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“As you pull over any drawer of the plan chest, it is layers and years and years of history. How those things have come about to be there.”
My interview with Zelda Cheatle, Curator, Editor, Lecturer and Photography Consultant, expanded beyond letting up peek into her private photography collection. Her love for photography and her knowledge immediately soak any questions you may ask her. Zelda began her career at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1982 and moved on to open and direct her own gallery in 1989 for 15 years. She has exhibited many celebrated artists like Helen Chadwick, Eve Arnold, Imogen Cunningham, Sarah Moon, Manuel Alverez Bravo, Lee Miller, James Van der Zee, Robert Frank, Abbas Kiarostami and Mari Mahr and, of them all, she cherishes the stories behind the artworks.
“It is an analog thing. They are all beautiful. The majority are silver gelatine prints. There are some cybachromes and there is the odd cyanotype. Yes, there is quite a lot of different processes. I think it will become more interesting the longer is kept.”
I think photography some way or other was borne in my soul. I remember when I was little looking at wedding albums and old photographs. Or even when I was young at school I started doing research projects and visiting painters and trying to find the photographs for their influences and their backgrounds. Then I started making photographs myself when I was a student.
Photography is like any of those generic terms. Photography could mean anything really. I just like that the medium of photography is a vehicle that carriers so much with it. In the greatest conceptual sense to the most purely documentary.
Tell us about the separated fields of photography and fine art.
I have read a lot and I wrote about the value of photography as a fine art. In the 70s in America it had already begun to flourish but certainly in Europe people would not consider photography to stand alone. It was a very poor relationship to painting and sculpture.
I witnessed these great bastions of the fine art traditions, the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, TATE… and they all swore that they would never darken their walls with photography. They have all hosted really amazing photography exhibitions now. I have seen the way photography has crept into every single major gallery. I am utterly bored about whether photography is a fine art or not.
When did you start collecting?
By the time I had a gallery I already had bought many works. There isn’t a photograph I ever bought that I have regretted or that I wanted to sell or exchange. But once I had the gallery I felt that I had to let the people who were the collectors and the supporters of my gallery to really have the first choice. So, a lot of the pictures that I have now were given to me by the people I exhibited. I am very lucky that nearly every single print that I own is signed by the photographer and there is often a message. A lot of them are very much to do with personal memories and I am thrilled to have works by them. It is a slightly different thing to going out and deliberately start a collection. I feel it was more by osmosis.
How do you like to manage the relationship between the collectors and your gallery?
An article I read in the mid 1980s, called Shooting from the hip, it was about how you have to trust the people that you work with. Whether you are a collector or a gallery, there has to be an element of trust and loyalty. I think that had a very strong influence on me. It was a powerful piece. Certainly, the people to whom you entrust and are going to give lots of money and will be sharing a lot of time and expertise, you hope there is a trust and loyalty.
I think that is something I still have got a reputation for that I am completely a transparent person. I am not someone who would secretly tuck away something for myself or for anyone who was special. Other people don’t operate necessarily in the same way but… There is only, in between the 25 years I was at the Photographers’ Gallery and my gallery together, maybe about 30 people who consistently collected. That is not that many people. You keep in touch quite closely with that number of people. The people who are small collectors you also have a loyalty to them.
In the gallery, there is a three-way situation. It is you and the artists and your collectors. It is a triangular relationship. All of it works together.
What would be your advice to people who start collecting now?
Go and have a look at all of the galleries and see what kind of work you like. It is absolutely to do with the rapport that you have with the gallery. Because if it doesn’t feel right, there is plenty more galleries to go to. Or work with someone who will do lots of the work for you.
People collect for many reasons. But sometimes people want to put whatever they might have saved up into one picture that they just love and they want to have that as the one. And it is their wedding present to each other or whatever it is. Contemporary photography is still showing that there are incredible things to be had. Follow your heart and your own emotional resonance is one of the best ways to go.
You have mentioned before that you do not consider yourself a collector.
I am not a collector in the sense that I don’t have a big space any more. What I have is what can fit in the chest upstairs and in the spare room and on the walls. Some people have warehouses. They have curators and it is a very big thing. I have said to people before, I can hear my words, a collection is when it is more than one. If you have two things, it is already a collection because already you are exerting your taste and choice of those things and bringing them together.
Have you stopped acquiring or do you have something in mind?
I am sure this isn’t final. Even in Amsterdam last week I was debating whether or not to buy a picture by Raymond Meeks because I am seriously thinking about it. I’d love to have a Scarlett Graafland too.
How do you live with your art?
This is advice I have given to people before. It is works that you really feel comfortable about living with, which isn’t necessarily the bang-bang first thing that you see when you enter a gallery that you say ‘oh, that is incredible’. The work that I really enjoy living with is much quieter, calmer, more meditative, more contemplative work. I rehang everything with much more kind of dramatic pictures and I took it down after about two weeks and I put the old pictures back up because I really like this. If I am away, which I am a lot, I think about these pictures on the wall, and it makes me feel at home. Just thinking about these pictures.
You might live in the centre of London but what you want to have in your photographs is something that sums up memories and feelings. It is something that is quite emotional.
When did photography have its commercial awakening?
The real opening up of people buying photographs in London in the 80s it was people who made film or worked in advertising or worked in creative industries anyway. They understood photography a lot more. During the 70s, at The Photographers’ Gallery great people were shown like William Klein and Sir Don McCullin. People had begun to get used to it. I don’t know why this whole magical thing happened. It really took off. I remember I did a little (Jacques Henri) Lartigue show and I think every single picture sold. Of Winston Link I sold hundreds.
The price was right. People begun to understand. This whole fear that photography is endlessly reproducible… people began to understand the fact that the print you see in front of you, you will probably never see exactly that print again. You may see that image again but it will never be that one that you have seen. There was an understanding about the whole concept of how you even look and appreciate what a fine print is and what it means. A print that is signed and authenticated by an artist is worth zillion times more than just something that it is reproduced lots of times and there is no value in it at all.
Also, thanks to the V&A Museum in London but certainly the very big and prestigious Getty collection started. We had some of their staff come at The Photographers’ Gallery and that would have been some of the first photographs that were bought by Getty and it was interesting that the Getty Museum expected us to have armed guards at The Photographers’ Gallery to protect the collection. We didn’t even have armed policemen so you are not going to get armed security guards. We had a big argument with Getty. I can’t remember if they carried water pistols or something… I can’t remember what we did. It was such a thing. It was part of the contract that we had to have armed guards. That was in the 80s. That was the beginning of people waking up to the fact that photography is all around you. And people have been very discerning about what they’ve collected and who they’ve collected and why.
Do you feel a responsibility towards your collection or its after-life?
It is quite a big shebang. You have to think about it really. To leave it just to the next generation, to your own family, may be too much. You should start thinking about what you are going to do. There is a big group of people who are talking about archives at the moment. Because every single photographer who has a big body of work is thinking ‘what am I going to do with this and who wants it?’ Every national museum in this country is full and does not have funds to take extra works in. So, what do you do?
Jem Southam says that his wife is going to put all of his framed work in a skip and set fire to it. I am sure she won’t but that is what she is talking about because she doesn’t want it in the house. He has massive prints and there are hundreds of them, framed prints, which are going to take over her live. There’s been some people who have spoken about it. The V&A had somebody who left enough money to pay for someone to work at the V&A to maintain their archive. Most people don’t have that sort of money. The V&A can’t possibly… They have just taken on all of the National Media Museum in Bradford. They can’t take on forever and ever all of these archives so what to do and where to go or where to place them?
I haven’t got such a big collection. I do think probably my son will be able to take of most of it. I do think that the auction houses like Bloomsbury can turn things around. Things can find a secondary market. For some of the very famous artists that is fine. For some of the mid-range, auction houses are not even interested in taking them on. It is possible that Jack (Zelda’s son) could pack a whole photography library and all the pictures and he could do one big auction. I have a feeling that probably he would keep a lot. His wife is very interested in photography. I think they would probably keep everything.