Shared Vision: A collection by Celso Gonzalez-Falla and Sondra Gilman. Interview.

The Drummer by Loretta Lux.

I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.  The place being New York, more specifically Aperture Gallery in New York City, at the time of the Shared Vision collection being shown.  Collectors Celso Gonzalez-Falla and Sondra Gilman have been collecting together for the last 25 years and are ranked among the world’s top ten photography collectors. Their eloquent collection spans over a century and includes some of the most prominent photographers we have known like Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, Joel Meyerowitz, Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Their aims for their collection are:

…to acquire works of major importance by leading photographers of their generation and to focus on vintage prints. Although each of the collectors brings a different point of view to the photography—Gonzalez-Falla analyzes color and form, while Gilman responds to images on a more visceral level—these distinct approaches merge into a single, shared vision and emanate from the same goal: to collect photographs that move and inspire them.

From the Introduction, Shared Vision.

With the collection being so extensive the curators (Ben Thompson from Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and Assistant Professor of Photography Paul Karabinis from University of North Florida) had the luxury of selecting iconic images that reflect the diversity of photography over the last century.  The gallery walked us through early 1900’s street scenes, groundbreaking landscapes and the human form and mis-en-scene and narrative based colour photography amongst others.  One section that particularly appealed to me was the area devoted to images of childhood.

The collectors want to collect images that haunt them, that stay with them. Many of their choices have stayed with me too.  The images within this genre of childhood are more than standard pictures of children.  They have a quality which moves you, which says something profound about the nature of childhood, whether it be about innocence and purity (or loss of) or the uncertain ground of adolescence or which simply arouses the maternal yearning to protect and nurture.

Part of the blurb stayed with me too; “Photography portrays idealised versions and realised fears.”  In fact I think this is why photographic images of children have often caused controversy.  The photograph, a supposed record of reality, becomes something other than reality.  It is a polemic of our worst fears and our highest dreams and as such it is a challenge to what is real.  Painting is always removed from a direct link to the real world and as such has got away with a lot of the criticism that photography has had to deal with, like being a legitimate art form or having a reputation as a document and no more.  For me this was the most exciting thing about Shared Vision, the celebration of the photograph as art.  That and the exquisite aesthetic and intelligent cohesiveness.

Image by Andrea Modica.

Sharon Boothroyd: When and why did you first begin collecting photography?

Sondra: I started collecting photography about 35 years ago, after I saw the first Atget show at the Museum of Modern Art.  I had an epiphany.  I spent three days on the floor of John Szarkowski’s office, (the renown curator) and said “Tell me about photography.”  He did and I bought three photographs. This led to the start of my collection, as well as the collection of Gilman Paper Company. The Gilman Paper Collection is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Celso: Before I met Sondra I did not collect, I took photographs; in Cuba, of cattle and horses my father sold to South America, after for my University’s newspaper in Havana, and afterwards in Texas of my Arabian horses.  I have collected with Sondra for the last 25 years, and the first photo we bought together was Mapplethorpe’s Bill T. Jones.

Sondra: We believe in photography as an art form.  But we only buy what we love.  We don’t have an outside curator or consultant.  We look, look and look and then we both decide which image to acquire. Although each one of us has a veto power on the other we rarely have to use it.

What interests you most about images of children and why did you decide to make part of your collection solely dedicated to this subject?

Sondra: In our collection we have photos of children, but we don’t limit our collection to one subject matter.  We acquire the images that move us; that we can’t forget. We have photos of children by diverse photographers, like Helen Levitt, Sally Mann, Andrea Modica, Loretta Lux, Emmet Gowin, Bruce Davidson, Nick Wapligton, Giacomelli, Eugene Meatyard, Cravo Neto, Flor Garduno, Wynn Bullock, Clark and Pognaud, Rineka Dijkstra, Misrach and Julie Blackmon.

Celso: A few of these artists only concentrated on children: Levitt, Mann, Modica, and Lux.  Others included children, but did not specialize in “children’s images” like Gowin, with his wife and child; Davidson, with 110 Street and the gang, Bullock, his nude daughter resting on the ground of a primeval forest; W. Eugene Smith, his children walking hand in hand; Meatyard, children playing with masks; Giacomelli, a child as the center of a group in his Scano series.

Levitt, because her images are the best example of street photography covering children at play.  Andrea Modica, because she followed a child and covered her life and there is an intimacy that cannot be obtained if it was “street photography”. Loretta Lux, because her images are remarkable; as her children look “different”, they have lost their “innocence”, they are attractive, hermetic, and full of a mysterious quality that would be lost in a “candid photo”.

In the case of Sally Mann, because her children are in their “natural state”: “Nudity equals innocence”.  There is no prurient motive.  She shows how her children lived, played, and moved. In some images, like “Candy Cigarette”, there is a hint of “grown up posing”, as if the child wanted to show that she could be a “glamour girl” and not a young child playing with her sisters.  The images are beautiful, innocent, and they talk to you.  You become a part of their exclusive “clan”; you are invited to become a visitor in their farm.

Julie Blackmon, because of her large family in a suburban setting, they are as highly posed as a “Norman Rockwell” cover for the Saturday Evening Post.

Of all the images you have collected for this section which ones have impacted you most and why?

Sondra and Celso: We love all of our pictures, but we have pieces that haunt you:  “Virginia at Four”, and “Candy Cigarette” (see below). Virginia, because the way she stands: peacefully, confidently, unaware of what other people are going to say. She is looking at her mother and trusting her.  In the “Candy Cigarette” Sally’s oldest daughter, Jessie, is playing it out, but we know it is not true, as the cigarette is chocolate.  There is also an image of Helen Levitt that we love. A girl with two bottles of milk with happiness reflected in her face as she passes a young pregnant girl, showing disdain. The expression on the girl carrying the milk bottles is reminiscent of Cartier Bresson’s “Rue Mouffetard”: of the young boy and his two bottles of wine.

Image by Helen Levitt.

How do you think childhood photography has moved forward in recent years?

Sondra: I think there is more interest in children and family dynamics. I have recently seen this development at art fairs.

Celso: I don’t know if there is any real change.  Maybe you have more images taken of the family, but they are less controversial.

What do you observe are the biggest issues facing photographers making images of children in today’s society?

Sondra: I think the fine line separating the so called “exploitation” of children may have affected some photographers and they have gone into more of the psychological or mental exploration of a child’s being; Loretta Lux, with the secrets her children hold, Andrea Modica, with her teenage friendships and again Julie Blackmon, with her recreation of the humor and humanity of family life.

Celso: I don’t see issues.  I only see that the photographer has to be able to find his “theme”, his or her “vision”. If not the images will be another set of snapshots of family members.

What are your hopes for the future of childhood photography?

Sondra: The scope of childhood is huge, and there can be many new ways of seeing and interpreting this.  The photographer, as artist, has the challenge to fill in the blanks.

Celso: That the photographers continue to take risks developing their own particular style, and be able to communicate how they see “childhood”. If they show areas of danger, abuse and exploitation of children those images should create awareness of the problems and ask for change. Lewis Hine did it before. His images eliminated child labor in the United States.

Virginia at Four, 1989 by Sally Mann.

Candy Cigarette, 1989 by Sally Mann.
 

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