Life, the universe and everything

‘Kine’ by Viviane Sassen

“What do they know of cricket”, asked the incomparable Trinidadian Marxist CLR James, “who only cricket know?” Substitute the word “photography” for “cricket”, and you have a question that should be engraved on the credit card of everyone who thinks to buy a photograph. A cornucopia of a show celebrating 20 years of Michael Hoppen’s gallery in London offers photography as one guide to life, the universe and everything. This is not a gallery show in the customary manner. It is a present to Hoppen’s customers: a chance to view the dealer’s private collection.

The exhibition, Finders Keepers, has a cheerfully eclectic exterior that nicely coats a number of serious points about collecting. It is not merely a group of trophies after years of hunting. Hoppen says he took a number of well-known pictures out of the final selection because he saw no point in exhibiting them again. Some are still included (among them the splendidly camp “Dovima with Elephants” by Richard Avedon, 1955), but they have to take their place next to anonymous pieces, or those by obscure photographers.

This is a show about the pleasures of collecting and one serious point is that too few collectors really trust their own taste. Buying art because it’s branded as fashionable is so customary that we forget just how rare (and perhaps difficult) it is to buy in character. Here is one of London’s premier gallerists, confidently exhibiting pieces bought for 50p or in job lots that happened to appeal to him.

He bought, for example, all the pictures on the walls of the famous French House pub in Soho when its landlord Gaston Berlemont died in 1999. The French House had pictures of boxers on the walls. Some are interesting; others not particularly. Hoppen must have liked the pub and boxing, or he simply would not have bought the pictures. That’s what collecting should be – the careful expression of one’s personality through artefacts.

A good number of the pictures here are creased and dog-eared or otherwise show the marks of the passage of time. Many collectors consider only the pristine, and they’re wrong. Because a photograph is an object, it means more if it has had something of a life. That’s what we learn from Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, or from Bruce Chatwin’s earlier book Utz, about an obsessive collector of Meissen. A picture made to be sold, which goes from artist to gallery to collector with barely a stop, may be wonderful but has few associations built in.

By contrast, John Deakin used to stuff his photographs into his pockets. Hoppen quite rightly identifies that as a wholly legitimate element of his style: a creaseless Deakin vintage print could hardly exist. The (achingly gloomy) portrait of John Minton from 1951 in the show is not diminished for being stress-marked. Rather, it is the greater.

‘Tornado, USA, 1950s’, Unknown

Hoppen was once a photographer himself. At the root of his interest (it won’t be the same for everybody) is a passion for the photographic processes. This has been one driving force of his collecting, and he has often represented photographers for that very reason. If a print can show mastery of its process, Hoppen takes a pleasure in it irrespective of subject matter or date or anything else.

Finders Keepers is chock-a-block with exquisite examples from across the whole span of photography. There’s a highly intelligent eye-opening use of Photoshop from 2001 by Nicky Coutts to repossess a Brueghel as a very thoughtful photograph. From 1885, there’s a Woodburytype, an early photographic process, and it is glorious. (It’s by James Nasmyth, and its caption is a pleasure in its own right: “Back of hand and wrinkled apple to illustrate the origin of certain mountain ranges resulting from shrinking of the interior.”) Process is more than just chemistry; it’s the grammar that photographers use to express themselves. The caption is a bonus.

Untitled, by Dr Lakra, 2009

The variety of colour and surface is extraordinary, and that’s just among the black-and-white pictures – salt prints, silver prints, albumens of various kinds, photogravures, carbon prints ... That, too, is a part of collecting. Connoisseurship starts with the object itself. There are well over 100 pictures in the exhibition, and none is made with quite the same materials, used in quite the same way.

Then there are the stories. Hoppen has been moved by colonial ethnography, by a car crash, by the masterpieces of armour in the Spanish national collection, by a voyeur with hand-built cameras, by several Japanese artists ... There is a 1975 contact print from the studio of Francis Bacon of wrestlers, obviously intimately connected to much of his painting. Photography will get you to these things but you have to use the full resources of an engaged culture to make much sense of them once you’re there.

And sometimes you can’t: there are pleasant mysteries and puzzles here too. Why is that lady having a skirt ironed while she is wearing it? Why did that glass engraver depict himself as a ghostly absence on his mother’s knee? There’s a 1944 Weegee of a pig’s head in a pub. In 1961, Hunter S Thompson photographed his wife, nude, overlooking a set of rugged coastal headlands, next to a ferocious (and wholly gonzo) dog. A 1940s American lady peels her skirt up and her stocking down to subject her thigh to minute inspection. Her head is ducked down so we see just the tops of her spectacle frames. It’s mysterious, seductive and funny all at the same time.

‘Inspection, 1940s’, Unknown

Lots of the pictures are like that. Each is a strong picture, whatever its story, provenance or price. That’s where the confident taste comes in. Hoppen has amused himself placing unlikely neighbours in a jostling, resonant hang, with occasional lewdness no more excluded than any other register. Most of the pictures are small, and that’s good. A number are masterpieces, quietly holding their place in the crowd. The view of defensive balloons by Nikolai Kuleschow (1931) is one. Photography often takes an object and makes it a little mysterious. Here a partially inflated zeppelin is almost a figure, looming high in the sky, attended by little priests. An anonymous 1950s American picture of the aftermath of a tornado shows a woman in white picking her way with scarcely credible elegant grace through the skewed wreck of her beachside home. She’s adding a little more to the line of salvage we can see in the foreground. An 1853 Charles Nègre of a building worker, crouching in a cobbled courtyard, is an albumen print of breathtaking beauty.

It’s a fun show, full of unexpected sights and odd juxtapositions. It’s also a marvellous exposition of the plain truth that a good collection is an intellectual and emotional record of some complexity, and even perhaps courage, that you cannot achieve merely by shopping.

‘Finders Keepers: 20 Years of Collecting’, Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, until January 31

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