W.M. Hunt – Bill Hunt – is a self described champion of photography: collector, curator and consultant, who lives and works in New York City. His book “The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious” was published last fall by Aperture in the US, Thames & Hudson in the UK, and as “L’Oeil Invisible” by Actes Sud in France. “The Unseen Eye’ is based on his forty years as a collector. He is an adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, and he has been on the boards of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, AIPAD, Photographers + Friends United Against AIDS and the Center for Photography at Woodstock. He has been profiled in The New York Times, PDN, The Art Newspaper and many blogs. As a dealer, he founded the prominent gallery Hasted Hunt after many years as director of photography at Ricco/Maresca. Photo by dah
David Alan Harvey: The readers of Burn Magazine always want to know how editors and curators think. What they really want to know is what editors, gallerists, and dealers want, because they are trying to appeal to them. What does a gallery owner expect? That is you. These young photographers want to know what YOU are looking for.
Bill Hunt: I will tell you what curators want. They want the thing they’ve never seen. If they’ve seen it, they don’t want it. It’s the impossible thing to describe except that when you see it, you say, “this is it. I couldn’t describe it to you because I hadn’t seen it, but now that I see it, I can tell you this is it”. You don’t want to see what you saw before, because it’s no longer interesting. My line is that you want a picture so good it makes you fart lightning. You want to be able to see it and say, “I was sick and now I’m healed”. It doesn’t happen very much at all, but sometimes it happens and you go, see I told you this could happen because here it is. I’m teaching a workshop called “How I Look at Photographs”.
DAH: We saw that in the ICP catalogue. We know who you are.
BH: That’s good! So, I’m trying to work it out because I think that it has potential.
DAH: Do you think as time goes by it’s harder to see something that you haven’t seen?
BH: No, I think it’s the same. What’s different is that there is now a sea of really good pictures. There are so many good pictures. More so than there used to be. People know how to make good pictures. But the number of really fantastic ones, that’s real small. So you do look at a lot of good pictures. But I am interested in the great ones.
DAH: That was probably the best answer that I’ve gotten from anybody so far on this decision making business.
BH: So for this class that I am spending time thinking about, I want to answer the question, how do I look at pictures? And the answer is …rapaciously, ravenously, wildly … like a cartoon dog in heat. The New York Times comes in the morning, you open the front door, and you look at the front page, and immediately you react …that’s a good one! Or not.
DAH: Let me ask you something, do you have a theatrical background at all?
BH: I do.
DAH: Well that’s the first thing that popped into my head when I’m talking to you now.
BH: I’m a notoriously failed actor.
DAH: Ok well I could tell.
BH: That I was a failed actor?
DAH: (laughing) No. That you love drama. Everything you do, your motions, the way you talk.
BH: I’m just a big bull shitter.
DAH: Your mind is….
BH: My mind is … what? Quick? Yes, I’m fast on my feet, but that’s not being an actor.
DAH: There’s something performance oriented just about the way you are.
BH: I’m passionate. I’m single minded. I’m articulate. A discovery I made about photography and show business is they are very, very similar. In many respects they are all improvisation. You get up in the morning; you say to yourself, I am not a doctor, so I won’t be going to the hospital. I am an actor, I’m a photographer, what am I going to do today? I could just sit here and jerk off…that’s one choice. Another choice is get on my bike and go do something. The difference for a photographer and an actor is that a photographer can always make stuff. They can take a camera and go out and do stuff.
DAH: An actor needs an audience and is dependent on somebody else. That’s right, I never thought about it that way.
BH: The cruel irony of this however, and this may not be born up by your experience, but it’s my observation that in show business, you can always get laid. The more miserable everybody is, the more you get laid. You go to a bunch of photographers and say did anybody here get laid in the last eight years?
DAH: I thought you were coming out with some brilliant artist’s statement here!
BH: I am just being realistic.
DAH: Let me jump to you as a person because it’s interesting how decision makers become decision makers. So let’s go all the way back to your childhood. Obviously, I would imagine you were in the arts, I’m guessing almost from the beginning. Am I right about that?
BH: I would say not at all.
BH: I would say only my secret life. That was always my fantasy world.
DAH: Oh, so I am right in a sense?
BH: Yeah I guess so. It just was never going to happen, you know? You’re a little kid in the Midwest and you’re thinking you’re going to be an actor in New York and … .
DAH: It’s a secret fantasy….
BH: It’s just not part of anything around you that that’s going to happen. Some helicopter is not going to land in the back yard with producers leaping out saying “we heard you were good, kid, lets go do a movie or something”. You’re pretty much just fucked in the Midwest that you’re not going to get out of there. Actually in college I toed the line for a long time. I was in accounting class one day in business school, and I looked like a dog listening to music, tilting my head from side to side. I’m listening to the teacher but saying to myself I haven’t understood one thing this guy has said in what’s probably seven weeks now. I’ve copied other people’s homework religiously… and I have no idea what’s going on here. I hate this. And I left. And I enrolled in the theater department.
DAH: Ok so you were in theater in college, and then when you get out of college, what’s your first job? How did you earn a living when you got out of college?
BH: Well I never did. I just never made shit.
BH: Not completely but … At one point my dad had died and so I had some of that money. But I barely made enough money to pay for myself although I did always manage to keep it in proportion.
DAH: Did you make money in the art gallery business?
BH: Not really. Nobody makes money there. Selling photographs? You make enough, you make something, but never enough.
DAH: I met you when you sold those great big prints of Luc Delahaye, I was so impressed with that.
BH: Me too! You know for a good week and a half, two weeks, people would come to me to actually observe the phenomenon that my shit did not stink. I came back from Paris and announced that those things were $15,000. The people that got pissed off were your people. Photojournalists were furious.
DAH: Not me. I never heard anyone was pissed off. About what? I was absolutely fascinated the night of the opening. Luc is “our people”.
BH: Now, Luc is a “piece of work” He calls me up – we were going to show the “Winterreise” pictures – his Russian pictures – and we’d seen them at the ICP Infinity Awards. He won best photo journalist for these pictures of eastern Russia. I’d seen those, and that’s what we were going to show. They were really cool. And so over the course of the summer Luc calls me up one day and says “Beel, I want you to come to Paris to see ze picture I make”. And you go like yeah, I will be doing that. I will be flying to Paris to see this picture what you make. And he says, “no, no, no I send ze ticket”. You’re like … huh? Oh. Ok, I be coming. So he flew me to Paris to see the picture and he was living in Montmartre. So I go there and he’s got three of these prints push pinned into the wall, and I didn’t know what I was coming to look at. He is asking me which print is better and I’m just thinking I can’t fucking believe this picture. This picture is just so weird.
DAH: You’re talking about the dead Afghan soldier.
BH: Yeah, this big eight foot wide picture of a dead Taliban in a ditch, and it’s composed quite artfully, and it’s definitely a dead guy. And so we look at the pictures for a long time, and then he pulls out prints of the rest of the series of pictures. He gives me some color Xeroxes and I go back to New York and call the curator of the L.A. CountyMuseum and I say I’m coming to out California the following week, so let’s have lunch, and I have a picture to show you. The guy in L.A. was Robert Sobieszek and we were on the same wavelength. I didn’t show him much stuff. I was very careful what I showed him, and he almost always bought it, which is just unheard of for a museum to behave like that. So, we go out and were having a glass of iced tea and I hand him this 81/2 x 11 Xerox of this picture and he looks at it, and I said this is good. This is really good. And he say’s, how much? I say its $15,000 dollars and then I go, I’ll give you 20% off and give it to you for $10,000. So my math is for shit, but he says yes. At the same time I was trying to get this picture published some place and I had taken it to The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, and they both passed on it. American PHOTO did it. Thank you David Schonauer and Jean-Jacques Naudet because everyone saw it.
DAH: I have always loved Luc as a photographer. I was mesmerized by the photograph.
BH: Then Chris Boot came on board, and we did a book in like three months, a full tilt printed book with a commissioned essay. It was really quick. That was exciting. So, Chris was on board and somehow Luc got a show in Bradford (England) and that had to have come from Chris.
DAH: Now Chris is at Aperture. I have always thought Chris to be one of the best in the biz.
BH: Back to my book and how it came together. My English publisher had asked me to take a picture out at one point and I said no this is a really good picture, this is funny, it fits in the book. It’s a picture of the head of a penis that looks like a big face, and it’s a really funny and strange picture. It’s even weirder because when I first saw this picture I didn’t know what I was looking at. But I saw this picture and did not know what it was. I looked at it for a long time and finally I asked the photographer what is was and he said a dick. When I do presentations about the book, I project this image, and I always feel like…half the people in the room don’t know what this is. The other half that knows what it is, is thinking this is stupid. I thought it was an elbow. Anyway, so the English publisher didn’t want it in because he said he couldn’t sell it to Japan, which that was ridiculous anyways because he wasn’t going to sell it to Japan. So he left it in. Thank you. Then I was at Aperture and we’re having this meeting and they said we want to talk to you about something. You just know immediately what it is and you think, you pussies, I can’t believe you’re…and they wanted it out. They asked if I would take it out and I said yeah, I’m a good guy, if it really bothers you that much take it out. And then I will never shut up about how you made me take it out of the book. It was just no big deal and Chris Boot’s line was that it stopped the flow of the book … . So the dick went away… . There are a couple of other things not in the final book … . Irving Penn wouldn’t give me permission to reproduce two of his pictures. That was expected, but really disappointing. We really made a case for it and chased after it. I couldn’t accept it, no, no. no …
DAH: You went for it.
BH: I went for it.
DAH: And then you finally in the end did not get it.
BH: Yeah. And then there was the French edition too from Actes Sud. There is a September 11th picture…”The Falling Man” picture. That’s in there. The French were resistant to it and I explained why it was important to the project and they said Ok. Actually what they did was they asked me to write more which was fine with me.
DAH: It seems almost impossible to get 100% of what you want in a book. Lots of moving parts.
BH: At the end of the day, it is my book and the whole experience is so intense and unique. I am happy with the text and hope that people respond to my love affair with photography and collecting. It is all about de…light.
DAH: Thanks Bill…..