Last week I had a nice chat with Ben Breard, of Afterimage Gallery at his new location in uptown. This place is a legend for photo lovers in Dallas and beyond. Ben's story is so interesting and what he has achieved quite remarkable. Here's the transcript:
You have been in business for 45 years! This has to be some record, as far as dedicated photography galleries…
Yeah, we could be the oldest in the world. There are some dealers that have been around a couple of years longer, but they have gone into private dealing and don’t have the same kind of gallery…
What’s your secret?
Just being hard headed, and I don’t like change (laughter)…
Just sticking with it!
In retail you got to stay in one place. Same city…you got to keep regular hours and that is not for everybody. I am comfortable with that. I like my routines.
How did you start?
Photography was a hobby. In college I photographed for the yearbook. My undergraduate degree was in journalism. So I said, “Aha! Photo-journalism!” But, compared to the other classmates in graduate school, I really was not all that good -- not that talented or creative. So I thought, well, maybe I can sell photographs…
Now that’s an art…
I mean [to sell photographs] of people who are talented (laughs). That’s how I got started. There was a gallery at the time in New York, the Witkin Gallery. I visited them, got some of their ideas and went from there. The bins on the walls, for example, that’s an idea from Witkin.
I love those, browsing through the images…it feels a little bit like the old record stores. Of course larger and nicer…
Was it hard to start?
No, because rent was cheap ($250 a month!). Everything was consigned. And I was single. I did not need to make much money.
Did you start in this [uptown] area?
Yes, in the Quadrangle.
So you were in the Quadrangle for over 40 years then…
Yeah, 45 actually. I just moved here in May.
I did not realize that building is 45 years old…
It’s older than that actually.
Wow, it looks newer. Maybe because of the modern style?
Yeah, and it has been updated, too.
Digital technology changing things. I read that 1.8 billion images are shared online daily…how does that impact the business of a photography gallery?
Well, when you think about it, what people see is the finished product on the wall. Lots of this work was shot digitally and some not. It does not really matter that much to the buyer. They just want something that looks good. Sometimes a collector might balk at a digital print. But if you want to buy somebody and all they are doing are digital prints you don’t have a lot of choice. I don’t have a problem with it.
So the flow has continued?
I imagine you have a pretty faithful clientele after 45 years. Who is your typical client?
It has changed over the years. Probably 30 to 65 years old and affluent. But, there are always exceptions. There are people who don’t have much money and pay things out over a long period of time, in contrast with “gazillionaires” who just decide to buy a $100,000 picture.
You understand the art side of photography and also the business side. I imagine that in balancing the two sometimes you have to make some compromises, decisions…
Yeah. There may be an individual who does landscape work that is more sellable, but he has better work such as people on the street, but nobody will want that work, no one really wants to buy it. So it is really frustrating. I can’t always show what I would like because I need to have some commercial value in mind. A lot of photographers don’t have anything of commercial value, or mostly personal work. I tell them to show at a non-profit space, or to print a book. For example, I have here a list of prints from a collector in New York. I need to look to see what I think I could sell. Some of them wouldn’t have a chance here. I have to just reject it. And then there are pricing issues. I got to go through it and try to get reasonable prices that people will pay! Sometimes people ask too much. There are also technical considerations. Is it too much work to show it on my website? Most of my business is online. I have to consider the amount of work to present the photographs versus the profit. Is it worth it?
What makes a photograph valuable?
Supply and demand. If the guy is famous and there are not many of them [prints], then it is valuable.
You have some seriously famous photographers in your collection, right? Like Bresson…
Ansel Adams…in fact I am working with another person who has four Ansel Adams prints. Those will be nice. The person, as it is often the case, is out of state. I will sell the items to somebody and people here will never get to see it.
As far as the lesser know names, what makes a photograph valuable in the eyes of a gallery?
The lesser known names are not necessarily investments. You never know. So I just go with the strength of the work. That has value -- the creativity, the talent of the photographer. I show a lot of lesser known people.
Clients will buy just because they are attracted to the work, not necessarily as an investment?
Yes. It’s hard, because often times collectors only want the “name people”. The kind of collectors I like collect everybody. Some of the largest and most valuable photo collections in the country were made by people who would buy the big names and also buy from photographers selling on the street -- all kinds of stuff. They just like photography!
They curate their own collection. Speaking of, do you have your personal collection?
Yes. A lot of it consists of pieces that, say, the photographer gave to me because I sold a bunch of his work. Also, I got a lot of things at good prices, years ago.
Do you keep them at home?
Yes, they are hanging on the walls.
Do you see any up and coming photographers that you like?
A guy I push a lot is Michael Massaia, out of New Jersey. He has a book coming out. I don’t care how old they are. I just look at the work.
I imagine that after being in business for 45 years you have seen people come and go, you have seen trends that people thought were so cool then and now they are no longer cool. What do you think remains?
Ah, that’s a hard question. Some of the things that were so popular earlier you don’t see much anymore…I think people are looking for quality of image. A term that was coined by an early dealer was “object quality.” But not even that applies. Sometimes you can have a really trendy photographer, for example the Starn twins. They would make collages using scotch tape, completely non-archival. So quality is not necessarily a virtue. It’s hard to say what has lasted over the years. There are some classic photographers that have fallen out of favor, people don’t collect them as much.
What excites you about the future? When you look at the next five years, what excites you?
I am excited about the new space, for one thing. The trends in photography in this digital era (as he points at his phone), the capability of producing large prints and stuff. Who knows what will be the future…holograms on the wall. Of course we already had that…Computers and the internet will play a big part of it, I am sure.
Do you sell stuff online?
Yes. Probably 60% of what I have. I got online in 1997. It took months to put the website together. I got an email from a doctor in Perth Australia saying, “ I want this, this and this, and here’s my American Express card and here’s my Fedex.” And I said, “hummm, there’s something nice about this online deal…”
Any last words of wisdom or advice for young photographers?
The main thing young photographers got to know is that they need to shoot all the time, work hard at it. So many people come in here while they are in college and they have been working for a year. They don’t understand the cost, the time involved. Or they won’t have a style. Their photographs are all over the place. They need to just develop a style, work harder at it.
Put in the 10,000 hours…
Yes. Some people are naturally talented. It’s amazing. They can produce a strong body of work in just a few years. But those individuals are few and far between.
Like Francesca Woodman, who produced all her work in her teens...When I used to teach photography at Parish I used to have some students like that…
Thanks again Ben for the time and valuable information and best wishes on your new space.