A Candid Chat with Lee D. Witkin
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, May 1982 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
In 1969, Lee D. Witkin (1935-1984) quit his comfortable job as a writer for a construction magazine. Against all advice, and with only a few thousand dollars and the then not widely accepted conviction that photography is art, he opened the Witkin Gallery. To everyone’s surprise, even Witkin’s, the gallery prospered. It’s now New York City’s oldest photography gallery and has established residence at a prestigious address in midtown Manhattan after outgrowing humbler settings twice. Now, a successful gallery and two books (The Photography Collector’s Guide and A Ten Year Salute) behind him, Witkin grumbles about overhead and overtime, seethes about unscrupulous dealers, would-be artists and status-seekers, and generally regrets the passing of the old days. But through it all, his pioneering spirit still glimmers as he contemplates the next step in his gallery’s evolution.
JB: Would you say you represent photographs or photographers?
LW: I represent photographers, and actually, that’s changing now so that I’m representing creative people period. What’s happened is that we’ve gone from one extreme to another. In 1969, hardly anyone paid any attention to the great photographers in America and Europe, and they were delighted when I called them. I had a little hole-in-the-wall gallery and no background as a dealer, yet I was able to get photographs by Steichen, Ansel Adams, the Westons, Imogen Cunningham, Lartigue, Bill Brandt, Brassai, and many other major photographers. There wasn’t any door that was really closed, and the humility on the part of these great photographers was truly astounding. Imogen Cunningham was asking $15 for her prints and was pleased to get that much. Now it’s a different story. I think it must be emphasized that photography is just a medium and merely because one takes pictures and calls oneself a photographer doesn’t mean one has the right to call oneself an artist deserving of shows and books. So, if I emphasize the individual and move the medium to the second line, maybe some of the current crop of young people will realize it’s the artist who counts, not the medium.
JB: Let’s get back to 1969. In A Ten Year Salute, a number of people who’ve been involved with the Witkin Gallery since it opened reminisce about those first ten years, and many of those who were around during the planning stages remember being dubious that the gallery would succeed. With all that negative reinforcement, what made you so sure?
LW: What was important to me was never the gallery’s success. In fact, I didn’t expect it to succeed. I was doing it because I wanted to have made an effort, sometime in my life, to get involved in something I originated and cared about, rather than going from college to a job and finding myself sixty years old and my life over. I didn’t care whether it worked out or not, as long as I’d made the attempt.
JB: How old were you then?
LW: I was very old. That’s one of the reasons I started the gallery when I did. I was thirty-three.
JB: Very old?
LW: When you’re a teenager and then all of a sudden you’re thirty-three, it’s frightening. I felt that if I didn’t change my life in my early thirties, there was no hope of ever changing my life.
JB: What were you doing up to your thirty-third birthday?
LW: I graduated from New York University as an English major and took a job near home in South Orange, New Jersey, as a news editor for Constructioneer magazine. It was a good job, and it was really interesting. I drove around the Mid-Atlantic States covering construction projects. I was paid well and had all kinds of benefits—Blue Cross, profit sharing, retirement, and a car allowance. There were other reasons for taking and keeping the job. We had a hardship at home, and I had to be around most of the time. Then, when my parents died, I was free for the first time in my life. During the two years after my mother died, I saved all the money I could, and then opened the Witkin Gallery.
JB: Your first show was a group show, and you exhibited the work of Scott Hyde, George Krause, Duane Michals, George Tice, and Burk Uzzle. Was there any particular reason for choosing these photographers to mark the gallery’s debut?
LW: It happened basically by chance. I saw Burk Uzzle’s work in a magazine. I met George Tice by chance. Then, when the gallery was actually open, people would come in and ask me to get the work of this or that photographer. Soon, the customer’s requests led me to approach the photographers they were interested in. During the gallery’s first summer, I closed up for July and went to California, where I met Cole Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater, Jack Welpott, and a lot of other fine photographers. That resulted in my representing them.
So, for a long time, it was chance that determined who we represented. Then, somewhere in the middle, it became obvious that we had to be a little more selective, only because you can’t handle everyone in the world. You take stock of what you have and fill in areas you’re weak in. If you have a couple of photographers who represent one kind of work, you say no if someone working in the same way comes along.
JB: In glancing over the list of photographers who’ve exhibited at Witkin, I noticed that as time progressed, you held fewer and fewer group shows and more and more one- or two-photographer shows. Any particular reason for that?
LW: Well, in the beginning the individual photographer wasn’t that much of a draw. Then too, a lot of photographers, young as well as old, were in possession of very few of their prints. I’d get just a handful of prints from them. Later on, when it became obvious things were taking off, photographers wanted larger representations of their work and were able to provide more prints. They also began to decide they wanted to show alone, rather than with other people.
JB: When did you first realize that the gallery was a success?
LW: Actually, not until 1974 or 1975. I kept working so hard, and things kept going so fast, it never occurred to me that it was going to last. I suppose I never let myself believe it before then because I’m very cautious. I don’t trust good fortune. But by then, I had to believe it. I don’t know if I could say I was delighted. Doing something that you don’t have the responsibility of believing in is like living a fantasy, but when you know it’s real, that it’s going to last, at least for a while, the fantasy flees, and you find yourself saying, “Well, this is success, and now I’ve got to pay my dues.”
JB: Is that what you’re doing now? Paying your dues?
LW: Absolutely. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. I have more overhead. And a lot of the joy is gone. It’s the nature of man to grow disillusioned with his routines and the things he has. I still love what I’m doing. I really do. But every once in a while, I get the feeling that I’ve had enough. But then I ask myself, what would I rather do?
JB: When did other photography galleries begin to follow you?
LW: Marge Neikrug opened her gallery a year or so after me, and Light Gallery opened about two-and-a-half years after I did. Some of the major art galleries decided to show one or two photographers, as well as artists working in other mediums. Then the whole thing really exploded. There were galleries opening everyplace. We’d get four, five phone calls a day in the mid-seventies: “Hi, I’m calling from Timbuktu, and I’m opening a photography gallery. Will you tell me how to do it?”
It was amazing. People thought we were in the business of advising. And we got hurt because we did help a lot of people. We lent a lot of work that we either didn’t get back and never got paid for, or got back in shabby condition. This has hurt me very much, and I’ve learned that I can’t give prints to people, even friends, because the gallery can’t afford to lose that kind of money. This causes resentment. For some reason, people feel that because I was the first and I’m succeeding, I have a moral obligation to help them. You’d be surprised what people decide you owe them.
JB: What struck me when I first walked in here was how different the Witkin Gallery looks from any other photography gallery I’ve visited. It’s comfortable, with couches in the center of the room and bookcases full of books, as well as photographs. Nowadays, it seems the fashion in gallery décor is toward the cold and stark, with white walls and empty floor space. You were the first photography gallery to really become a success. Why do you think more galleries haven’t copied your “look”?
LW: Well, you build a certain kind of nest if you’re a certain kind of bird. I like comfort, and I like clutter. I collected etchings and paintings and books and things for about ten years before I opened the gallery. The galleries and bookstores I visited where I was comfortable and people were pleasant brought me a great deal of joy. The places where the noses were up in the air and there was a kind of sterility—I went in and I left quickly. So when I started my gallery, I wanted to incorporate the things that made me happy in other galleries. It’s my nature to want to talk to people and sit down with them. A lot of people feel there’s a lack of dignity in that. They feel that if you’re not cold and arrogant, you’re not as dignified as you should be. It’s ridiculous. Who are you going to impress with white walls? I hate to go into a gallery where no one even looks up when you come in to acknowledge your presence, to acknowledge you’re human. And art is the most human of all things in the world. A lot of very stupid, ignorant people are involved in the art world. They don’t know what they’re dealing with, and their way of handling questions is to be arrogant, so they’re not exposed. I just never bought that.
JB: Do you frequent any of the other photography galleries?
LW: I used to. There used to be a small golden group. Everyone came to my openings, and I went to everybody else’s. That’s when there were three or four galleries in town. But as happens when success raises its head, you begin to have fallings out. It got to be so that if I went to other galleries, I would be insulted, or my brain would be picked, or I’d be fawned over. It made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t see why I should go and experience that. Life’s too short. I do go to other galleries, but they aren’t in my field, and I maintain friendships with other dealers all over the country. The galleries here in New York just became too competitive. A lot of things happened that I couldn’t forgive. Photographers were asked to leave me to go to these other galleries. My nature is such that when that happens, fine, but I can’t be a friend with someone who, behind my back, is trying to take my photographers away from me. So it was easier not to see these people than to see them under hypocritical circumstances.
JB: In terms of fame and power, do you think newer galleries have eclipsed the Witkin Gallery?
LW: I’ve always been panicky about something like that happening, but it was inevitable. I’ve never had a lot of money, and money means power. It means being able to go to an artist and say, “I’ll give you so much more money.” Since most artists need money, they’ll go. I’ve never had a vast amount of money or some kind of syndicate behind me, and some galleries are very, very rich and do incredible things. They produce fantastic catalogs, mount fabulous shows and advertise, send shows abroad, offer artists a guaranteed income. I’ve had to accept that. I’m not in that league. First of all, don’t forget, I opened my gallery in a hole in the wall with six thousand dollars. So the fact that I’ve come this far is a miracle. I’ve never had any pretensions about being a giant because I just didn’t have that kind of money. Now I realize I wouldn’t want to be a giant. It’s not in my nature to wield that kind of power. No, I don’t feel I’ve been eclipsed, because I’ve been singular and different. I stand for the quiet qualities that these other galleries don’t have—which some people still admire—and that’s my uniqueness.
JB: Let’s talk a bit about your modus operandi. What are your criteria for representing a photographer?
LW: Well, as I said before, a lot of the relationships evolved by chance, but basically, I have to respond to the work. It’s really a gut feeling. I work closely with my staff, and there have been cases where I did not personally respond to the work. I had to be a little more objective and say even so, I believe this is good and important. It doesn’t “hit” me, but I have to step outside myself. Lee Friedlander, for example. I never truly responded to his work, but we did represent him for a while because I felt it was my limitation rather than his. Only time will tell.
I don’t do that very often. I like to exhibit what I like, and because my taste is eclectic, I feel I can do that and still have a broad range. I like old-fashioned work, historical work, mixed media, color, black-and-white. We represent all kinds of styles and all kinds of photographers—young, old, middle-aged, famous, not so famous, European, American.
JB: Do you have a personal favorite photograph or photographer?
LW: There are lots of photographers I particularly respond to. When I was a child I often came into the city with my mother, so Berenice Abbott’s New York is very, very meaningful to me, and there are a lot of her pictures in my house. I also have a lot of Imogen Cunningham’s and George Tice’s work. But I have thousands of prints in my collection that I just bought because I liked them, so it’s very difficult to pinpoint favorites. I have a lot of favorites. Probably more favorites than anybody else.
JB: Do your feelings toward photographs change over time?
LW: Usually not. My nature isn’t such that I suddenly turn and say, “I don’t like this anymore, and I don’t now why I ever liked it.” I’m very sentimental. If I like something, I usually go on liking it forever. That’s why my place is such a mess.
JB: When you look at a photographer’s work, is your response to it colored by whether or not you feel it will be saleable?
LW: No, and it never has been because I don’t know what’s saleable. Barbara Morgan was in my second show, and I remember that as we were looking at her prints, she would pick one out and say, “I’m sure this will sell.” In most cases, something else sold. Now when people say, “This will sell,” I smile. It’s a statement you can’t make. I’m constantly astounded by what does and does not sell. And it isn’t really important. If we put up a good show with a lot of images, hopefully enough people will come in, and each will respond to something different, and we’ll sell enough. But what’s happened, in fact, is that collectors all want the same picture now. They’re not interested in buying a good image that hasn’t been reproduced to death or isn’t in a museum. They want famous pictures. So not only can I not predict what will sell, but also when an image becomes popular and everybody wants it, it’s very depressing. I get people who know nothing about the medium and who weren’t inclined to collect art to begin with but want what they see in their friends’ houses. They’re keeping up with the Joneses. Art deserves more than that. For the first five to seven years, we did get people who were interested in photography for the right reasons. They didn’t have to be convinced it was an art, and there was no prestige in collecting it because photography was still considered a stepchild. But now that photography’s fashionable, you get people who know nothing and want to buy it for the wrong reasons. Sadly, the people who used to buy for the right reasons have been priced out of the market.
JB: What images are most popular?
LW: Jerry Uelsmann’s “Cloud Room,” Judy Dater’s “Imogen and Twinka,” George Tice’s “Petit Mobil Stations and Water Tower,” Ansel’s “Moonrise,” Edward Weston’s “Pepper 30.” I could go on and on. Each photographer has one or two classics that people want.
JB: And the more popular it is the more expensive it is.
LW: Yes. In a lot of cases the photographers up the price of particular images hoping to limit sales. Ironically enough, this doesn’t stop people from buying. A lot of people want them even more. It’s very peculiar. Within a certain context, price has very little relationship to salability.
JB: Do you set a limit on the number of prints a photographer can make from any given negative?
LW: No, never. Photography is a graphic multiple medium and the negative quality does not diminish on subsequent printings as the plate for an etching might. And over the years, papers change, photographers’ interpretations of their negatives change. I know most of the people I represent, and I know they don’t print indiscriminately. Most photographers, if they’re concerned with their work, aren’t about to sabotage its value by overprinting. Also, it’s very hard to make a print. People say, “Well, you can make thousands and thousands.” Yes, theoretically it is possible, but a photographer would go out of his mind spending all that time in the darkroom printing the same image over and over. Actually, my biggest problem is getting the photographer to make one print, not that he may make too many.
JB: I understand you’ve made it a policy not to review the work of photographers who drop in unannounced, portfolios in hand.
LW: What we require before we look at a portfolio is a letter of recommendation from someone in the field to show us that someone who knows what he’s talking about thinks highly of this person’s work. Then we make an appointment at our mutual convenience to look at the work. A lot of people are incredibly selfish. They walk in the door with their portfolios and demand immediate attention. When they don’t get it, they’re furious. That’s too bad. It seems to me that our conditions are reasonable.
We do take new work occasionally, but less increasingly, because we just don’t have enough space, and the work that’s being produced today by most people is very derivative. It’s very difficult to find a bright new eye. I recently judged several shows around the country, and I could tell who most applicants had studied with, or what work had impressed them. Which isn’t necessarily bad. It just never occurred before because there wasn’t the vast communication there is today with books, workshops, exhibitions, etc. When I started out, I had virtually the pick of 130 years of work. The photographers we represented the first few years had been working for decades and had bodies of work. All the others had dropped away, so it was obvious whose work was important. Now it’s a completely different scene. Instead of looking for one needle in a little tiny pile of hay, you’re looking for one needle in a field of haystacks.
JB: Is that an additional frustration?
LW: I’m not frustrated by it. It’s the natural course of things. In the old days, it was very easy to recognize the great photographers—Brassai, Lartigue, Bill Brandt, Ansel, Imogen, and Ralph Steiner—and love their work and want to show them. It’s not so easy to look at the portfolio of a twenty-three-year-old who’s done interesting and promising work, but nothing really important, and know he may yet become a great photographer. And if you don’t tell these young people that they’re great and you’d like to show them, they get very upset.
Another important thing: talent is a gift, a rare gift. No matter how good a person you are, or how hard you work, if you don’t have it you don’t have it. Most young people today are sadly unaware of art history and of other art forms that are now being practiced. The older photographers were very much aware of art history. They had dialogues with writers, musicians, and painters. Edward Weston came to life when he met, through Margrethe Mather, the poets and actors out on the West Coast. Manuel Alvarez Bravo in his eighties is constantly interested in seeing other artists’ work. His ego is satisfied. He’s sure enough of himself to be able to respond to what someone else is doing. A lot of young people aren’t. You look at their work, and you start talking about someone else, and they immediately tune out. It’s too bad, because it means their own work is going to suffer from a certain amount of sterility that’s inevitable unless you’re aware of a broad number of things. You really cannot be a major artist unless you’re aware of life around you.
JB: Over the past twelve years, you’ve gotten to know a number of this century’s greatest photographers on a personal basis, and I imagine you’ve got some very interesting stories to tell about them. Any plans for immortalizing them in book form in the future?
LW: I did a little bit of that in A Ten Year Salute, but maybe in ten or twenty years when a lot of people are dead, I’ll be freer to be more candid. I don’t promise an exposé, but it should make for interesting, lively reading. I look forward to writing something like that, and I’ll be able to get a little bit of revenge. I think some people who shall remain nameless here have behaved very badly, and I would like to make that public. But really, most people have been wonderful. It’ll be a more sweet than bitter memoir.
JB: What do you envision for the Witkin Gallery’s future?
LW: I’d like to diversify and show non-photographic prints. I’m very into graphics of the twenties, thirties, and forties, which, by the way, are importantly related to the FSA photographs and Berenice Abbott’s work. I think people should be aware that photographers weren’t working in isolation, that they were working with the same style and subject matter as a lot of painters and printmakers. Now, after twelve years of saying that photography is art, I think there should be a shift into relating it to its time and other arts, and I’d like to be involved with that. So right now, my main concern is to integrate prints other than photographs into the gallery and hopefully, in the process, get a new and different audience that would never come to the gallery to see just photographs. And hopefully, people who come to see the photographs won’t be horrified to see something non-photographic and may actually begin to relate photographs to non-photographic work. That’s what I see happening in the next few years.
Postscript: Lee Witkin died on October 5, 1984. His assistant, Evelyne Daitz, took over as director, and The Witkin Gallery moved to SoHo in 1985. It closed in 1999. Witkin’s files and correspondence are archived at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.
© 1983, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman