One reason people collect photographs might be the following: if I see an Ansel Adams in a museum, I say to myself (and my dealer), I want that image. And possibly I can have it, the very one. Try that with a Picasso or a Richard Serra, pieces whose iconicity depends in part on their uniqueness. No wonder so many “major” photography collections look familiar, as if the collectors were trying to write the same standard history of photography all over again.
One alternative is to seek out the fringes, colonize genres that others ignore, and on some level absolve yourself of the responsibility that a full engagement with photography demands. Among contemporary photography collectors, Bill Hunt is a rarity, in that he has avoided both the center and the margin, and in the process gathered a collection of pictures that is engrossing from image to image. With surprising images by familiar names and stunning images by the nameless, Hunt’s collection had been a well-known attraction to everyone in the photography world for years. Its presentation at Arles in 2007 exposed it publicly and led to the 2011 publication of The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious (Aperture). A major part of the collection, including over 500 photographs, is on display at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, through February 19, 2012.
Hunt calls the collection “unconscious” because for him it constitutes a record of his unfolding self-knowledge, psychoanalysis by other means, not a replication of the canon. “I was a struggling actor in Cambridge, MA, when I bought my first picture,” he says, “of a faceless figurine. Every time I looked at her she seemed to say, ‘It’s gonna get better, kid.’ Photographs have a messaging power that comes from the unconscious.” His and ours. The cover image, Bill Jacobson’s Song of Sentient Beings #280, 1992, is a good example. Hunt calls it an invitation to bring the picture into focus for oneself, “to come to the picture and make of it what you will.” His collection demonstrates a predilection for averted gazes and eyeless figures, and the Jacobson portrait stretches the idea. It is, after all, about our blindness, our limited ability to resolve the image, and that blindness drives us toward the picture. (A mini-retrospective of Jacobson’s work, Into the Loving Nowhere (1989 till now), is on view at New York’s Julie Saul Gallery through December 10.) But as evocative as the notion of eyeless photographs might be, the Jacobson portrait reveals that this collector has used it more like Wittgenstein’s ladder than as a blueprint: He has climbed it to the top, kicked it away and kept on collecting, according to a deepening sense of himself. “Over time, collecting is a form of reassurance,” he adds. “It’s a way of adding structure to a tumultuous inner life. It’s a device by which I can say to myself, yes, this picture makes sense, who I am makes sense.”