Around the world, photography galleries specialize in a wealth of different themes, from vintage prints to emerging artists, or from abstract photography to documentary series. But at Jackson Fine Art, located in Atlanta, Georgia, the thematic thread that ties artists together is simply: impact. The gallery represents seminal masters like Gordon Parks and Jacques Henri Lartigue, as well as established artists such as Sally Mann and Roger Ballen. There are also a number of newer artists on the roster, carefully selected for their thoughtful practice and effortless consolidation with the existing program.
Anna Walker Skillman, the owner and director of Jackson Fine Art, has felt a pull towards creative mediums since she was young, eventually studying Art History at the University of Georgia. After graduating, she worked with the Haines Gallery in San Francisco before becoming director of Jackson Fine Art in 1998. Six years later, in 2003, she purchased the institution from founder Jane Jackson, and has spent the last 17 years maintaining the gallery’s strong foundation, while introducing new works to her clientele.
We’re excited to have Anna Walker Skillman as a juror for this year’s LensCulture Black and White Photography Awards! In this interview, she speaks with Cat Lachowskyj about the importance of understanding photography’s materiality, the accessibility of online viewing rooms, and what she’ll be looking for from this year’s entrants.
Cat Lachowskyj: I want to start with a bit of context about your own personal interest in photography. Did your fascination with creative processes start with this medium, or were you interested in other modes of expression? How was your love of photography shaped and contextualized?
Anna Walker Skillman: My earliest influence in fine art came from my grandmother, who studied at Parsons in New York in the late 1930s and went on to be a portrait artist in the South. Whether I realized it or not, art was coursing through my DNA, and when I entered college I found myself drawn to the Art History department, where I focused on the history of architecture. After graduation, I got my first job with Haines Gallery in San Francisco, where we put together an exhibition of works by Andy Goldsworthy.
I suppose I was introduced to photography as a vehicle for capturing Mr. Goldsworthy’s exquisite sculptures in the landscape. It wasn’t until I saw Helen Levitt’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991 that I fell in love with the medium. This exhibition opened my eyes to the complexity of photography, expressed both by her intimacy and understanding of place, as well as her raw observations of daily life on streets of New York City in the 1940s and ‘50s. To this day, Levitt remains a favorite photographer of mine.
CL: In a previous interview for LensCulture in 2018, you spoke about the importance of understanding the physicality and materiality of a photograph. What is it about the tactility of photographs that appeals to you?
AWS: Although I greatly appreciate the practice and visual beauty of large-scale color prints made throughout the last 20 years, both digital and analog, I have a personal affinity for 8x10 silver gelatin contact prints. I find that I’m drawn to the depth and intimacy of silver gelatin photographs. For some reason, they ground me.
CL: That physicality has undoubtedly become more complex to interact with during the pandemic, with necessary decreases in physical contact. What are some ways you have worked to amend this interaction during this time?
AWS: The pandemic has simply enhanced and strengthened the already dynamic tool of the Internet. Because our gallery is located in Atlanta, rather than art centers like New York City, Los Angeles, Paris or Berlin, we already had viable sales tools and systems in place that work efficiently without physical contact between our artist and collectors. However, for me this is still one of the biggest holes in the process of connecting, of seeing artwork and showing artwork to clients. I greatly miss the ease of face-to-face contact these days. It is more complex, but doable.
CL: What are some of the benefits of online viewing rooms?
AWS: I think that the greatest advantage of online viewing rooms are their ability to tell the artist’s story, to gain a wider audience, and to curate exhibitions more frequently without incurring the costs of hanging a show. Today, photography has become one of the most expensive mediums to produce when you add up the costs of scanning, printing, mounting, framing and shipping. Online viewing rooms have allowed us to have more exposure for the artists we represent.
CL: Speaking of the gallery, the artists you represent are so varied, which can often be a downfall for a lot of galleries. Many gallerists are interested in choosing a number of closely-related artists who can appeal to the same collector base, but what’s interesting about Jackson Fine Art is that you represent seminal figures like Lartigue and Gordon Parks, as well as career artists like Sally Mann and Joel Meyerowitz, and then a number of ‘newer’ artists. On top of that, they hail from all over the world. How was this ethos shaped, and how do you ensure this variation is successful, rather than overwhelming, for collectors?
AWS: The gallery is over 30 years old, and because of that history, we have a wealth of images and experience for guiding collectors. Because of this history, we have also been able to secure relationships with numerous emerging and established artists to generate loyal, long-term relationships. Collectors today are savvy, especially because they peruse the Internet, attend art fairs, and are also able to follow artists on social media. At the gallery, we provide expertise to cultivate nuances in understanding, purchasing and the stewardship of both twentieth century and contemporary photography. When it comes to being successful rather than overwhelming, I think that comes with knowing who your collector is and guiding them in the right direction according to their own personal passion for photography.
CL: I think the halting effect of the pandemic has, at the very least, forced people to deeply reconsider their concept of time. In photography in particular, there is an undercurrent that suggests photographers need to be churning out new work and projects at a relatively rapid rate. What stands out about your gallery’s work is that it all rests on a foundation of pace, and of patience. Why do you think taking time to produce a project is important for photographers?
AWS: I am now revisiting older series by artists that have been tucked away in the drawers because they haven’t garnered any interest over the last 10 years. In going through that process, I have found several bodies of work that seem more relevant today than some of the work that is being churned out as we speak. We live in a world that requires instant gratification, whether that’s through Twitter, a text, an email, or even an instant image made to reflect what someone is doing at that very moment. The artists that inspire me are the ones who take time to produce a body of work, and who take whatever amount of time is required to complete it. In fact, some series take an entire lifetime to create, and are constantly ongoing.
CL: What sorts of work do you find yourself personally drawn to—are there certain colours, lighting and tones that you are personally taken by?
AWS: I am always drawn to portraiture, black and white photographs, and images or series that have narratives.
CL: How does this differ from how you select work to be included in the gallery context?
AWS: The work I select for the gallery is typically grounded in voices that communicate what is happening today in contemporary photography, as well as artists who are connected to and influenced by works being created today. Lastly, I’m always interested in work that falls within the genre that my clientele feels inspired by.
CL: When you engage with black and white photography, what are the features that stand out to you the most? What do you find yourself particularly drawn to?
AWS: I am drawn to certain subjects, the story behind the work and, most importantly, the print quality.
CL: What advice would you give photographers entering the LensCulture Black and White Photography Award who might want to get your attention?
AWS: It is important not to doubt yourself in the curation of your own work. Many artists show me what they think I want to see instead of what they feel is innovative. Most of the time, I am shown work that can feel derivative of other artists, which I don’t mind, but I love to see images that are unexpected. Basically, what I am trying to say is: trust your own eye without judgement.