The veteran New York gallerist, who has long promoted photography as a serious art form, offers up a few tips for collectors.
by Ted Loos
August 1, 2016
Among his peers, photography dealer James Danziger has a unique background: He had a whole other career in journalism before opening his New York gallery in 1990. London-reared and Yale-educated — an upbringing that explains his in-between, trans-Atlantic accent — Danziger was named the photo editor of the Sunday Times of London at 25 and later worked on both words and pictures for editor Tina Brown at Vanity Fair in New York.
“I wanted to do my own thing, and the only thing I thought I was qualified to do was open a photography gallery,” says Danziger, now 62. “So I opened one in Soho, representing Elliott Erwitt, Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson — people I knew from the magazine world.”
In the 26 years since, Danziger has risen to the top of the heap, becoming one of the handful of gallerists who have helped photography be taken seriously by the rest of the art world.
These days, contemporary photographs by such artists as Chuck Close, Christopher Bucklow and Susan Derges compose about 75 percent of his exhibitions and inventory; the remaining quarter is devoted to vintage and modern work by the likes of O. Winston Link, Andy Warhol and Inge Morath. He even throws in a painting show from time to time, just to keep things interesting.
Currently, Danziger exhibits at five art fairs, which have become an increasingly big part of his business, and he says he is thrilled to have been accepted into the prestigious Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), which stages the highly attended Art Show, held every winter at the Park Avenue Armory.
Danziger’s summer exhibition, on view through August 12, features noted street artist Michael De Feo, also known as The Flower Guy. He’s not a photographer, but rather works with finished images, and has developed a following by painting floral interventions on fashion ads and editorials, including the big ones in bus shelters. “We like to have fun in the summer,” Danziger says. “It’s extra-populist and accessible.”
After 12 years in Chelsea, Danziger moved to the Lower East Side in February. There, sitting in his new space on Rivington Street, he talked to 1stdibs about the photography market, how he advises collectors and his own taste in pictures.
The De Feo show prominently features an untitled 2016 acrylic painting atop a Louis Vuitton bus-stop shelter advertisement. The ad depicts actress Alicia Vikander, shot by Patrick Demarchelier.
“I wanted to do my own thing, and the only thing I thought I was qualified to do was open a photography gallery,” Danziger says, modestly, of his switch to art dealing from a career in journalism during which he worked on both pictures and words for Tina Brown at Vanity Fair. On the wall behind him hangs Karen Knorr’s Sikander’s Entrance, 2014.
Left: De Feo painted this 2015 work on an image of Dutch model Julia Bergshoeff shot by Josh Olin for The Last Magazine. Right: A work on a Calvin Klein ad with pop star Justin Bieber shot by Tyrone Lebon hangs above one on an editorial portrait of transgender actor, model and writer Hari Nef shot by Terry Richardson for Wonderland Magazine; both are from 2016.
At the gallery, photography boxes sit in neat piles.
What’s the question that gallerygoers ask you most frequently?
It’s funny, whenever we have a show, someone asks, “What makes these good?” I don’t like galleries where they follow you around giving you art-speak. I want people to understand that serious galleries only show what they truly believe in, though every gallery has a different aesthetic. If you’re drawn to the aesthetic, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re being tricked and they’re just trying to sell you something. People don’t open photography galleries to get rich.
So what is your aesthetic?
Because of my background in journalism, I’m drawn to things of a graphic nature. My taste and interest are in images that are accessible and yet have a certain quality to them. Let me put it this way: I am not afraid of images that are pleasing. I am drawn to images that are harmonious, as opposed to ones that are in your face.
Among the artists Danziger represents is the British-born Christopher Bucklow. To create works such as Tetrarch 2:47pm, January 20th, 2011 (left), and Tetrarch 2, 2016 (right), Bucklow projects a model’s silhouette onto a piece of foil and then fills it in with thousands of pinholes to allow the sun to expose individual sheets of color photographic paper. All photos in this slideshow courtesy of Danziger Gallery
Earlier this year, Danziger mounted “The Medium,” a show of new work by mid-career artist Liz Neilson. She creates photograms — including Concert Flame, 2016, seen at center — by cutting, shaping, layering, drawing on and assembling transparent color gels into the equivalent of a negative, then projecting various sources of light onto photographic paper. Essentially, she paints with light, creating work that the gallery refers to as photographic Abstract Expressionism.
A spring 2015 show at the gallery focused on the photography of Inge Morath and the photo collages of Enoc Perez. It included the Morath silver gelatin print above, part of a 1959–63 collaboration with artist and illustrator Saul Steinberg, who created the paper-bag masks.
A photogram series by British artist Susan Derges, which Danziger showed in his last gallery space, includes Star Field Bridge (left) and Rowan Bridge, both from 2013.
This past spring, the gallery mounted “Closer,” a show of Mark Cohen’s street photography from the early-to-mid 1970s. On the back wall is NYC, 1973.
In June, the gallery mounted “Reviver,” the fifth edition of its shows devoted to work by the Yale University School of Art’s graduating photography MFA students. At the center is an untitled 2015 work by Monique Atherton that consists of a portrait of the artist taken by William Sacco on the hood of a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS.
What’s the first thing a beginning photography collector should know?
Collecting photography remains a very specialized proposition. You have to understand the factors that apply only to that medium. I think the main thing is editioning: If someone says they’re going to do an edition of five, you have to believe it’s in their interest to do an edition of five. If they secretly print extra ones, people need to understand that would destroy the whole market.
Because photography is a medium of multiples, there is a kind of check and balance for buyers: You can easily check with one dealer on what another dealer is doing, or use auction prices to find out more. Value is a little more objective and less subjective than in a medium that’s just unique pieces.
What’s the last piece you bought?
It was a Richard Avedon picture of John Glenn in his space suit but with his helmet off. I was acquiring it for the gallery.
Being a sole owner, there’s a somewhat flexible line — I can just buy it and see what happens. But I’m not one of these dealers who keeps the best things for himself.
It’s such a striking image, and I’ve always been interested in portraiture. We’ll do a show on the theme of faces next year, so I have it in mind for that. It’s always harder to find great pictures of men than of women. So that’s always an extra incentive to acquire one.
“Like the early photographers who found in India a wealth of exotic subject matter, Knorr celebrates the visual richness of the myths and stories of northern India. Blending meticulously photographed analog interiors with digital pictures of live animals, Knorr fuses the two modes of photography. The results are original and stunning images that reinvent the Panchatantra (an ancient Indian collection of animal fables) for the 21st century and further blur the boundaries between reality and illusion.”
“A pioneer in photographic Abstract Expressionism, Nielsen audaciously experiments with photographic process. To make her pictures, she cuts, draws on, and assembles transparent color gels into a handmade ‘negative’ through which she projects varied light sources onto photographic paper — from an enlarger light to lasers to cellphone lights (and everything in-between). These different lights allow Nielsen to essentially paint onto the paper in broad to narrow strokes. Color fields wash or overlap, small forms appear within forms, shapes shift, allowing her to further explore the expressive potential of color.”
“Since 1995, Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens has been photographing his daughter, Paula, and this makes up his complete oeuvre. His photographs have been collected by museums around the world and have inspired tastemakers, including Elton John and Alexander McQueen. The portraits of Paula are clearly reminiscent of Dutch seventeenth-century painting. The austerity of the photograph, its clarity, the serene expression on the young girl’s face and, not least, the characteristic ‘Dutch’ light all combine to create this impression. However, Kerstens is not just imitating painting. Using everyday props and materials, such as the shaving cream on Paula’s head in this picture, he creates a conceptual and humorous dialogue between past and present.”
“Ian Ruhter’s work, following in the steps of the great nineteenth-century American landscape photographers, transform the imagery of the West into a scale unimaginable in their time. Obsessed with perfecting the wet-plate collodion process, but eager to move from the traditionally small hand-held plates to something larger, Ruhter had his epiphany when he realized he needed to shoot from within the camera to create the size of wet plates he had envisioned. To achieve this, Ruhter converted a large delivery truck into a giant mobile camera and traveling darkroom. Creating unique large-scale collodion wet plates up to forty-eight by sixty inches (as well as making same-scale archival pigment prints from the collodion plates), Ruhter blends old and new technologies to create powerful and resonant artworks.”
“Jim Krantz occupies a unique place in the history of contemporary art and photography. His pictures of cowboys were re-photographed by Richard Prince, and those pieces became not only the highest-selling images ever to be auctioned but were used as banners by the Guggenheim Museum when it held its 2007 mid-career retrospective of Prince’s work. It was not an accident that Prince selected Krantz’s work. The quality and emotive resonance of the Western Krantz images turns these photographs into heroic scenes that tap directly into the American psyche.”
“Since 2010, Thierry Cohen has devoted himself to a single project – his ‘Darkened Cities’ series – which depicts the major metropolises of the world as they would appear at night without light pollution, or in more poetic terms: how they would look if we could see the stars. To achieve this, Cohen photographs each city, seeking out views that resonate for him and noting the precise time, angle and latitude and longitude of his exposure. As the earth rotates around its axis, the stars that were visible above that particular city at that particular time move to deserts, plains and other places free of light pollution. By noting the precise latitude, Cohen is able to track the earth’s rotation to places of atmospheric clarity, like the Mojave or the Sahara, where he subsequently sets up his camera to record the full brilliance of the same stars from this new location. Compositing the two photographs, Cohen creates a single new image, full of resonance and nuance, that reconnects us to the infinite energy of the stars.”