Photography. Through The Eyes Of A Collector
By Erin O'Toole

Erin O’Toole is the Assistant Curator of Photography for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and David Mahoney is an art collector living in San Francisco. Camerawork commissioned this interview as a way to explore the ways in which a collection of photographs can be built over time.

Erin O’Toole: What was the first photograph you ever purchased?

David Mahoney: It was a William Clift picture called “Black Mesa,” which I bought in the Fall of 1975. I was unemployed and broke, but my sister, a photographer herself and a friend of Clift’s, was breaking up a copy of his New Mexico portfolio and I just fell in love with that print. It would be almost five years before I was in any position to buy my next photograph.

EO’T: Do you still own it?

DM: I do. In fact, over ten years later (when I was considerably less unemployed) I found a copy of the entire portfolio at auction and bought it. So I guess you could say I bought my first photograph twice.

EO’T: Tell me a little about your early development as a collector.

DM: In addition to being a wonderful photographer, my sister was also an art historian and a teacher. From her I learned the full history of photography, and set out to start collecting what I could afford and liked without any boundaries. After I moved to San Francisco in 1981, I was literally all over the map, and bought wonderful (and cheap) British and French pictures of the Middle East, Dick Arentz platinum prints, Edward Curtis gravures, Frank Sutcliffe albumen prints, etc. I was reading Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, Lee Witkin’s The Photograph Collectors Guide and John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs to understand the context better, and looking at everything I could get to at SFMOMA, galleries, and the local auction house, Butterfield’s.

EO’T: Any memorable early collecting experiences that you would care to relate?

DM: I bought my first print at auction at Butterfield’s around 1984, a beautiful John Bullock platinum print landscape. I had seen the print, thought it was absolutely stunning, but didn’t have the courage to spend $150 for it until I found Bullock mentioned in Newhall’s book, which I took as an OK to pursue it. Years later, when Szarkowski was in San Francisco for the opening of an exhibition of his own work at SFMOMA, we gave a cocktail reception at my house, and that Bullock print was on the wall. Though he and I were probably the only two people there who knew what it was, he spent five minutes giving me a lecture on why it was such a good print and how much he respected Bullock. That felt like more of a validation than even the mention in Newhall’s book! The other people who really influenced me at this time were the late Merrily Page, and some of the dealers who were so generous with their time when I was starting out, including Tom Halsted, Mack Lee and Simon Lowinski. Merrily had a fantastic (and highly opinionated) eye, and unlike many people I have met since, she had the very rare talent for not teaching you her vision but helping you find yours. She helped me to gain the confidence to do the kind of “off the map” collecting I do now, as well as giving me early access to wonderful work by Wright Morris, Lewis Baltz, and others.

EO’T: At what point did you start thinking of yourself as a collector?

DM: 1985 was a turning point for me, and probably about the time I started to think of myself as a collector. That was the year I went to my first AIPAD (Association of International Photography Dealers) show (at the Claremont Hotel), and met Tom Halsted, Ursula Gropper and other pioneering dealers for the first time, as well as met Merrily and Tony Page, and attended my first SF Camerawork Auction.

EO’T: Have you ever sold any photographs that you bought early on in order to refine your collection?

DM: I have donated some prints, but I have yet to sell any. About 15 years ago I sat down to look at what I had acquired and concluded that based on my resources, eye, the accidents of availability and luck, and where I live, the real core of the collection was American photography, with a particular skew toward the West. At that time I considered selling the prints I owned by people like Frederick Evans, Josef Sudek, Édouard Baldus, and Alvin Langdon Coburn, which I had bought when I was working on “the history of photography,” but found that I still loved them too much to part with them. Even though they are not relevant to the collection as it has evolved, they are part of the story of my collecting, and I can’t bring myself to part with them. Many of them also fill holes or build depth in the SFMOMA collection, so at this point it wouldn’t feel right to sell them.

EO’T: Are there any photographs that you had a chance to acquire but didn’t, and now regret having passed them over?

DM: More than I can count! Two that still hurt, though, were a couple of beautiful Carleton Watkins mammoth plate pictures from the Columbia River series. At the time I found them I had a rule that I would not go into debt to buy a picture (even though they were only a fraction of what they would go for now), so I expressed interest in them, and said I would be back. A few months later I got a bonus and went back to buy them, but in the interim a dealer had found them and bought them. I have tried to learn the lesson from that to think carefully whether I’m ever likely to see that picture again, and stretch if I think I won’t.

EO’T: Budding collectors are often advised to devise themes or select narrow time windows to help them focus and guide their collecting. I know you have set up parameters for your own collection. What are they, and why do you feel they are necessary?

DM: I did not respond very well to that that kind of advice early on, but now see its wisdom. I have three broad parameters that have evolved in my collecting. First, it is a collection of American photographs on paper (no daguerreotypes) that spans the history of the medium from the 1850s to the present, and ideally shows something about the American experience - historically, socially, or artistically. I have a catholic view about what constitutes an “American” photograph. By my definition a portrait of an American teenager taken in the United States by the French artist Lise Sarfati counts, but not a picture of Paris by the American artist Todd Webb. Second, I collect almost exclusively parallel to the SFMOMA collection, with the intent that the vast majority of the collection will end up there. If the Museum already has a particular print, I will not buy another one, except in very rare instances. And third, partially as a result of the second parameter, while the collection includes important work by core members of the accepted “canon” of photographic history, as much as possible I spend my time being a contrarian to that canon. I am happiest when I am seeing beautiful work by forgotten, neglected or unknown artists who provide essential context to better understand the true complexity of not just our photographic history, but our national history. In the words of Keith Davis, “Only by keeping our historical sense ‘properly complicated’ can we hope to convey the texture of lived experience, and the meaning of photographs both to their own time and to ours.” I am not very good at taking direction, and have tried to turn that flaw into an advantage as it gives me the courage to ignore fashion and strike out on my own. This led me to what was a very fruitful time collecting forgotten and under- appreciated artists of the 1970s when very few others seemed to be paying attention to a period of American photography, one rivaled only by the 1930s in terms of the explosion of interest and democratization of the medium. Unfortunately for me, that window seems to be closing now, and I will have to find my next time frame, movement, or set of artists to bring back into the light. As to the general value of having boundary conditions or parameters around your collecting, I now have the passion of the converted. Instead of limiting my collecting, I really believe such boundaries have set me free.

EO’T: A great example of how you have collected “in parallel” with SFMOMA is your incredibly generous recent gift of forty- three California photographs that you have promised to the museum as part of the collections campaign for the new building, slated to open in 2016. Can you describe the gift and how it fits with SFMOMAs collection?

DM: It is a group of prints that spans 101 years of California photography, from 1888 to 1989, and from Carleton Watkins to Henry Wessel. Despite the wonderful depth and breadth of SFMOMA’s collection, it was very gratifying to be able to both fill in some holes in the collection (e.g., Benjamen Chinn, Arnold Hylen, Dain Tasker, Leopold Hugo) and add some depth to other areas of need (e.g., 1930’s Edward Weston nudes, Minor White from his SF period, Karl Struss, Jay deFeo).

EO’T: Is there a photograph in that gift that is a particular favorite of yours, or one that comes with an especially interesting story?

DM: Well, I love them all, of course, but I will talk about a couple. The first is by a photographer very few people know, Arnold Hylen, who documented the Bunker Hill section of LA in the 1950s before it was bulldozed for “urban renewal.” It is an incredibly beautiful print that shows the old houses that are soon to disappear in shadow, while the new City Hall building gleams in the background. Because Hylen’s family donated his estate to the State Library on his death, I have never seen print since I bought this one over 10 years ago. The other is a diptych by Herve Friend from 1892, showing the city of Redlands and its orange orchards, which were made possible by an early irrigation system. Like the Hylen, the diptych may not be particularly valuable, but is extremely rare, and will be the only 19th century Southern California mammoth plate prints in SFMOMA’s collection. Both these examples remind me that I am truly my father’s son. While not a big fan of the visual arts, he was a history professor, and I learned from him the social and political context in which to place the pictures I collect. I often find that I don’t have the language to explain why an image appeals to me aesthetically, but I can be quite articulate about how it illustrates something important about the American experience.

EO’T: Any advice for buying at auction?

DM: At the risk of being obvious, do your homework! I spend a fair amount of time looking at auction catalogs online and previewing in person to stay current with the market and to identify things that I would never have seen otherwise. Since I do not always have the time to preview work myself, I depend on friends and the dealer network I have built up over the years to be my eyes. I am very dedicated to the beauty of the object itself, not just the image, so it is crucial to have developed a set of standards of print quality that I know is shared with the people who I have look at prints for me. In my experience auction houses are generally not misleading in their condition reports, but it is a very rare report that speaks to what I call “print presence.” My favorite prints are those that still cause my breath to catch a bit when I look at them, when another print of the same image might be accurately described as “excellent” or “pristine” but could be completely lacking in soul. As to pricing, estimates are usually meaningless and I try to understand retail pricing from dealers (when that is possible) and look at Artnet to get a sense of the pricing history for that artist at auction if it exists. I have a strong aversion to leaving absentee bids since they fail to let you react to what is going on in the auction room, so I try whenever possible to bid on the phone either directly with the auction house, or (preferably) by being on the phone with a friend in the room who can give me a sense of who I am bidding against. While I think I’ve been reasonably disciplined, some of my best purchases in hindsight have been when I have been willing to go that next increment (or two!) up in price when I am very confident in what I am chasing and its rarity. The question I ask myself at that moment is whether I would be happier with the money (saved) or the print. Often the print wins, which I guess is just another way of saying I’m a collector.