Debuting with the Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin in 1987, Catherine Edelman Gallery has been a leader in the fine art world for more than thirty years. Representing artists like Bruce Davidson, Michael Kenna, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jess T. Dugan and many more, the gallery is a respected institution in the US and beyond. In the past, the gallery has shown a wide variety of work, including documentary photography (Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey), fashion photography (Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts), and traditional landscape photographs (Michael Kenna).
Gallery founder and owner Catherine Edelman is therefore well-versed in the myriad forms that art photography can take. Curious to learn more about her background and her perspective on the rapidly changing world of photography, LensCulture editor Coralie Kraft reached out to Edelman for a conversation about the kind of work she’s hoping to discover in the new awards, her advice to art photographers, and her thoughts on how to approach a gallery.
LensCulture: Your gallery has been open for 30 years, and I would imagine the way you source work has changed a lot. Instagram, Facebook…How do you find new work? How do you stay up to date?
Catherine Edelman: When I first started, the only option was to sit at bookstores and comb through all the books, which I used to do every Sunday and Monday. When the gallery opened, I didn’t even have a computer. That’s how much things have changed.
I was very late to the game with the web. I think we were actually one of the first dealers to have a website, but that was probably 2001. Since then, Facebook and Instagram have been our go-to sources for finding new photographers. I’m still getting to know Instagram, because to be honest, I’m not sure that the format gives me the information I need. In some ways, I don’t think many photographers are using Instagram properly. Some are, and they use it for PR. That’s smart. But I don’t want to see your morning coffee; I don’t want to see your dog. Save that for your personal account. Show me what you’re working on; show me your process. Show me what you’re inspired by and excited about.
Facebook is my go-to, even though it has changed drastically. I follow a lot of magazines on Facebook, and I find that to be a great way to discover work. LensCulture, FlakPhoto…there are so many. When I see something I like, I go down the rabbit hole. That’s where I find most of my wonderful discoveries.
LC: What kind of work are you interested in discovering now, and has that interest changed at all over 30 years of running a gallery?
CE: I always say I (and the gallery) do everything from Michael Kenna to Joel-Peter Witkin, which almost comprises the entire history of contemporary photography! But my passion has recently started to shift. It’s been 30 years, as you said. Right now I’m very interested in political work that has meaning—work where people who are affected by a crisis are doing the talking, as opposed to photographers going in, making work, and then leaving.
LC: Like Omar Imam?
CE: Yes, like Omar. I think it’s time for us to get back to the basics of what photography is capable of doing. I think that it has been lost in the “soup” that defines contemporary photography today.
I was a very political youngster. Very political and a bit angry. And now, with age, I’m not angry, but I understand the power that photographs can have, and I don’t see it being used properly. So I want to support photographers that are dedicated to their subject, whether that means a group of people or a topic.
That said, we are a gallery, so we have to balance our passion with sales, if that makes sense. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t feature work like Omar’s.
LC: Did you always intend to show such diverse work at your gallery? Nan Goldin, Susan Meiselas, Michael Kenna…
CE: Well, when I started the gallery, it was very important to me that I start with a stance. As I mentioned, I was very political back then, and I was very young. I was 25 when I opened the gallery, and it was important that I opened with a show that would set the course for what the gallery was going to look like.
Nan Goldin was an obvious choice. Bruce Weber was my first pick, but he was busy. Little did I know that I gave Nan one of her first shows, according to her. We went through hell together to put on that show, but it really set the stage. After that, I did political show after political show, just to build up the gallery. That’s when I first started showing Joel-Peter Witkin.
I think it’s important to stick to your guns. My name’s on the door of the gallery. It’s not “Chicago Photography Gallery.” It’s Catherine Edelman Gallery. It’s my name, and so I have to (for lack of a better term) live or die by the work I show. When I opened, maybe I was too young or naive to be aware of that.
LC: How did you catch up? How did you learn to balance passion and practicality? I think that’s an equilibrium that a lot of artists struggle with, too.
I was lucky because I had a mentor. There are always people who know more than you, no matter how much you know. It’s important to recognize that. One of them said to me, “Just remember that you need to listen to two different parts of yourself. On one shoulder, you have your not-for-profit. And on your other shoulder is your for-profit. And if you don’t balance it properly, you will not be open.”
So I had to put aside some of what I wanted to do, because if I only showed Joel-Peter Witkin, I wouldn’t be open. And at that point, I was very fortunate and found Michael Kenna. He had just started to come to the attention of the photography world; I found him by accident. Another figure in the photo world—who is kind of an ass, so will remain nameless—came into my gallery and said to me, “I bet you don’t even know who Michael Kenna is.” And I didn’t. So of course I looked him up, and I loved his work, so I reached out. I say often that this is the gallery that Michael built. We’ve had a show every year. Without him, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to stay open. But working with him also allowed me to get back to other photographers who I had wanted to work with, but who I knew wouldn’t sell as well. It’s all a balance.
I also believe that it’s important for collectors or people who appreciate photography to see that photography today is not just a static image behind a mat—it’s morphing, and the kids who are going to school now are combining all sorts of media into brand-new pieces. And so for those of us who work with photography, it’s important to stay on top of what’s happening.
LC: This is a complex question, but—what do you consider art photography? We’re sitting here at Photo London, and you’re showing Omar Imam’s work in your booth, even though it’s documentary work. It’s a broad term. How do you define it?
CE: It is complex. I’ll use Omar as an example. When I took him on, I warned him that I’d be recontextualizing him, and that we had to have a dialogue about that. Putting his work in a museum or gallery setting is different than hanging his photographs in the refugee camps in Lebanon, of course.
So there’s a huge responsibility on the part of dealers and gallerists to put our artists in the right context. And if we don’t contextualize them properly, the artist’s career can be killed pretty quickly.
LC: That’s an immense amount of responsibility.
It is, for those of us who take it seriously. So, then, what is art photography? In the classic sense I think it’s defined by what it isn’t, if that makes sense. It isn’t documentary, photojournalism, reportage, whichever of those three words one wants to use. It’s anything but. And yet…
LC: And yet, you have Alex Majoli showing at Howard Greenberg.
CE: Exactly. Alex, Susan Meiselas. In the beginning, I worked with everyone I could, to show people what was going on in the photography world—in my mind, it was all art. Everything from Herb Ritts to Susan to Allen Ginsberg to Joel and everything in between.
I just took on a new artist, Mike Koerner, who makes collodion tintypes. They’re about his family, who all died from complications associated from the bombing in Nagasaki. The photos are both devastating and beautiful. Presenting them in a fine art context is a delicate balance. When people like the work, how far do you go to explain it?
LC: I think context is so important, but it also complicates things from a gallery perspective…
CE: Exactly. I had a couple come by this morning and they loved the photos, but once I explained the meaning behind them, they said, “Well, that’s depressing. I don’t know if I want that on my wall.” I just sort of looked at them and said, “All art has a purpose.” Most artists don’t make work because they’re extremely happy. They’re trying to say something, and that isn’t always going to be pleasant to think about.
99% of the people who bought the work understand that the story is the reason for the work. Without the story there is no work. So, is that art photography? Definitely. Does it also have great meaning? For me, it has to. It needs that significance if I’m going to engage with it.
That said, it’s getting harder and harder to find people who are doing things that are unique and personal. There’s too much mediocre stuff out there.
LC: When you’re looking for artists to represent, what qualities are important to you?
CE: I look for people who are passionate, who make work because they have to, not because they’re thinking about sales. Sometimes, I think, the sales mentality gets in the way. If you’re too focused on the money, it dilutes the core of what makes your art powerful.
LC: I think about the flood of images a lot—in particular how it affects work by emerging artists. Do you think young artists look at too much work these days? Is part of the problem that they get distracted and they aren’t sure which direction or style to pursue?
CE: I think young artists are eager to make a name too fast. I call it the Yale Effect. They all want to be Katy Grannan instantly, and that’s a rare thing.
I would encourage younger artists to relax and make work and not worry about the fame and the fortune. A lot of artists are too aggressive; they don’t understand how to interact with someone without it being about them. Some photographers need to learn that when I ask, “Hi, how are you?” I’m not interested in a sales pitch. I can look at your work and tell you almost immediately if I’m interested or not.
Self promotion is tricky. When I walk around, I don’t tell every person I meet, “I’m Catherine Edelman and I have a gallery in Chicago and I’d love to show you the work I represent.” But that’s what a lot of artists end up doing, and they don’t understand how difficult that is for the people around them! You need to be respectful and follow up when you’re offered an opportunity.
LC: Can you give me an example?
CE: Take Clarissa Bonet. When we met, she was maybe 26. There was great promise in her work, but I saw that she wasn’t ready yet. So I told her, “Look, I’ll agree to mentor you if you don’t abuse it.” She asked, “What does that mean?” I said, “Every six months I expect you to call me and show me your work. I will not be reaching out to you. You need to take the initiative.” And she did. One day, she came in and laid out her new work on the floor. Immediately I knew that she had turned a corner, so I said “done.” And we’ve had an incredible ride in the last couple of years.
LC: Finally, what advice would you offer to people who want to catch your eye?
CE: I would say, being personable is half the battle. When I meet someone and enjoy having a conversation with them, that’s when I’ll take a moment to look up their work. Because for me, it all has to be there: you have to have a vision, the work has to be powerful, it has to have deep meaning, and I have to enjoy working with you. The people who are successful, they’re the full package. So work on becoming the full package.
—Catherine Edelman, interviewed by Coralie Kraft