A Conversation with Photo Dealer Deborah Bell
Saturday, February 20, 2010

By Brian Appel


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 photographers.

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"..

DB: Yes.

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.

BA: Okay.

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.

BA: Right.

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.

BA: Right.

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.

DB: Yes.

BA: So that got everything going, growing for you.

DB: I think so. Yes.

BA: 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 elective?

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.

BA: Okay.

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 graphic design.

BA: Okay.

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 subversive!

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.

BA: Right.

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 contemporary work.

BA: Right.

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 important.

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 clients.
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 presentation.
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 district.

BA: Building the right kind of ambiance to sell in.

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 digital photography.
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 prints.
And you can tell the difference but they are really good prints; they do not look like they are a completely different animal.

BA: Okay.

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 use.
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.

BA: Right.

DB: And he has learned how to bend the new technique to his eye—so it is possible.

BA: Yes.

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 photography.

BA: Right.

DB: So that kind of leads into the next question. I think that is a good lead.

BA: Okay.

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 first.

BA: Okay.

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.

BA: Interesting.

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.

BA: Right.

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.

BA: Yes.

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 much information.

BA: Right.

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 galleries.
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 content.
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 beautifully.

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.

BA: Right.

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 it.
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.

BA: Okay.

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 immune to.

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.

BA: Sure.

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 work backwards.

BA: Sure.

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.

BA: Right.

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.

BA: Right.

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.

BA: Right.

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 photographer.

BA: Really?

DB: Yes. That goes back to my teenage years, I would say. And I always loved Richard Avedon’s work.

BA: Dick….

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.

BA: Sure.

DB: Garry Winogrand, I mean, I just, that is another person I think I cannot quite get enough of.

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 lens.

BA: Very surreal.

DB: Right. Everything was sharp. There was extreme depth of field.

BA: Right.

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 one-person-show?

DB: No, but when I worked at the Marlborough Gallery.

BA: Yes.

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.

DB: Yes.

BA: That is great. That is great.

DB: I am sure that I am missing others.

BA: That is great. Fantastic.



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