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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Interview with Patricia Delker and Juliet Rake, Co-curators of ACCIDENTAL ART

Patricia Delker and Juliet Rake, co-curators of our current exhibition ACCIDENTAL ART: COLLECTING FOUND PHOTOGRAPHY, recently shared some of their thoughts regarding the planning of the exhibit, the motivation behind it, and what your collections can say about you...
1. You say in your statement that collecting photography requires a discriminating eye and a personal commitment.  How was your discriminating eye developed (training, habits, schooling), and how much of that eye do you think can be attributed to your history as a photographer?
        jr: My eye was trained by years of intense looking at images in various media, not just at photographs but also at intaglio prints and paintings.  My college training in art consisted of printmaking, drawing and painting courses which I continued into adulthood.  Photography came late, out of painting, actually, since I started using photographs as references for paintings and later decided I liked the photographs and photography better. 
        My eye for antique and vintage things also was trained by my family (my father was a collector of many things and took me to auctions and shops from a young age). I also spent a decade long period as a small time antique dealer, in which I bought and sold antiques while living in Virginia. Again, lots and lots of critical looking is what trains one's eye for all parts of the art world.  
        pd: First of all, the statement about collecting photography requiring a discriminating eye and a personal commitment stems from the fact that there are really so very many unclaimed "lost" images out there, and so many are the same sort of image, and it takes a good deal of commitment to carefully sort through stacks of pictures wherever you may find them...antique store, flea market, posted on e-bay, wherever...to find that one image that speaks across the decades to you, or that draws you in by a special look, a quirky flaw, a timeless representation of something that you, the collector, finds pertinent to your present existence.  Found photography collectors don't embrace every single stray photo or snapshot their eyes may pass over.  While I do have a background in art and art history, which means I might be able to say "oh, that almost looks like it could be a insert contemporary photographer's name here." or "that's a unique/beautiful composition" or "that's certainly an image representing a time period", the element that causes me to want to acquire it, goes beyond any knowledge of art or experience as a photographer, it's the mystery of a particular image, the questions that it brings to mind, like what happened right after this moment, what was the photographer thinking, how did the intended moment go slightly askew.  Sometimes there's something in the subject matter that just touches me personally, and I have to rescue that image...that person's moment...from the discards.
        Other collectors may be more studious in their collecting, more detached on the surface, which is certainly appropriate too.  There are no rules in collecting, but I'm willing to bet that every collector in the exhibit somehow becomes personally invested in their selected images and I think that comes through in the collector's statements that are part of the exhibit.
2. Were you a photographer first, or a collector?  How did you make the jump from one into the other?

        jr: Collector/dealer first, then photographer (see above)
        pd: I was probably a photographer first, but I think the move to collecting found images from photography was more a quiet stroll than a jump.  I just fell in love with images, the very nature of the print you could hold in your hand, look at in a book, see displayed on a wall...and then to discover along the way, not only can I make my own images, but for 50 cents or a couple dollars, I can own a particularly appealing photograph.  I don't have to spend lots of dollars, (though I have some photographs that I have spent lots of dollars for) but these little found pieces can provide as much enchantment and magic as a photograph by a known or contemporary photographer.
3. Again, from the curators' statement: Found photographs are visual statements of who we have been, and what we have valued.  What do each of your collections say about you, and what you value?  
        jr:  I am not sure I know what that statement means as I didn't write it.  I believe some collectors of art and objects are seeking the familiar, the sentimental. Others look for the unfamiliar and the exotic.  My collecting is some of both.  The photos I collect are ones not always the ones that connect in any way to my personal experience.  I fact often quite the opposite.  My photograph of the trapper with the skunks is my personal favorite although I have never trapped in the north woods nor do I collect skunk pelts. I do like the image for what it says about Wisconsin at the turn of the century. To me, as a reformed antique dealer, part of the lure of many photographs is specifically the period clothing, the antique carriages and cars,  the "oldness" and the "otherness" of it all.
        On the other hand. I am fascinated by pictures of large families because I am one of six and we were not always the happiest of families.  Who was the author who said "all happy families are alike.  Unhappy families are each unhappy in a different way"   I stare at images of families and wonder how they got along and what life was like for them.  So some of my collection is about my past.
        pd: The curator's statement basically is saying that throughout the decades, there are certain themes that reoccur in pictures...family, special occasions, relationships, the need to document an unusual occurrence or place. From the time when the little Kodak box camera created a revolution in picture making and the common person could make photographs indiscriminately, they selected to make pictures of their immediate lives and their personal experiences. As a result, found photographs show people as they lived their lives, they show a culture that connected with other human beings, that were proud of their pets and possessions, were capable of being silly, funny, mundane, they traveled and wanted to show where they had been and so much more. In the case of Tom Jones' collection of "white Indians", it shows how our culture viewed Native Americans and the stereotypes connected to that view. In Richard Wilberg's collection of missionary lantern slide images, he has a photograph of a native family of children assembled in a line according to age, and then also another image of probably the missionary's children, assembled the same way, ultimately pointing to our similarities rather than differences. But, to answer this particular question, what does what I collect show about what I value...well, my collection is dominated by pictures of people with animals/pets and pictures of women together with other women. The first collection speaks to my affection for animals and my recognition of the bond people feel with these other creatures we share the world with, and the second says I value that timeless connection not only to women in the past but those current connections I have with women. And underlying it all, it probably simply says that I am value our human ability to connect to someone/something else.
4. Patricia (and, Julie, please weigh in too!), you and I have talked before about how the creative process and critique of photography can be very different for men and women photographers.  Do you think this possible shift can occur with collectors as well?   Can you respond to an imaginary viewer's assumption that your (or anyone's) collections are strongly motivated by your gender?   
        jr: I am also unsure how to answer this.  I find that, looking at the work in this show collected by the male collectors, I am very drawn to their images, many of which I would have bought had I seen them first.  So I am not sure if women collect different sorts of images from men.  I collect lots of images of children, which many might see as a stereotypic female obsession.  But then again, Richard's images emphasize children also and his collector's statement is one I could have written myself.  
        pd: As I've stated previously, I think each collector is personally invested somehow in what they collect, the images they collect are motivated by their interests, life experiences, personalities, likes/dislikes, observations, etc.   Thus, to the extent that all those things might be influenced by gender, I would have to say that the gender factor may play a role in collectors' choices; I don't know if I would go so far as to say "strongly motivated" by gender though.  Collecting is ultimately some sort of quirk of "being human" I think.
5. How did you round up the collector's?  Did you know them all previously, either personally or their work, or did they come to you during the exhibit planning offering collections? Outside of your own collection, what piece from the exhibit is your favorite?
        jr: We put the word out at CPM to find collectors and took all who volunteered.  
        My favorite?  Many but I guess I like best Tom's photo of the men in the huge barrels (or cheese forms?).  It's composition and subject are very intriguing.  It is a near perfect photograph from my point of view. I also adore Dede's two portraits of the young Civil War era woman.  
        pd: We rounded up the collectors by hiring border collies to pursue them and bring them together as a submissive group....no seriously, I think Julie shortchanges her role in the exhibit idea.  The idea ultimately stemmed from a conversation she had with Tom Jones during the PhotoMidwest exhibit of the major "known" photographers that local photographers collect that was also shown at the Steenbock Gallery.  That conversation brought about the realization that they were both interested in collecting found photography.  She also discussed it with Carol Chase Bjerke, who collected historically representative photography as part of her having taught photography and wanting examples to show students.  Carol, who knew I had an interest in found photography and had done a program at The Center for Photography at Madison (CPM) on the theme, put Julie in contact with me.  From that program, I knew that Greg Bleck and Dede Bangs had special interests in collecting.  Julie and I got together, discussed the idea and made the proposal to the Steenbock based on these connections, then once the proposal was accepted, we did put a story about our planned exhibit in the CPM newsletter, which generated a response from Richard Wilberg.  Then early on we asked all those connections to a meeting where we initially looked at everyone's images.  Oh, and it was so difficult to whittle down these individual's amazing array of images to the 50 plus that the space could accommodate and that are in the exhibit, but the great treat was getting to look at them all! 
        I say all that almost to avoid the question of my own favorites from the exhibit.  There's something intriguing about each collector's chosen images, but there's several I keep going back to...several are Dede Bang's images of interiors she has printed from the glass plate negatives she collects; particularly the woman seated in her library surrounded by her books, art, bric-a-brac and general trappings of her status/lifestyle.  Another of Dede's that I like are the portraits of the probably Civil War era young woman that she has chosen to exhibit together, one showing the woman in a stylish plaid overcoat, while in the other, she has removed the overcoat to show her relatively plain but prim dress.  Ultimately, I think my favorite is one of Julie's more recent finds...a family in the front yard of their little suburban tract house, only nothing is posed, the mother looks frazzled, the child has sort of run amuck and there's a dog in the picture too. 

interview by Jessie Eisner-Kleyle


  1. Have any of your collected images ever inspired either of you to do further research beyond the image to learn more about the history of an individual or family represented?

  2. No, I haven't. Most of my found images have no information to go on to even begin a search; they are pictures totally out of any context. One image I have is a child with a cat that gives a name, early 1900 date, and place but I haven't pursued it. I suspect the mysteries are part of the magic for me. Though, as an artist, I have been inclined to use some of the images in artwork that "provides" an imagined history for the subject in an image. I think I would like to pursue that avenue further.

  3. Yes, I sometimes try, although I have never gotten very far. An example: I have recently purchased a very beautiful portrait of a Japanese couple, signed in English on the front and Japanese on the back, which looksfrom the print style and clothing like it is from the 1930s. It is by a Chicago professional photographer. I can't find any information on it so far but am still pursuing it, as a Japanese American friend of ours who grew up in Chicago says there were very few Japanese living in Chicago in the 30s at all. The name is not familiar to him or his family. He wondered if they were diplomats perhaps. Anyway, so yes, if an image intriques me, I do try to find out more, especially if there is anything to go on, like a name. If there is no name or location, you can't get much further.
    I suspect my answer to this may be different from other collectors in our group. Some collectors are not interested in figuring out anything about their images, preferring the mystery. I was trained in graduate school as an anthropologist. And so this sort of research rather intriques me. I like to investigate when they were taken and what they depict.
    Referring to images in the show, there is one group of related images which give me some information from which I can speculate. Here is how far we have gotten so far. The set of three photos of the same family has a car in it which Joe researched and determined was a Ford manufactured between 1949 and 1952. With the clothing we date the photo to the mid-50s. Other images in the set of negatives show show signs giving names of towns in central Wisconsin, which indicates this is probably a Wisconsin family. The old man in the image appears in overalls and is feeding pigs, apparently indicating he was a farmer by profession. There are also images of plowing using horses and not tractors). A family name appears on a float in a parade in one set of images in the collection. I traced the family name to the town depicted so there may be a connection. I suspect if I went to the town I might be able to get further. So that is another answer.