Decision Makers – A Conversation with W.M.Hunt

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 TimesPDNThe 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.


DAH: Really?


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.


DAH: Really?


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…..



88 Responses to “Decision Makers – A Conversation with W.M.Hunt”


    i am kinda rushing, so i don’t have much time to write what i probably should write, but the dead Taliban as art is nothing new…war and death have always been subjects of art…yes?

    the arguments here are of course what Bill was referring to about the uproar among photojournalists when Luc swung from Newsweek assignment photg(where i believe dead Taliban first appeared as a straight news shot) to schmoozing with wealthy collectors…but there is a hue and cry with the banality of Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky as well…so what does get to be worth being named as hallowed art?

    the anointing of anything will immediately set it up for extreme criticism as well…that is good, for nothing should ever be sacrosanct..

    but i have never met any photographer, of any ilk that did not secretly or not so secretly wish for acceptance by the art world…and that includes some very heavy duty photojournalists….journalism is for day to day information…art lasts ..???..Ozymandias looms over all…

    cheers, david


    just a brief clarification so that my words are not misinterpreted :))..

    Like i said, I have Mr. Hunt’s book and like it very much and it brings a fresh and insightful approach to the contemporary photograph and the practice of the art (refreshing to have a book that is so eclectic :) )…and as a photographer who works that terrain specificially, it has meaning in my own practice and something frank and i have spoken about for years…and, more importantly, i am happy that David has introduced Mr. Hunt to the readers, particularly those not familiar with his insight (i prefer his thinking, generally to Hughes, when it comes to the photograph) and his commitment to photographic practice…he has a very catholic approach and open eye/heart (catholic not in the religious sense), …particularly for young photographers (or old) who don’t have the experience with art world and art world expectations, i found it valuable for them…having lived in this world and made a living for myself and family, i ncluding the gallery/festival circuit, i just wanted to reinforce that a practice is NOT BASED not books or curatorial (individual) tastes, but rather, photographers must work their own personal vein in order to produce work that might ‘catch the eye/heart’ of gallerists/collectors/curators….in order words, refrain from worrying about what things sell for, watch catches the eye, and instead mine the ideas and life that gets you excited about mking images, whatever that may be (conceptual/spiritual/documentarian/witnessing, whatever)….

    Rejection is what we live with…failure too….i’ve been lucky in life and in making…been lucky enough to have had exhibitions and sold work and some mild acceptance and also rejected infinitely more…this is even more true in life…and one must settled into that nomenclature that rejection does not mean failure just as acceptance/purchase does not mean success….

    to that, i’d suggest folk watch the documentary ‘gerhard richter painting’…for me, says everything and the only thing that one need to think about when it comes to making work…

    it’s the work and the making (or not making) that counts…

    absolutely no disparging intent made at all for having this interview…just balancing, that’s all :)))…

    until a drink at Noorderlicht later in the year, or arles next year :))



    This is brief?

  • Yes, David, I understand and what you say is all true – as the murals in so many major museums and galleries attest. And the Taliban image is definitely a photo that must survive the ages. It cannot just be seen in Newsweek and then be forgotten. But still… even recognizing life, capitalism and commerce for what it is, something about this image being played out in this way still struck me badly, as though something is not quite right about it.

  • Frostfrog…

    The Taliban image also strikes me bad. Kinda lack of respect for the dead.

  • Stoked that today I got invited to hear Bill speak in London after the National Photography Symposium – after this interview, I’m really looking forward to that afternoon! A performance based on the book – has me intrigued.

  • Paul why should the dead get special respect that is not extended to the living?

  • Imants why is it OK to have pictures marines fighting in Afghanistan but bad to have pictures dead marines? Just asking.

  • I don’t know you tell me I never stated that one was ok and the other wasn’t……….to me it is all same same I don’t have good/bad approach to war dead alive etc.
    Evidently others feel that the dead should be treated with some special respect whatever that is….
    …not my approach to these matters. The dead are probably more interesting as you can speculate about his/her life as you take a photograph. I took a series of photos when my Dad when he died, they sit there on the computer strange images to me, meaningless to others unless I place them in some sort of context.
    Comprises!!?….. yea I will do nothing with them until my Mum dies, she wouldn’t understand.


    Bill is giving a talk (read as: performance) in London for his book, The Unseen Eye. It is at 5pm, April 29th, at Somerset House as part of the WPO events happening there that weekend. Entry is free. Missing it is beyond costly, at least to your reputation and taste.

    Big thanks to Simon Norfolk for tipping me off about it.

    DAH – any chance you could add this in to the body of this article and/or tweet it? Thanks.

  • Sara…It seems you are giving a talk at this bash also yes?

    I will try to make both talks.

    I did the same with my dad, and feel the same way about the images and, not only, what to do with them? But also the question of, what inner need made me go into the funeral home and make the pictures in the first place? And my family have no idea. They would be horrified.

  • Imants…

    Good question and I’m sure you’re right. I think the world would probably be a nicer place if people paid the same respect to those alive as the deceased. Personally it’s about dignity, I dislike seeing the dead Taliban lying in a ditch and being made a work of art – I feel very sorry for the man.
    I’ve got nothing against photographing the dead, like you mentioned. I’ve never done it, I haven’t found the need yet, but I have a close friend who did. She has never looked at the contacts sheets and doesn’t know when she’ll find the courage…

  • JG

    I’m giving a talk at the National Photography Symposium running alongside the WPO events, yes. I can assure you mine won’t be nearly as interesting as Bill’s though! But it would be great to see you again – grab a coffee/beer on the day? Hope you’re keeping well, mate. Big hugs.

  • Sara, thanks for the tip… I’ll take Stuart Smith’s workshop… if it ends earlier than scheduled I might make at least part of Hunt’s presentation… cheers

  • the photos…………..they will be integrated into a book just a matter of when.

    Paul feeling sorry for is fine but accepting it as art is OK as well, both responses can live side by side


    My pleasure, but it’s Norfolk you should be thanking – he asked me to shout about it to people I knew.


    i photographed my father dying, with my mother at the end..i did not know what else to do..i have not looked at the pictures…..


    trying to figure out how to get you to my darkroom to make some prints…can you Skype me at some point please??

  • Imants…

    Again yes, you’re quite right.

  • David, I’d love that… will try to catch you on skype over the weekend… cheers

    Sara, thanks anyway… maybe we’ll get to meet at the event too…

  • Respect for the dead?, actually it is respect for the living. This dead soldier was a son, perhaps a brother, husband etc. If this was a dead American or Australian soldier it would never be tolerated.
    Unbelievably bad taste.

    Photographing ones dead or dying loved ones is a whole other issue. This is done out of respect, love, a desire to hold on, and an attempt to make some sense of the event. One of my best friends 17 year old son was on life support after a car accident. His 12 year old sister climbed up on to the bed beside him and insisted he take a picture for her. Avedon photographed his fathers final days partly to try to come to terms with a difficult relationship. I visited my father on his death bed after seeing him only a few times in the previous forty years. I could not bring myself to make a photograph, but wish now that I had.

  • eduardo sepulveda


    muchas gracias!! intenso.

  • What a load of crap there are heaps of shots of dead soldiers from all nationalities …….. but it is that very single minded thought pattern of yours that runs your responses here. Lighten up and join the human race.

  • Imants

    Ahhhh, thanks for setting us all straight. Until now I was unaware of the “heaps of shots of dead soldiers from all nationalities” being offered for high prices in the higher class galleries. I guess I never really did understand fine art photography. Be sure to send us some links.

    And goodness, I do need to lighten up, always good advice, especially coming from someone who’s comments are always light hearted and positive. You just get out there and have a great day!


  • They are and it is time you got out from under that rock and do your own work instead of waiting for it to come to your door. I am quite happy to research find read etc but not just to please your inability to do so

  • Remember people do not have to make a direct payment to get milage out of the dead……cowboys and Indian movies, the great John Wayne, the holocaust, Iraq, Libya etc the list goes on and on….

  • You just get out there and have a great day!

    Time not to be condescending it doesn’t suit your writing style ………

  • Spent the evening listening to The Band – after hearing Levon Helm died today.


    Sure thing – chuck me a mail or something and let’s hook up. My address is at

    Tried looking for yours but no luck.

  • Completely Love this.
    Thank you both for the insights and straight talk. Always great to have some fearless, honest discussion. There is no where else we could get this kind of insight, unparalleled I’d say even.
    Although I enjoy other formats too, the camaraderie of these discussions is amazing. (reminds me of how much I loved Sally Mann interviewing Nan Golden @Look last year) Much Appreciated.

    Congrats on your sale Frostfrog!
    General thanks for all comments, always a thought provoking conversation and a longer to do list every time…
    looking forward to Richter documentary (off topic but Anselm Keifer: Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is also a really great one)

    Gladdy: I just watched that Robert Hughes BBC special. So amazingly spot on. I was blown away by the force of his intellect and structuring of the argument he was making.

  • Meant to comment on the portrait as well, really love it.

  • Milli. Mathew Collins. This is modern art. Also very well made and comes from a different angle.
    6 parts on youtube..well worth the 3 or 4 hours needed to view.

  • Worth the look……like the tongue in cheek as well

  • ALL

    news from Portugal…
    the winners of the third edition of the 2012 Photojournalism Prize Estação Imagem/Mora were announced last week.
    the contest, with six other categories in addition to the main prize, debuted in 2010 and for this third edition, the organization received 147 entries from photojournalists, who submitted 452 essays (not singles) involving more than 4,500 photographs.
    this prize was open to portuguese photojournalists and also to photojournalists from african portuguese speaking countries and Galicia.
    António Pedrosa, a portuguese freelancer photojournalist with an essay on a neighborhood in northern Portugal inhabited by a small gipsy community won the main prize (€3.500). this story, as many others who were distinguished here, was never published before.
    in news category the first prize was João Carvalho Pina, with ‘Egyptian Revolution’.
    besides all the prizes (€1.250) in different categories – news, daily life, art and entertainment, environment, portrait and sports – there was also a grant (€3.500) awarded to Nelson D’Aires to develop a project in Alentejo entitled “The Family Album – Mora memory, as it takes the picture.”

    check (click on the photo and follow the titles on the left) where you can see the best essays, a slideshow, the jury, a (photo) making of, the submission portfolio for the 2012 grant. And the work already done with the 2011 grant.
    and you can also spend more time, and see 2011 and 2010 editions of the prize.

    um forte abraço,
    carlos filipe

  • ALL

    and here you can see a video (3:01 in spanish with portuguese sub-titles) where Emílio Morenatti, president of the jury 2012 Photojournalism Prize Estação Imagem/Mora explains the doubts and the discussions in the process of choosing the best stories/essays.

    um forte abraço,
    carlos filipe

  • thanks John Gladdy! diggin the Collins program completely! think it may take a while to get through it all.

  • I just want to say that because of this interview I bought the book. It is fantastic. It’s very honest. It’s down to Earth. It also has inspired me to continue to shoot the weird shit that I love to explore, hoping that it will help teach me more about myself, in the same way collecting has done for Mr. Hunt.

  • I want to reposed to some of the reactions and conversations provoked by the interview. I am a sensationalist and hedonist, sure. I want to react, to be stirred. I am consistency disappointed by what often seems to be a reflexive, knee jerk chorus- or single voice – of disapproval to presenting “difficult” material. It is about transcendence which can come in many guises. Don’t overlook my search for the sublime, how often the simplest of photographic images can offer a instant of the divine. My years as a collector have been a spiritual quest which I did not recognize until many years into it.

    I have been spending some time with Joseph Campbell lately and keep nodding my head in agreement. The best artists take us closer to the intangible, the unknown. And often it happens when the maker had no such intentions, when you get out of the way of yourself, it sometimes just happens.

    Hello David you old hedonist and shaman.

  • Inspiring to read your comments, thank you.

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