Interview: Stephen Bulger Reflects on Twenty Years of Missteps, Success, and Advancing Form in Photography

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Photography gallerist Stephen Bulger (b. 1964) is celebrating a significant anniversary after steadily and concertedly contributing to the international market’s appreciation of photography’s position in contemporary art. While curating exhibitions that have brought such artists as Sarah Anne Johnson, Vivian Maier, and Gabor Szilasi to the attention of both his local, national, and international audiences, Bulger has largely funded the gallery by competing as a respected player in the field of dealing historical and modern photographic prints. In addition to these advancements, Bulger has participated in many North American and European art fairs, and is a past president of the Board for the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), in Washington, D.C. He is also the Chair of the Advisory Board for the newly-founded Ryerson Image Centre and the instigator and co-founder of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, the world’s largest photography festival that celebrated its eighteenth edition in May, 2014.

MOMUS editor Sky Goodden sat down with Bulger on the occasion of his twentieth-anniversary exhibition. When asked how he decided what to feature in this exhibition of over 75 photographic prints, he said, Off the top of my head I just started drawing up a list. I knew immediately what needed to be shown.” He reflects on the market’s halting acceptance of a medium only recently accepted into the annals of fine art, and considers his missteps, successes, and the future of the form.

You have mentioned before that when you first opened your doors, here, Toronto was lagging behind cities like New York and Chicago in terms of its contemporary photography scene. Can you reflect on why that was the case?

When I started to look around, there was really only Jane Corkin showing photographs at the time (this was the late ‘80s). As I did more research I realized that in the late ‘70s, a decade before, there was more than a handful of galleries devoted to photography – there was the Baldwin Gallery and Déjà vu, there was A Moment in Time Gallery. One by one they all fell by the wayside. And my big question was, are there no photo galleries because there’s no market; or is there no market because there aren’t many galleries? I kept struggling with that question because it was difficult to figure out.

Once I started going down to New York to interview gallery owners there, to figure out how this whole thing works, a lot of them would say, “oh that’s great, I have some terrific Toronto clients.” They wouldn’t tell me who they were, but I started to hear that enough that I knew that there were people who were actively buying photographs, that felt they had to go down to New York because there weren’t a lot of options up here. I started to feel more comfortable with that.

But it was with Larry Miller in New York – that was a great meeting, because he posed the question, “is there enough of a market there to start a gallery?” And I said I had “no idea, it’s not like it is in New York.” And he said, “you know, there isn’t enough of a market here for mine, either.” I said, “are you kidding me? This is the center of the artworld.” But he said, “no, there are a lot of galleries here that open and close because they think New York is the be-all and end-all. But if you really want to survive, as soon as you can, you have to start building an international network.”

That’s when I realized what I wanted to do was bring Canadian photography to an international audience, and international photography to a Canadian audience. I’ve been trying to work on those two platforms ever since.

Is it a 50/50 operation, in that pursuit, or is more of your attention placed on one of these two initiatives?

I’ve never really analyzed it. It does go in different waves, I will say that. Sometimes institutions all seem to be cash-broke at the same time, so about ten years ago, for instance, I didn’t spend much time with museums because their acquisitions budgets were getting slashed. And [there are waves ] in the type of work that people are interested in – sometimes historical, contemporary, or modern. I’d say certainly between the years 2000-2007 there was a shift in interest for contemporary work; people wanted big, colorful contemporary photographs. That shifted the focus of our gallery business. But then once the recession hit, they all wanted historical and modern.

Isn’t that interesting.

Well people were looking for a safe haven. There is a lot of risk in speculation for people who are buying contemporary. They just got nervous. They didn’t want to speculate on an unknown Chinese artist. They felt much safer buying an André Kertész from the 1930s.

Has the market typically led the tastes of the moment, or is it only during economic crises that people make decisions based on this?

From what I’ve seen, it’s only in moments of crisis. And I only really know the market of the stuff that I sell, and my mandate is pretty simple: I live somewhat vicariously between the people I represent and the people I sell to.

You mentioned earlier that the late 1980s was a very different scene from that of the late 1970s. How was it in the mid-1990s when you decided to open your doors? How was the health of the market doing at that time, with regards to photography? 

It’s all lucky timing, really. As I was working on this plan, people were still very suspicious of photographs. And in Toronto, I think there were only one or two galleries that had any photographers in their stables. Usually they just avoided it completely. That was interesting for me. But again, I’d look at New York and see that they had 75 galleries devoted to photography – so I knew there was a market for it.

Then, when I was working on my preparations to meet with the bank for a business loan, as I was doing my research, there was this great cover on ARTnews, in 1994. Something to the effect of “photography has arrived.”

[Laughing] I’m guessing you brought that to your banker?

Oh, I did! [laughs] This trend that [Artnews] was noticing was that a lot of gallerists who hadn’t previously dealt in photography were beginning to bring it into their stables. I think this followed the practice that was going on in the 1970s and ‘80s, where a lot of artists were using photographic materials, without calling themselves photographers because they came from a different history. That was an interesting trend.

In Toronto, as I visited galleries, I wasn’t regarded too warmly; there was a lot of suspicion, and they saw me as the competition. I went from one bad meeting to the next. But also, when I was doing this, we were on the heels of the recession of the late ‘80s. There was a lot of different stuff going on at the time [that informed the resistance]. Whereas in New York, there was an open-door [policy] towards me, where they thought I could help introduce them to new clients, and vice-versa.

That speaks to a greater confidence in their market, of course.

Yeah. And it’s interesting, because soon after I opened my doors in Toronto there was a lot more camaraderie among gallerists. Because there was a younger breed coming in, just as people were retiring, closing. Susan Hobbs had opened a year before I did, and was very open to collaborating, and support. The Genereux Gallery, and Christopher Cutts.

I remember Kate Taylor, who was the art critic at the Globe and Mail when I opened, well, soon after, she went on leave for a couple years. When she came back, she felt she had to interview me – and many others – because so much had changed in that short time. She felt it was a completely different landscape.

When you began, were you focusing more on contemporary or modern and historic photography?

Well in terms of my very first exhibition, I felt it was important to show people what I was doing, so I paired Wright Morris and Phil Bergerson. Morris was a big influence on me, photographing the remnants of the depression era in the 1930s. And with Bergerson, he was a contemporary Toronto photographer that I knew from my days at Ryerson. I used to cut matts for him, and install exhibitions. He was photographing the remnants of ‘50s and ‘60s Americana, shooting square-format in color. And Morris was large-format in black-and-white. And so I thought, well that’s perfect for my first two-person show. There’s a kinship between these two photographers, and I can show that I’m interested in historical and international, and contemporary and local.

From the start – in my business plan – I had a list of 50 photographers that I wanted to see exhibitions of, myself. But for my research, I could see that it was only three or four of them that had ever shown in Toronto, previously. I knew I had this, almost a back-catalogue that I could refer to. What I made very sure of was that every year, I would show one or two of them. Which, I don’t know that it was the best financial decision. There was more caché in historical American photography from New York galleries.

I’m going to circle back to your perceived mistakes in a moment.

 [Laughs] Just a few?

Jane Corkin had established her gallery 15 years before you. What groundwork had she laid for you, and in what ways did you want to consciously deviate from her initiative?

I wasn’t terribly conscious in wanting to deviate, though I think I’m more interested in documentary photography and she’s more interested in formalist photography. So right away there seemed to be a lot of … I did look at her exhibition list, of course, with that list of 50 I had established. My assumption was that right away, that list was going to be knocked down to 10, because I assumed Jane had shown a lot of this stuff. I was honestly amazed [that she hadn’t]. So I felt quite comfortable fitting into my niche. I didn’t see any overlap or competition. It was great for Jane to be seen as someone working on an international level, selling very expensive photographs, and validating that it was okay to spend a lot of money on a photograph.

I’m guessing it was a hard case to make, for a lot of collectors – spending a lot of money on a photograph.

People were quite suspicious. I remember one time in the gallery, I had this group of photographs by Carlo Naya, an Italian photographer working in the 1870s. It was a collection that belonged to a Toronto person, and they came to me because they had way more than they needed and were looking to sell some. Also, the owner of the photographs got a great deal on the frames that initially Ydessa Hendeles was going to use. She had paid for them but left them with the framer. They were gorgeous wooden frames and looked great with the Naya images. That allowed me to drop my prices on these images significantly. Because of this situation we were selling these photographs for, say, $800 rather than $1,800. So, someone came into the gallery and had questions, very basic ones, about photography. He was looking at this picture, and said, “wow, this is a really beautiful picture.” Then he looked at the price, and said, “see, this is what I don’t understand.” So I told him the long story I just told you about why it was so much below market, and he corrected me, and said, “oh, no, I’m sorry, I’m wondering why it’s so expensive.” [Laughs] I thought, “oh my god, really?”

He was quite unconvinced. I walked him out the door, and I couldn’t help but notice that he jumped into an $85,000 car that, I’m sure the second he bought it, was worth $50,000. That’s the thing: I’m willing to pay a lot of money for things that are going to retain their value, but I’m notoriously cheap when it comes to much more ephemeral things. I don’t have the money to waste on anything that depreciates.

I thought, “this is a problem.” Because obviously there’s a big misconception about what has value. That’s where I got the idea about CONTACT. I thought, if I’m going to try to educate people on a one-on-one basis, I’m just not going to get to enough people to generate a market. I needed some voice of authority – which I certainly wasn’t recognized as having, at the time – to help with this educational drive.

Twenty years is a snapshot of an important generation for this medium, especially one that withstood the “Great Recession.” You’ve mentioned already what happens when people are seeking “safe havens” in times of economic uncertainty. But what happens at the other end? Say, in the mid-to-late aughts before the economy crashed. What were you seeing in terms of taste and adventure-seeking from your clients?

People were buying in-depth. If they were looking at something they were interested in, they’d buy two or three. I think that’s a good way to collect. If I find an author I like, I buy all their books. People were doing this with photographs at the time, and it makes a lot of sense – to build a mini-collection of someone’s work you’re passionate about. People would do that fairly freely.

There were also a lot of retail sales at that point. People decorating a new home and they wouldn’t think twice about buying something that was five or ten thousand dollars to decorate that home. Then that changed pretty drastically. You know, it’s always been easy to sell photographs that are below $1,000. But then there was a really active market between $1,000 and $15,000. And then from $20,000 up is a different market. What I think is the residue of this recession is that people still feel comfortable if it’s under $1,000; and then some people are comfortable with things that are $20,000 and up. But the things between $1,000 and $20,000 can be pretty tough sells for the past five or six years.

How do you excuse that?

If you look at other markets, like the stock market, people are willing to take a risk or a gamble on what they call “penny stocks.” Because it doesn’t cost you much, and you might get a “flyer.” Then, with $20,000 and up, there have to be solid reasons that it’s going to cost that much, so you can look at it like blue-chip stocks. There’s a track-record, and at the very least, it’s not going to lose its value. For the work in between, it’s not pocket change, and yet the work hasn’t been fully certified in most cases, such that it could be considered absolutely solid. That’s something that I find pretty interesting.

Let’s talk about the missteps you perceive yourself to have made. If you could isolate one or two, what would they be?

I’d say the first one is that I should have worked at a commercial gallery before I opened one. Just to understand the basic business principles. There was a lot I found overwhelming, and I didn’t understand how long it can take to sell things. By that I mean, I would see something that I thought a client might be interested in and buy it. I might get a 10 or 20% discount off the retail price, then offer it to the client for the retail price, and they’d say, “no, that’s not really what I want.” Then I might sit on this thing for two or three years before I sell it. And it wasn’t appreciating in value very quickly, in some cases, and when you look at the carrying costs of it, by the time I would sell it, I’d actually be losing money. That was the wrong approach. What I concentrate on now is buying larger collections of work. You have to be selective, because I don’t have that much money.

Now, I realize, you buy 100 photographs, and you hope to cover your investment by selling a fraction of those photographs. And then as they sell over time … There was a photograph I sold over a year ago that I bought in 1995. The original purchase price was $1,000 at 20% off, so $800. I offered it at $1,000, and then $1,500 because the market kept going up, and by the time I sold it, it was worth $12,000. So it’s good to be able to keep stuff for a long time.

So you learned as you went. Did you have mentor figures that you could reach out to?

Oh yes. Larry Miller. Terry Etherton, Howard Greenberg. And in terms of Canada, Serge Vaisman. He was my closest confidant in terms of the Canadian market, a lot of which I found baffling. There’s politics everywhere and I’m enough of an outsider that Serge was able to give me invaluable advice.

What distinguishes Canada’s “politics” from other markets?

Just that it’s been such a small one, and that people have been protective. A lot of gallery owners conceived of it that they should get a stranglehold on a client and make sure that that person only bought from them. There are a lot of individuals and corporations that have followed that to a T. In other cities, Paris, Chicago, New York, there have always been more buyers and more sellers, such that no one would even think that they could control it. It’s more established, there’s more history, and people are going to buy from whomever they’re going to buy from. And there’s a lot more collaboration.

We’ve talked about the mistakes. What are the successes?

I’d say one thing is that I’ve been able to stay true to only showing things that I’m really interested in showing. And not trying to figure out the audience. I think that’s a rabbit hole you shouldn’t go down – showing things that you think the audience might buy. I think you should always be showing things that you want people to see.

The other part is having a realization of the back half of the gallery versus the front gallery. My exhibition space generates the least sales that my gallery makes. It’s what we do because it’s the public face that most people interact with. That leaves me free and clear to show what I want because most of my shows aren’t profitable anyways. I don’t worry whether this or that show is going to sell. I’m able to look at an arc of exhibitions and connect one show to the next. I have to be engaged, and I get to curate everything that we do here. What happens in the back end of the gallery is what keeps us going.

Speaking of the back end, there’s been so much written about the Vivian Maier situation that I don’t want to draw too much more attention to it. But I do want to ask you a question that I think is intrinsic to the debate and controversy around this archive. Where do you think a photograph starts – with the close of the shutter, or in the darkroom? As in, does it start when a photographer takes a photo or chooses to develop it?

You know, it depends on the type of photography. Like, non-representational photography tends to get made mostly in the darkroom, like Alison Rossiter. With someone like Vivian, these are representations that she made in the real world. As soon as the image is snapped, it’s 99% there. All you have to do make a photograph that’s a clear representation of what’s on the negative.

Some of that requires burning and dodging to reduce extraneous noise. Like your eye will always go to the brightest part of a plane, so if you have a bright spot on the image that is not the most important element of a picture, you have to burn it and dodge it to reduce that bright distraction.

But I’ve never had an issue with people finding negatives and re-printing them. Because they’re two different animals. I’ve never seen photographic prints as bastardized versions of the negatives.

I had a conversation with independent curator Christopher Eamon about his current exhibition that addresses the changing form of photography, and I asked him if the distinction of a medium is relevant, anymore, considering the more interdisciplinary approach being employed in contemporary art. I think of Sarah Anne Johnson, who works with mixed media, and who’s established a more “photographic” practice than one of strict photography. How are you reflecting on this shift in the medium, and do you think medium-specific distinctions can still be useful in contemporary art? 

It’s something that is relevant right now – there will be a discussion on this at AIPAD this week for sure. A lot of us feel comfortable saying we deal in photographs. But people like Clive Holden, who I represent, a lot of his moving-image works are photographically derived, but they’re not photographs. I’m just trying to keep up with it, basically. Nothing is static. Collections can change and morph, and I know my tastes morph as a result of seeing what other people are doing. Sarah Johnson is a good case in point. She was frustrated with photography showing what something looks like without showing what something felt like, to her.

I rely on photography to tell me about the world and give me the opinions of its makers. My only concern is, do we have to come up with a new name for photography or recognize that photography has grown?

I want to ask you about the trust that we imbue photography with. It has, I think, been disruptive for photography’s inauguration into the fine arts and contemporary art. We were – and still are, somewhat – reliant on photography to “tell the truth.” With the introduction of digital manipulation, the medium has betrayed this expectation – though, as you well know, photography has been manipulated since its inception. I’d be curious to have you reflect on this issue, and if you see it as a handicap that we continue to expect photography to reflect verity, and truth.

I think it’s a great question because for me, people’s assumption that photography was a purely objective art form really denigrated the medium. Because what they were implying was that the photographer had no opinion – that anyone could take a photograph. “So what’s so special about this picture?” What they weren’t doing was giving credit to the person that made this picture. Because all you’re ever getting at the very best is one person’s one-degree look into some subject that they’ve decided to photograph and then have edited, and have shown us just what they wanted us to see. It’s just as subjective as any author picking out words and putting them together in a sentence to write an essay about something. People thought the cameras were taking the pictures as opposed to the person behind the camera taking the picture. I think that’s the genesis for why so many people didn’t understand why someone’s photographs are better than theirs. It’s that old adage – good photographs show, and great photographs tell.

The trust issue is interesting. It’s kept photography in a ghetto for a long time.

Is this changing? How are we doing in terms of the trust we hold in an image’s veracity, as opposed to previous generations?

I think photography’s a much more casual endeavor than it used to be. It’s interesting, because this is happening at a time when people are very distrustful of everything. People are suspicious. So I think when they’re looking at photographs, people know that there is an agenda. They ask, “I wonder how that was Photoshopped,” etc. And I don’t see that as a bad thing, not for photography.

What that suggests, though, is that we’ve shifted a lot of our attention onto process. Instead of “what does that mean?”, it’s “how was that done?” That focus can be distracting from the “telling.”

Yes. I’ve derogatorily called some people “photo weenies” – people who are so invested in how a photograph should be made, I think they’re missing out on a lot. I don’t think it’s just with photography. I was reading a report about what people do in museums, and it was something to the effect of, the average gallery-goer will spend 2.5 seconds looking at a piece of art, and 4.5 seconds reading a label. As soon as I read that, I removed labels from our exhibitions and starting sticking up numbers.

It’s a visual medium. I want people to figure it out for themselves, what it means to you.

 

 

 

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