. There was a change happening. The problem had been that photographs were viewed as cheap objects, ultimately reproducible, not collectible, unless you were an anorak, like collecting baseball cards or the numbers off the front of a train.

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I remember sitting here buying some of the first photographs we bought. People thought I was nuts. ‘How can you spend $1,800 on a photograph that’s more than one copy?’ And it was a great question. My answer was that I believed that it was a very democratic art and that the fact that more than one person could own a piece of it, I liked that idea.

It allowed me as a young collector to be able to delve into what I considered to be masterpieces of that particular art. Whereas if I wanted to collect Picasso or Matisse, if I wanted to collect Modern art in drawing or painting form, the choice was gone.

The price was out my league and I looked at them as something I would only see in a museum, whereas photography gave me a very interesting opportunity to genuinely make a statement about what I liked, having a whole range of particular artists’ work when I’d grown up with photography.

Pictured above: Viviane Sassen, Kine, 2012. © Viviane Sassen. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Were you trying to facilitate a revolution in the way we saw photography? What were your aims?

It’s funny you should ask that because I was looking through the book last night and thought, God, I wish I could’ve taken only one of those photographs. What a happy guy I’d be and then I sort of extend the fantasy to them being all my photographs, what would I feel? And I certainly wouldn’t have started the gallery then. The gallery for me was a sort of crutch that I used for failing to be a good photographer. If I couldn’t do it then I need to champion the people that could.

And so quite consciously you wanted to elevate the form beyond the low level you thought it was esteemed at?

Well it obviously was because there were no museums really showing photography. The Royal Academy had just closed 150 Years of Photography which to date was one of the biggest queues the gates have ever had. I went up to Edinburgh to see The Waking Dream, which Maria Morris-Hambourg curated for the Met’s collection which belonged to Howard Gilman, which is still one of the great collections, and then fortunately enough I ended up in the Barbican, looking at Bruce Bernard’s selection called All Human Life.

Those three things basically kicked me into touch. I suddenly realised that there was this extraordinarily rich pile of incredible stuff that nobody was looking at here. There was this backlog of material that nobody had ever seen here, so it seemed like a no-brainer to me.

I had three children and no job and it was a slow start. It didn’t happen overnight because there are only a couple of galleries in London showing a very narrow range of materials, fashion-celebrity [photography] was pretty much what was being shown here.

There was Francis Hobson who now writes for the FT. I remember going to see a little Cartier-Bresson show that he put together in a tiny room underneath Centre Point. He and I were the only people in the room, talking, seeing these Cartier-Bressons which were only a few hundred pounds and I thought it was amazing.

It was a bit like going to Paris and going to some little basement under a bridge and seeing Picasso paintings and thinking, God, this is brilliant, how come nobody else is here?

Pictured above: Hugo Bernatzik, Bidyogo dancer. © Estate of Hugo Bernatzik

To me it didn’t feel like a risk, but when I think about it now it was a risk. We started it in ’91 which was the last big recession and I would say that recession is the best time to change people’s minds. People are very pliable and open to new ideas and you see it now. Everyone is looking for something new.

Photography I think provided that platform that launched a lot of careers that were contemporaneous with ’91 but also brought a lot of people who’d never been shown them. Eisenstadt had never had a show in England or Ralph Gibson never had a show in England. These were not what I would call Manrays or Picassos but they were people who genuinely had something interesting to say. And they didn’t have a venue or platform. To me, we sort of have had this very weird open road for years with no one doing it.

What kind of crowd was coming to your shows?

There was a really wide range of people. There were Americans who were living in London, there’s obviously the fact that London was and still is a centre for business. It was a bit like having a sort of soup kitchen. I thought, finally, there’s somewhere thy can go to.

What they used to do in New York on a Saturday was go the galleries and hang out and chat to other collectors. It wasn’t about buying, it was this disparate community in London. Suddenly, I was meeting people. We used to have people here hanging out and chatting, having coffee and having a glass of wine

This was a building that had been involved in photography since the end of the war. I’d sworn to the woman that I took the lease from that I’d maintain a photographic presence in the building. It was great to feel that there was some way that I could stick to my promise and enjoy myself and find the days extraordinary and interesting and somehow a business developed out of it. I am not a businessman. The by-product of doing what we’ve done is that people have come along and bought pictures.

How did attitudes change in the first few years? When did you get reviews in newspapers?

I remember the first review. We did a fair called the 20th Century Art Fair which takes place in the Royal College of Art every year and we’d been open probably a year and these two ladies approached me and asked me if I’d do it. They said it would be very unusual to have photography and Antony Thorncroft who wrote for the FT at the time wrote this piece about us at the fair.

It was all about the photographers. There was a picture of Dali’s walking stick by Bob Whittaker, there was a picture by Tessa Traeger. Mostly local home-spun photographers.

Pictured above: James Nasmyth and James Carpenter, Plates from ‘The Moon’, 1885

It was still the Americans of the French who would come in. The English were still very, very wary. There was that, ‘Oh, I can do that. I don’t need to buy one of those. I can make that.’ It took a number of years for me to feel that we actually had a genuine business.

We had one client who at about the end of year two came in here and offered me a project to work on that could turn the business around. It was a project for a big American company who liked what we were doing, they had been in here buying pictures for directors. They liked our style and they asked me to a build a mood book for their company, a visual mood book.

I was then commissioned to supply a huge quantity of photographs into one of their headquarters and that changed the business but suddenly instead of selling one photograph, one week somebody walked in and bought six hundred photographs.

Has that been your business model since?

Yes, we do some consultancy. We work on large projects, the sort of corporate projects tended to fade away. I’ll never forget when Lehmann Brothers collapsed. We spent two years working on their offices in London with an art consultant. I’m happy to say that when Lehman Brothers went bust and their assets were viewed as junk, the one asset that did do extremely well was their photographs, which they had paid £600-£800 for sold for over £4,000 or £5,000. The same happened to Enron with their art collection, same as Seagram.

It’s interesting to note that if you have somebody within a company who has a passion, you can build a collection that not only entertains. My lawyer told me this. He was a huge collector of art and his firm in Fleet Street was always like a treasure trove. You would walk in and there were always new paintings waiting to be hung and new furniture. Every penny was spent on art and I suppose I found that very influential.

Good art-buying can produce not only a good working environment for your staff but also can be an extremely good way of preserving the value of your money and art has continued to do that. What I liked about photography applies from the first year we started. It has been a very gentle incremental climb and there have not been the horror scares that you get when suddenly one artist goes through the roof, everyone piles in and before you know it, of course, it all comes down to earth. I don’t like that. I think it’s all about speculation and I’ve tried to keep speculation out of our business.

In this city now, where we sit today, there are probably more good photography shows than anywhere else in the world and that’s saying something of New York and Paris. We are getting more spaces here, devoting the time and the energy, focus and money to the printed image, the photographic image. The Tate have got a fantastic acquisition body, the V&A continues to collect, the Bradford collection of photography which incorporates the RPS collection will be coming to the Science Museum next year, the National Gallery is showing photography at the moment, so here we are twenty years later seeing a complete renaissance.

I think it is a renaissance. Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone would have believed that London would’ve taken the sort of role that it does take on the stage of photography.

Pictured above: Photographer Unknown, from The French House boxing collection, dates various. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Why is it having a renaissance now? What has prompted it in photography?

I think it speaks to a generation in a particular way. I see a generation that were twenty or 25 when I started the gallery and now they’re late forties or fifties. I think they have to come to a position where they have grown up with photography, they understand the language very well. When they look at a photograph, they can break it down and read it very quickly. We are fluent in that language.

Is there a reason this is happening? Is it because of the intense spread of availability of images? With cameraphones, everything is a photograph in waiting now, we’re snap-happier than ever.

I think that clouds the water but it also clarifies the water. I think there’s a lot of rubbish out there. There’s a lot of stuff but I think when people want to get interested in something, they want to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Does the relative cheapness of digital photography and SLRs mean we take the interest to another level?

Yes, I think it also makes the job of the professional or the true artist harder but then they can draw on that incredible amount of imagery that’s there to see. The good pictures do sing out, I mean there is an awful lot of tosh out there. There’s a lot of stuff that just by virtue of what you say, everyone’s got a camera on their phone. Never have so many people been able to create a picture or film by simply pushing a button.

When you go to an exhibition and you see a book by a great photographer and you look at the stuff, you can recognise that there is something else going on there. All the equipment that you’re talking about is simply tools: the internet, the camera, the iPhone are tools, just as different brushes, different types of paint, different styles of canvas. When you put those tools in the hand of somebody who knows how to use them in a particular way, that’s when something happens.

Do you think we now value photographs less?

It’s a question of how they’re presented which is where I think we come in. I think photographers and galleries and museums and people who are on the ground, as it were, are there to select certain pictures or certain bodies of work or certain artists and say, ‘These need to be viewed in a different ways.’

…Yes, there are huge process being paid for big pictures but behind all of that is this extraordinary opportunity for people to collect social history, to preserve it, to collect interpretation, whether it’s a picture of your favourite dancer, whether it’s a wonderful pastoral scene, whether it’s a conceptual work of art, photography seems to be able to seep and drip and find its way into almost any conversation.

The first picture of the Earth seen from the moon was a moment in history that we bought for a client the other day that was taken by NASA. That’s one of the original prints. The fact that you can still go and find that is amazing. Those are extraordinary moments that are somehow captured, preserved and I can’t tell you why I just find that photograph amazing beyond its scientific credentials.

Pictured above: Unknown Photographer, Pisa, December, 1875. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Do you think that photography has survived the internet era rather well?

If you could imagine stripping all visual content out of the internet – photographs of paintings, photographs of people etc – it would have a huge social network energy, but I think its usage, its ability to transmit, would be somewhat less interesting.

…Press photographer Enrique Metinides has a picture of a woman who has died in a car crash. For me, it’s part of the role that photographers have to bring home, a visceral truth of birth, life and death and everything in between. That reminds me of a film by Buñuel. It’s a tough picture to take but I also think that it’s an extraordinary image. It’s totally riveting. I looked at your eyes when you looked at that picture and you get drawn straight into it.

How many pictures are there in the collection?

The collection is nearly up to a thousand pictures.

There must be a few pictures in your time as dealer that you wish you could have kept.

Almost every single one. Every picture that we’ve bought here, everything is here is owned by us. Of course I’d like to hang it on my wall as it is a wrench to see things go. We’ve built a collection of Hungarian photography that’s taken a long time to put together. Last year at the Royal Academy we sold a lot of things I wish we’d never sold. I’m never going to be able to find another copy of these things again.

I’m pretty happy with the things we’ve been able to keep but we’ve sold many thousands of great pictures that of course I wish I still had, but that’s not the role that I’ve decided to take.

What do you think connect most things in the collection?

We have conceptual work here, we have landscapes, abstractions etc. This is a very subconscious collection. I haven’t set out to create a collection. I suppose it’s a very honest appraisal of who I am. There hasn’t been a doctoring or tinkering around with this. The only thing I set out to say was that I didn’t want a book of trophies: I wanted a book full of pictures in which I genuinely like what’s in the picture, not because of who it’s by, not because of how much it’s worth, not because of the battle to find it.

Photographs are absolutely traces of what happened – the camera somehow preserved that moment, you’ve fixed it, you’ve added your caption, placed it into context and if it’s good enough, it will continue to resonate. And it’s only 170 years old as opposed to three thousand years of paining. This stuff is really at its infancy, which makes this business or working within it so fascinating because you’re actually creating the rules as you go along.

Where do you think the photography market is going?

I don’t know. I’ve just grabbed hold of the tails and I’m hanging on for dear life because it’s moving very fast at the moment.

It’s changing. I think we noticed in Paris this year that there’s this real sense that older work is going, it’s running out, it’s gone. Some of the prices that people were asking for things were just unbelievable. You’d look at something and it was a few thousand dollars a few years ago and is now maybe five-ten-fifteen times that.

How do you feel about Photoshop?

It’s a tool. It’s a bit like a rubber. It depends whose hands it’s in and what the photograph is intended for. If the intent of the photograph is to show you how somebody looked or what happened and if you alter that you’re being disingenuous and I think you are in danger of becoming simply becoming a fraud. That applies to almost every aspect of photography. If, on the other hand, you are open about using the photograph in that way, I see Photoshop as an elemental part of the process.

Do you think people have an instinctive trust in the truth of a photo?

Not any more. I think if people knew what before Photoshop you could do – I remember being at the Hulton Archive, seeing a picture captioned ‘British solider covers refugees in Crete in World War Two’ that was made up of six different photographs that was a fake from Ministry of Defence. You realise how much photography and painting are used in exactly the same way.

Are we more cynical now?

Yeah, I think historically with photography there’s an element of it which lends itself to being somewhat cleaner than maybe more contemporary work because it for the most part hasn’t been tinkered with. I do question everything that comes in and I like people who play with the technology. There’s a positive creative side to the tool as well.

Do you take photos on your iPhone?

No, I still shoot a lot of film though and it takes me a long time to process, edit etc. We had a lab in the basement where we could turn around a film in an hour and now it’s more like three or four days.

A lot of the photographers we work with are going back to the alchemy, realising that the technology is there to be disassembled and re-assembled in their own particular way rather than pushing everything through the sausage factory of Photoshop.

Everyone has the same Photoshop, printer and computer so if you want to get a lot of great individual objects, you need to interrupt that process and add your own alchemy to it.

Finders Keepers: 20 Years – A Dealer’s Collection is on at Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, Chelsea, until 31 January 2013

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