with Photo Dealer Deborah Bell
February 20, 2010
Deborah Bell has
been a photography dealer since 1988, first as a
private dealer and now in the public gallery
space she opened in Chelsea in 2001. She
specializes in 20th century photography,
especially American and European works from the
1920s-1970s, and represents several contemporary
BRIAN APPEL: Did your upbringing bring
you closer to art? What kind of environment did
you grow up with? Were your parents into art?
DEBORAH BELL: Nobody in the family was
involved in art at all.
I had an uncle in California who was a sculptor
but I do not recall having met him. I grew up in
Minnesota, and we lived across the street from a
drugstore that had a really good magazine rack.
And so I would—I learned about art initially
through the magazines,” Look”,” Life”, “Vogue”,
“Bazaar”, and other general interest magazines.
BA: The "golden age of photojournalism"..
BA: What town did you grow up in?
DB: St. Paul, Minnesota.
BA: Oh, okay.
DB: And then when I was in high school I
worked on my high school newspaper. I became the
entertainment editor. So I used to call the
museums in town to ask for press releases and
photographs to reproduce in our newspaper. And I
would go and review rock concerts, and I would
list the art exhibitions in my little column
that was called “Coming Up”.
BA: Oh, great.
DB: I think it might have been just one or
two or three, 15 and 16 year old kids besides
myself who found any of that interesting, but
still they let me run with it. Sometimes I had
two pages. Sometimes I had three.
And then one time -- I think I was in 10th grade
-- and we took a class trip to the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts and I remembered that we had a
very good tour guide. And it really opened my
eyes to objects. I had never seen art objects
before. So that was, that sort of, I think, that
was another hook that cemented my interest.
BA: This was what, around 1969, 1970, ‘71?
DB: Yeah. I think so because, yes, exactly.
Because I graduated from high school in ‘72.
DB: In 1971 I received a call from the head
of the education department at the Walker Art
Center, who had received my name from the
museum’s publicity director. Because I used to
call her for press releases and the 8x10
glossies and so forth for my newspaper articles.
And he said, well we are getting ready to open
the new building of the Walker Art Center. The
one designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, for
which they knocked the old Walker Art Center and
they built a new one on the same spot.
DB: And that opened in May of ‘71. So I think
it was maybe in the winter of ‘70 or early 1971.
I remember that it was winter.
DB: I got this wonderful, surprise call from
Bob Rice, the education director at Walker, and
he said, we are putting together a group of high
school kids to whom we will give a crash course
in art history and train you to talk about the
collection and take tour groups through the
museum. Would you be interested?
And I, I was completely thrilled, of course. And
I said yes.
BA: Oh fantastic.
DB: So I got out of school one afternoon a
week when I was in the 11th grade, first half of
the year, so that I could drive down to the
Walker and take an all afternoon class in art
history given by Bob Rice and other lecturers
about the Walker’s collection and about 20th
Century art history.
So that was my fortunate indoctrination.
BA: Oh. That is great.
BA: So that got everything going, growing for
DB: I think so. Yes.
DB: But I was also interested in photography
specifically and there was not really any
photography featured at the Walker, nor was
there any in the collection at that time. So I
pursued photography on my own in school. I
decided I wanted to go to the Minneapolis
College of Art and Design and I did not settle
on photography right away because you had to go
through that Bauhaus-style foundation program.
BA: When did you take photography as an
DB: In second year.
BA: So you focused in on that.
DB: In ’73, yes.
BA: In studio or in art history?.
DB: Studio. The practice of photography.
DB: They did not have any critical programs
on art. The history of photography was not yet
incorporated into the history of art. So since
it was an art school I was learning studio
photography. The school was also very strong in
DB: And so there was lots taught about the
craft of photography including the different
formats of cameras and the studio and darkroom,
including one for color printing. And so that is
what I learned there, what was taught.
But then it became a little bit more arty. Two
of my teachers, Stuart Klipper and Tom Arndt,
were trying to form an independent photography
department and get it out from under the wing of
the design department.
BA: I see.
DB: And so they used to close the door and
give us slide lectures about Garry Winogrand’s
work and Robert Frank’s work, Diane Arbus and
Lee Friedlander. And that was considered
BA: Wow. This was ’71?
DB: This was ’73.
BA: Besides having a good eye, a deep reservoir
of knowledge, and a shrewd business persona,
what would you say would be another important
skill to have in your arsenal to maximize a
career as a dealer?
DB: I think the skills and qualities revolve
around patience, because sometimes business just
has a life of its own. You cannot make people
buy things. You have to wait a long time for
museum committees to go through their
acquisition processes, for example.
Sometimes it can take a year for a museum to
decide to buy a picture. And sometimes at the
end of that year they are not going to buy it.
DB: And so I think any kind of business takes
patience and stamina. And it is a very risky
business being an art dealer, because you are
always, hopefully, doing things that you are
interested in but there is no guarantee that
they are going to pay off.
So you, I think, have to have a propensity for
risk-taking and an ability to withstand the
vagaries of being self-employed, which is too
nerve- wracking for many people including those
who are self-employed!
BA: Right, right.
DB: And then there is a skill that I do not
think I have, that of being a talent scout. But
that is more important, I think, with
DB: Being able to spot new talent and be
confident that you can make a career, or have
the patience to build a career, out of some work
that you believe in. I think I am better at
seeing what is good in work that’s already been
out there and has been ordained as being
BA: Already an agreed upon value.
DB: Yes. And maybe sometimes I reintroduce
work, like, that of Gerard Petrus Fieret, the
Dutch photographer, or Marcia Resnick or
somebody else, but I have never been very good
at what a lot of contemporary dealers are good
at. You know, finding the next Gilbert and
George or something like that.
Money is a key, I think. It is not to be
underestimated as an issue in the art world.
Because you distinguish yourself as a dealer by
what you have to offer, and what your inventory
is. And in the case of private dealers and
dealers who have galleries that handle more
traditional photography, including pictures by
photographers who are deceased, it’s best if you
can buy that work in order to build your
inventory, to have something to offer your
And then in the case of contemporary dealers,
even if they do not have an inventory, even if
they are not buying old work to have on hand,
they probably have to concentrate more on
They have to have this gorgeous gallery
space--very well appointed-- and spend a lot of
money on the floors, the kind of thing you see
in Chelsea that has become the hallmark of the
BA: Building the right kind of ambiance to sell
DB: Yes. I think that if you can start with
money it really helps. You can make progress
faster. You can distinguish yourself faster. But
if you do not have it, it is just a little bit
more tenuous and a longer haul.
BA: Since the introduction of the digital
photograph into the lexicon of photography do you
see a blurring or abolishing of distinctions,
like, authentic and fake, original and copy,
real and unreal? How does that impact the medium
and do you see the analog way of taking pictures
with light-sensitive chemicals and a wet film
darkroom completely disappearing in the future?
DB: Well, to the first question I can simply
say that I do not see it. I do not see the
advent of digital photography blurring or
abolishing any distinctions. Authentic, and
fake, manipulating and pushing at the boundaries
of what is real and not real has always been
with the medium since the beginning. I do not
see any conflict or blur or problem.
BA: Okay. But how would something like the way
Garry Winogrand used to take photographs be
affected by the advent of digital photography?
Could someone go out today and shoot the way
Winogrand did back in the 1960s and 1970s with
the availability of instant viewing and the ease
with which contemporary photographers can alter
the image with the new technology?
DB: Well I think the craft would produce a
rather different image.
But then you could also argue that because you
can do all these things in digital photography
on the computer, then you could probably
manipulate the image with the result being that
the print would look less precise and not overly
slick, which is the way we tend to think of
And you could make it look more like 35
millimeter analog photography where it is done
on the fly and so forth. I think a good example
might be Koudelka because Joseph Koudelka’s
pictures from Prague 1968 were made on 35
millimeter film but recently he decided to make
digital prints of them rather than silver
And you can tell the difference but they are
really good prints; they do not look like they
are a completely different animal.
DB: So I think it is still that the craft is
in the hands of the photographer and that is
what—that dictates the result. Because there are
still a lot of different decisions to be made--a
lot of variables that they will learn how to
I think another example of there not being a
conflict, for me anyway, is in (or with?) the
work of Paul Graham. Graham, the English
photographer who lives in the United States, had
a show at MoMA last year of his new work, “A
Shimmer of Possibility”.
And you might know the Steidl publication that
it is a boxed set, so to speak, of many little
thin volumes. Each has a different color cover.
But the point is that he is now doing digital
color prints and he makes them himself. And they
are absolutely magnificently beautiful. And they
are better than the chromogenic prints that
could have been achieved before in the darkroom.
But that is because he is such a good printer.
DB: And he has learned how to bend the new
technique to his eye—so it is possible.
DB: But I do not see the analog way of taking
pictures with the wet darkroom process
disappearing completely because people will
rediscover the silver processes and want to
experience their magic. A lot of people just
love that look and feel of silver. A lot of
photographers, I mean – and myself!.
It is just harder to do it now because the
materials are so difficult to get.
BA: Determining the pricing of works in a sale
appears to be both an art and a science. Besides
the obvious issues of the overall strength of
the economy and the condition of the art market,
what do you think you bring to this crucial
element that makes your gallery successful?
DB: The truth is I do not feel terribly
successful right now.
But, ironically, I do feel some sense of
progress. I happen to enjoy what I do more and
more all the time, and I think I carry the torch
for classical photography. In that I love the
history and the processes and the variations and
the nuances of the medium. And so, if there is
something that I can identify myself with or be
known for—which would make me appear
successful—it might be the concentration on that
and sticking with that.
Because I really do love the whole history of
DB: So that kind of leads into the next
question. I think that is a good lead.
DB: I mean your sequencing of these two
questions is good.
BA: There seems to be two types of photography
collectors: buyers of classic, traditional works
and buyers of contemporary works of photography.
How do the aesthetics of each group differ? Do
some collectors buy both or are they separate
breeds of collector?
DB: Well I will answer the last question
DB: I think many collectors buy both but I
think that they still are separate breeds of
collectors. So I have collectors, for example,
whom I consider to be photography collectors
while they do buy photographs from the galleries
that would not be called photography dealers.
Those galleries occupy the broader art world.
BA: With the capital A.
DB: And they do not specialize in
photography. But I think these collectors are
still photography collectors who then,
sometimes, see that they do like an Andreas
Gursky or they are interested in a Stephen Shore
image from the 1970s that has been printed
recently. Such a collector might also own
vintage and early Stephen Shore prints that
Shore’s gallery does not handle and does not
plan to handle.
DB: And they think that collectors who are
more involved with the galleries of the broader
art world may buy pictures that happen to be
photographs, but they are not specifically
interested in the history of photography. I have
observed that it is better not to confuse that
business with too many facts. They are not so
concerned about what type of paper something is
on, for example.
DB: I mean photography collectors have, I
think, a genuine interest in knowing as much
about each photographer’s way of working, whereas in the contemporary art world when
photography is sold, the main question seems to
be: “what is the edition?"
BA: How many are out there.
DB: And I am not being sarcastic. I see
invoices from contemporary art galleries which
list photographs they have sold as just “black
and white photograph” or “color photograph”.
In the photography world we have to be more
precise. We have to say “gelatin silver print”,
printed whatever year it was.
Or albumin silver print, chromogenic color
print, -- which is a c-print -- or a
dye-transfer or whatever process it is.
DB: But, you know, I think, as my brother
would say, do not confuse me with the facts
[laughing]. People can become exhausted by too
DB: So I think the key, and I did not say
this yet, but I think their interest is more in
the conceptual message of those photographs.
BA: Perfect. So true.
It is the visual and sensory responses
engendered by repeated exposure to actual works
of art that are responsible for what art
professionals refer to as connoisseurship. For
those without original, authentic reference
points supplied by familiarity with the original
source, what should a potential buyer of a
collectible be particularly sensitized to before
committing to a purchase?
DB: I think they should have looked at the
original object as much as possible. Having seen
them in museums, in auction previews, in
And so it is about the look and feel of
something as well as the intellectual aspect.
But I think traditional aesthetics are
important, too. I think good art is good art and
photography is no different if form equals
The skill and the use of the craft or the
process will dictate or will maybe not dictate
but it is all part of whether a work of art is
successful or not, in my opinion. I mean if you
think of Willem de Kooning, did he not have all
that training in using his brushes a certain way
and knowing how to mix paint and thin paints and
which paint worked better for him?.
Had he not, the paintings would be completely
different. But he understood his chosen medium.
And, going back to Paul Graham or Koudelka, or
let’s say any artist, knows how they want
something to look. And any photographer needs to
know how he or she wants something to look. And
then how to adjust the craft.
They have to understand their medium. So I think
that the viewer, too, becomes sensitive to
recognizing when form and content comes together
BA: The collectibility of any artist’s image
revolves around subject matter, vintage, rarity,
provenance and condition. What are some other
factors that impact the value of a work of art?
Can you escape thinking about the value of a
work of art when you look at a piece?
DB: I can, yes. And I like to as much as
possible because that usually helps me to, well
there is a lot of art that I like but which I do
not have to offer for various reasons.
DB: But I still like to look at it. And I
think that the main factor that impacts the
value of a work of art, I mean in addition to
the ones that you cite here, is the marketing of
Because I think that dealers and the art world
can position an artist to be successful -- , it
is like with any product. Think of the “Young
British Artists”—the ones that Charles Saatchi
was collecting for a long time.
BA: The Y.B.A’s.
DB: Yes the Y.B.A’s. But that became a sort
of package of marketing.
BA: Right. That is a
very good point.
DB: But I think that, especially within the
last 15 years, art has been buddying up with the
luxury goods market and becoming an extension of
that ultra high-end market. And so there was a
lot of fashion sense in marketing and making
something glamorous so that people want it.
And you could probably say that that was true
with Leo Castelli and Pop Art, too.
BA: Sure. Yes.
DB: So I think that that is always a factor.
BA: Can you think of a photographer that struck
you as being important at first but then after
repeated viewings over time faded in your
estimation? And conversely, can you think of a
photographer that you did not like initially but
later became important to you?
DB: I cannot think of a photographer whom I
considered as being important at first but then
he or she wore off me.
DB: I cannot think of anybody now. This may
sound terribly sacrilegious but in terms of the
second part of the question, there are two
photographers I really did not, I think I was
either immune to or actually kind of irritated
by. Well one I, Walker Evans, I was sort of
BA: "American Photographs"...
DB: I just did not see it. I did not get it.
And Robert Frank. And this goes back to when I
was a teenager.
DB: When I was in art school. In Walker
Evans, for example, there is a blandness and I
think I was not mature enough to get past my own
sense of this blandness.
And also most of the subject matter in Walker
Evans work was old. Everything was old and, you
know, I was not interested at that time in
photography that old. I think when you are young
you usually are drawn to your own time period,
or a more romantic, nostalgic rendition of a
bygone era as a point of departure, and I had to
DB: And the other person is Robert Frank. I
worship both photographers now. But Robert
Frank’s work that I saw in THE AMERICANS, was,
to me, so abrasive and I was this nice kid from
Minnesota who didn’t want to make waves.
And I just saw all these scowling or
smart-alecky people in his pictures and I
thought that Frank was being insulting to other
people in the photographs by how he portrayed
them. And now with both Evans and Frank I get it
completely. And now I could sit all day in a
chair looking at a Walker Evans photograph and
never, never get tired of looking at that thing.
And Robert Frank’s work stirs me tremendously,
including the work from the ‘70s after he
“returned” to photography from filmmaking.
DB: Some people dismiss that and they think
“The Americans” is really the greatest work, but
I love it all.
BA: The work that he shot in Mabou, Nova Scotia.
DB: Yes, and the Polaroid composites.
DB: And the scratched-in negatives.
BA: Do you collect photography yourself? Which
artists are your own particular favorites and
why? And does your own personal aesthetic impact
your performance in a gallery?
DB: I do not collect photography myself. I
would like to but I have to sell what I have.
DB: I do have some pictures that I own that
were given to me that I am keeping because they
were collaborations with the photographer.
BA: Uh hmm.
DB: And I have lots of favorite
photographers. Many of whom I do not even
handle of whom I do not represent. But since I
have a lot of resale material that is in flux,
sometimes I will have work by that person,
sometimes not. Bill Brandt, the English
photographer, was my first favorite
DB: Yes. That goes back to my teenage years,
I would say. And I always loved Richard Avedon’s
DB: I loved that from the, you know,
magazines in the drugstore. And Louis Faurer,
whom I later represented. Irving Penn and
William Eggleston. Let’s see. Diane Arbus, but
the list is pretty long.
DB: Garry Winogrand, I mean, I just, that is
another person I think I cannot quite get enough
BA: You know with the Bill Brandt photographs,
what particular images--because he shot so many
different kinds of images. He did nudes. His
earlier work “The English At Home”?
DB: I like the distorted work, nudes and
interior views that he did with the police
camera—where the police camera was designed to
be able to capture a whole room on a sheet of
film. And so it was an extremely wide angle
BA: Very surreal.
DB: Right. Everything was sharp. There was
extreme depth of field.
DB: I loved the surrealistic quality of the
imagery but I also loved the way he decided to
print after a while. I think that even earlier,
before he decided to reprint everything in more
contrasty versions, the early prints were still
kind of edgy and contrasty to begin with.
So I think it was the format and the content.
BA: Have you shown his work in a
DB: No, but when I worked at the Marlborough
DB: We represented Brandt before he died. And
then we had work after he died, too. And so I
have some work in the gallery now but not that
much. I used to have more.
And I forgot to mention one other favorite
photographer of mine, August Sander!
BA: Oh yeah.
BA: That is great. That is great.
DB: I am sure that I am missing others.
BA: That is great. Fantastic.