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Interview: Clint Willour with Robert Rosenberg

In Houston, there are a handful of people who have shaped and defined the world of photography for many years. I recently had occasion to sit down for a talk about photog¬raphy and the art world with Clint Willour, the long time-curator behind the Galveston Arts Center and a major benefactor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston photography department. For years, Clint has been a true activist in collecting and promoting the art of photography. Clint has always been known for being a person of strong opinions and clear ideas on what it is that makes a photo-graph a piece of fine art worthy of being in a museum collection, over being stuffed into a shoe box. During my conversation with Clint, it became clear that just as HCP’s policies and views of photography have developed and changed over time, modern technology and taste have also pushed the boundaries of photography. The misty black and white silver gelatin image as being the definition of fine art photography, is long over.

Robert Rosenberg: What was the first photograph you bought as a collector?

Clint Willour: It was a photo of two drag queens in New Orleans during Mardi Gras by a photographer from Houston who is mainly, primarily an architect. It was at the auction after the flood at CAMH (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) – and I said to Anne Tucker, who was with me at the time, “Should I buy this?” We didn’t know each other very well, because she had only been around a short while and had just started the department. She said, “Do you like it?” And I said “Yes” and she said “Can you afford it?” and I said “Yes” and she said, “Well then, you should buy it.” I actually still have that photograph. That is the other point with Anne. I said “Is it a good picture?” and she said, “Do you like it?” Then actually after that, the next photograph I bought might have been a Keith Carter from Mancini Gallery when it was in the basement of the hotel. Then I had an ongoing account with Cronin Gallery, because I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted, so I would give them $100.00 a month until I saw something I wanted. So I bought a Sally Gall, and then a George Tice. I guess I bought a Clarence John Laughlin from them. I bought a Bravo from them. I probably bought another something from Mancini when they closed and I started traveling.

RR: Do you think the Mancinis were better gallerists than restauranteurs?

CW: I think they were good gallery owners. I only ate at their restaurant twice. They were probably better perfume makers than anything because that is what her family did in France. I was traveling for the gallery (Watson/de Nagy and Co.) a lot and when I was doing a show with Basilios Poulos in San Francisco I met the people at Grapestake Gallery. It was called Grapestake because the family was making wine – Richard Misrach was one of the first people I bought – then John Divola and Arthur Ollman – and at that point I started buying pictures for Anne Tucker. So, this is back when the NEA, God bless them, would match money for work by a living American artist. So we would have Richard Misrach send 20 pictures and I would pick one and buy it for myself and give Anne half of the money and the NEA would match the other half. And I would pick one from one series and she would pick one from another series and ultimately knowing that I would give her my pictures and we would get twofers for the price of not much.

RR: Clint, I guess I should probably tell you your right against self incrimination, using NEA money that way.

CW: No, no. It was totally legal. We often do that. We love to do double dips where I’d buy a picture from HCP auction and donate it to Anne, so HCP gets the money and Anne gets the picture. There are several committees that vet everything that gets offered to the museum, and in my case, I’ve now donated to probably a dozen
institutions, many of whom I don’t know that well. It’s not just the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. I have given to my alma mater, the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, to the Menil Collection, to the Old Jail Museum in Albany, to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont.

RR: I’m supposed to ask what you consider to be the issues or trends in photography, which I don’t even know what that means. What do you think?

CW: I think everybody always wants to know what’s au courant, what’s new, what’s happening. You know photography has a very long history. It essentially started as document making. It was a way to record the world. It was a way for people who couldn’t travel to be able to travel vicariously – and it still is. But people travel more and there is more access to it because of the Internet, because of television, because of movies – all the things that weren’t around when photography started. There were only illustrated publications and books. Now with the Internet, everybody has the ability to make a picture. I mean, it’s been that way since World War II, basically, when cameras became much more accessible to the public in general. And with the invention of the Polaroid where you could have instant gratification – well, now, everybody can have instant gratification with their cell phone. What I think is a lot more difficult for younger photographers now is the ability to edit, because they can take pictures so rapidly and they can just erase them or keep them indefinitely. It isn’t a lot of effort. You don’t have to go into a darkroom, you simply plug it into something and it prints something out.

RR: You don’t even have to print it.

CW: Someone like Richard Misrach, who used to use a big camera and do 4×5 transparencies, had hundreds of thousands of those images that he never printed. Now, of course, almost everybody is digital and so it opens up a lot more opportunities. Richard has a printer that can print photographs up to 4×8 feet and he does, quite often. The trends that have been happening over the last ten years have been the objectification of photographs. I mean, it sort of started with Cindy Sherman, who refused to be categorized as a photographer. If she entered the collection, she was entering as a painter.

RR: Or maybe a sculptor?

CW: Or as a sculptor, but she didn’t want to be categorized as a photographer. It started particularly with Europeans. If you made it big and you face mounted to plexiglas or mounted it to aluminum or made it a light box, then it was an object and then it became art and often times those were made as unique objects – because
the beauty of photography and one of its great reasons for its success is its ability to be reproduced. So that is one of the ways that photography has been able to be collected in such a wide range of institutions around the world – because there was more than one image.

RR: But then, isn’t that an incredibly narrow view of what photography is supposed to be?

CW: I don’t know if it’s a narrow view; it’s a fact. Oh, you mean the way they are treating it now as an object?

RR: No, if you remember Frank Martin – his photographs were one of a kind. He manipulated the image with dyes and bleaches during the printing process. This was 1986 or ’87 – he tried to get a FotoFest show and the powers that be at FotoFest refused to allow a venue to exhibit the work. He was frozen out.

CW: Anyone could have shown him, but he couldn’t be in the catalog and I don’t remember what Fred (Baldwin) and Wendy’s (Watriss) rationale for that was.

RR: Because it wasn’t an image of a man sitting on a park bench on a misty morning. At the time, Frank was at the cutting edge of photography – this was before the Internet and he really wasn’t one to study Artforum.

CW: Right. I think he was actually closer to the Starn twins than anybody – they were making unique objects that were sewn or stitched or taped. But Frank did get a show.

RR: It was a non-FotoFest show and he sold every piece. Public News did a big spread – it was a hit. And it seems the next FotoFest had room for manipulated images.

CW: And now they actually feature those as opposed to straight documentary or straight landscape. They have an exhibition up right now which involves a lot of video, a lot of moving images, and a lot of text. I imagine that the public has a serious question about something that is merely white text on a black background as to how that results in a photograph, simply because it was made with a photographic process. It’s not about the image – it’s about the words; it’s about the text. And so I am sure there are people who question the legitimacy of that as a photograph. I have to accept it as a photograph, because it is a photographic process, but I question whether it would be just as effective if it were a lithograph or a collage. It’s just like the Uta Barth – the very large Uta Barth photograph collected by the modern and contemporary department, because it’s on canvas.

RR: And would that have had a place in photography?

CW: Sure, and Anne would have exhibited it as a photograph because it was made with a camera and it is a photograph. But Uta chose to present it in a more painterly fashion. It’s very abstract – this was when Uta was dropping out the foreground and just photographing the blurry background. She would have a person sit in; she would focus on the person and then she would make the person leave the image. The image would be just the blurred background with no person in the place where the person would be. It’s the size of a large painting – 6×6 feet or thereabouts. So, there again, that’s sort of the beginning of that object making idea. I’m not sure if it’s a trend. I think when people talk about trends they are narrowing a field down. I mean, there will always be documentary photography made, always. It may be larger than it was, or it may be presented in a slightly different way. Now it is probably made with a digital camera and digitally printed, but it’s still a documentary image. There are thousands of photographers making landscape photographs. So would we say that that trend has gone away? It’s still here.

RR: You might say, “Are they photographers or are they people on a car trip who have a cell phone camera?”

CW: There might be that, but I’m talking about serious legitimate photographers who have been doing it for 30 or 40 years. I mean Ansel Adams made landscapes his entire life. He made them in black and white. He made them in color. He made them in Polaroid. He made various sizes of them. For instance, Moonrise, Hernandez exists in several sizes – he always made them in different sizes. But there are trends. There are things I see in younger photographers because I participate in something called Critical Mass, which is a means to an end for a non-profit gallery in Portland, Oregon. They do a FotoFest-like event called Photolucida, which brings in reviewers and reviewees. Often times, I sit across from someone with a computer and I look at the screen and see a video or I see images, moving images, of some type – it’s all mostly done electronically. I find that in many competitions that I jury – like the one I just juried for the New Orleans Photo Alliance on the theme of the Gulf. It was during the oil spill but it was not to be only about the negative, but the positive side. I was quite judicious to make my selections fairly even-handed. But, when you review these things online, when you jury them online, sometimes you are given a little information, sometimes you are given a lot of information. When I juried a show like the one for the New Orleans Photo Alliance, I just see an image and a title. It’s blind. I don’t even know the name of the photographer.
Photolucida, Critical Mass, I know their name, their hometown, their website, all these things. So it’s a real promotion for the artist, in many cases, because a lot of these curators will seek them out and put them in a show, or give them a show. They are giving people the opportunity to be seen, but when I show up at the exhibition, as I did two months ago, I wasn’t shocked. Often times, I was surprised at the size or the print quality, or the way something was matted and framed in a very amateurish way.

RR: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you – when you look at it on the computer, you would think it could be a very distorted view of what it actually is.

CW: It’s very different, because when you’re looking at light coming through something, the scale is always the same and if you are not given the ultimate size of the piece – well, something I thought was rather large ends up being 5×7 and other times I thought something was fairly intimate… I chose to put a video in even though this was supposedly a photography competition – all the regulations were in the sort of purview of photography, not the moving image.

RR: Why would it even be an issue? One of your definitions of photography is that it is a medium which can be replicated, the image can be replicated over and over again. Today, to send someone a video, you know, you don’t even have to send it – you post it on the Internet.

CW: Right, and you can do it on Facebook. You can do it on YouTube. You can do it in many ways – so when someone poses the question, “What are the trends?” I would say the thing most affecting photography is the ability for anybody to do it. It’s always been possible for anybody to do it since World War II basically, but now
literally anybody – a child with a cell phone – anybody with the ability to transmit the image can make a video and so I find that the other thing that’s happening is that photography is getting more and more personal. It’s generally about me. It’s always been a person making the image, but usually the image was of interest to the person, but not about the person. Now, I find that most of the stuff I see by young people is about them. It’s about their family; it’s about their life; it’s about their love or their hate, their self-loathing, their body.

RR: I would like your thoughts on one of the things I’m curious about with all the digital stuff – a photographer no longer really needs to know about lighting because that all can be adjusted on a computer. They don’t need to learn, no longer need to know about printing in a darkroom because that all can be adjusted. For example, a
photographer who has to take 500 images to get two, I would say doesn’t have a trained eye to know what a good image is – unless you are Richard Misrach, who is indiscriminately shooting on purpose.

CW: Or you’re a war photographer, or you’re in a situation of extreme duress. I do know Richard Misrach frankly admits that when he was doing the Katrina pictures, he was taking 1000 pictures a day. If he were a filmmaker, it could be a film. So, that’s how he’s looking at it. You take pictures at the moment, as you’re seeing things and he doesn’t edit at the time. Then he goes back and spends hours editing out the good images because there is the ability to do that now. But I would say in pre-digital cameras, nobody made thousands of images. It was too expensive.

RR: No, you made contact sheets.

CW: But you still had to use a lot of film. If anybody is talking about trends….

RR: It’s the dumbing down of photography?

CW: As we have often said, photography as we knew it no longer exists.

RR: But it still does – Amy Blakemore is still teaching people how to use a darkroom at Glassell.

CW: She is, as is Will Michels, but in many institutions, mostly universities now, there are no darkrooms. No one is teaching the printing of photographs. It’s going away radically – nobody wants to shoot film. I think it’s just that the students are not interested in it. It has taken Anne and me a very long time to get used to looking
at digital photographs. I still take Will Michels along for some decisions, because Will really has a discerning eye about whether a digital print is a good digital print or not. I’m still honing my eye, let’s put it that way. It is also getting much tougher. Often, when I’m doing a portfolio review I have to ask if something is digital because they now have the ability to print them on paper that looks exactly like the paper and tonal qualities I’ve always looked at.

RR: I’m interested in the whole idea of video as a form of photography. When asked to do the interview I thought about Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill, way back when with their old video camera trying to, you know, drag people along into the video age – and it seems so, I don’t know what it seems.

CW: I now look back and think it was totally genius on their parts. They got it when nobody else did. There are a handful of those people who just got it, spot on, and who knew what was going to happen and knew the possibilities of it and I think along the way were able to convince other people that it was legitimate, that it was what was going to happen, that it was what was happening. And there were “doubting Thomases” along the way, myself being one, because what I saw in the very beginning were a lot of very bad photographs made by people playing on the computer – most of it was crap. But once the computers got better and the teaching got better and the people got smarter, and the abilities to do things got much better and the possibilities became more obvious, I think they were absolutely right. I still love to see work that has been made in the darkroom. I still love to see work that is handcrafted not by a computer, but by a person in a room with chemicals and a blank sheet of paper turning it into magic. I think what I’m nostalgic about is that they are missing the magic. And it’s how I feel about a lot of things, a lot of experiences that people are having because they can have a different experience via the computer or another form than I had it. Many people that I know don’t communicate with other people in the same manner that you and I are communicating right now.

RR: Would you say maybe what you miss about people not using the darkroom is when you curated the show in New Orleans and when you showed up for the actual exhibition, whatever was on the wall was not necessarily what you had expected because the computer screen had sort of equalized everything or made things the
same. You lose something….

CW: It’s more and more now – it’s the way most exhibitions are being done. But I don’t accept it. I don’t do it except when I’m hired to and it’s the only means I have to do it. I have never personally curated an exhibition without seeing the objects. There is another very interesting aspect to all this. There are several institutions I am aware of that are requesting an exhibition print, which they will put up and then destroy at the end of the exhibition. They simply send the file and they print.

RR: They have no shipping costs. They have no insurance costs, because it is going to be destroyed.

CW: I want to mention the war project that Anne (Tucker) and Will (Michels) are working on. There is a photographer that’s in the exhibition with all images of war, but he’s removed the subject. And you would know what every picture was without the subject… there’s Tiananmen Square without the tank, the Eddie Adams picture
with the gun to the head, but there is no person; there is no gun. You know all of them. I do.

RR: Are there any images that are going to be in the show that are etched in the public’s mind? I mean, did Iraq or Afghanistan produce any images like that, besides the collapse of the statue, obviously?

CW: There is an image that all of us found very tough to buy for the collection, but it’s in the show and was very controversial when it was published – it’s of an Iraqi soldier in a vehicle and he’s completely burned – just charred flesh.

RR: But was that an image on the cover of Time magazine?

CW: It was published widely – and there have been several published that won Pulitzer Prizes. But I think now the problem is there are so many images, and we see them on television and we see them in Newsweek and we see them in Time and we see them in newspapers and we see them. It’s interesting because for this war show that Anne and Will are curating, they’re using images that were essentially sent over the air, you know, sent away and the photographer never touched them – it was printed by the War Department or the Army or the Navy and meant for publication in the newspaper.

RR: Which makes me curious – if you go online and know how to use Photoshop and you appropriate images from the web that are all original photographs, then you take your Photoshop program, merge them all together and make something completely new – or you’re Sherrie Levine and just hit print from whatever website you are at – is that anything at all other than a print off a computer, or is it a collage? Is it a photograph? It is a photographic collage? What is it?

CW: It is whatever the person making it, calls it.