Photo by Chris Honeysett

Photo by Chris Honeysett

What if you really needed to parse the pros and cons of buying one print of Ansel Adams’s iconic Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico over another? After all, there are approximately 1,200 out there. Ask Scott Nichols. The San Francisco dealer has handled Adams for 30 years, and chances are he can date the print after a bit of study: from the 1950s to the mid 1960s the tonalities are “creamier;” from the early to mid 1970s the pictures are more contrasty; and then there are changes in paper quality and other elements that we can’t begin to enumerate here. Nichols, a California native and specialist in the f.64 group, came into the medium quite young, before the photo market erupted, and the Bay Area was thick with talent. “It was being in the right place at the right time,” says the dealer of his student days at U.C. Berkeley. “I was fortunate enough to take a class at Berkeley with William Garnett, and one afternoon he said we would be seeing Brett Weston and Ansel Adams. I had no money, but it just so happened that a financial aid check for $800 had come in.” Brett Weston had 16 student prints available that he was offering for $50 each. “I realized I had $800, so I bought
all 16,” says Nichols. “It wasn’t like I had a choice; I had this passion. I had to do it.”

Now 60, Nichols, who is fit and silver-haired, figured out how to trust his instincts early on. He grew up south of Los Angeles and spent his first 18 years up and down the Santa Monica coast. He pursued diving and other outdoor sports. Photography entered his life in the form of the TIME-LIFE book series, but it wasn’t until he was 18 that
he took his first photo class. “Once I got to Berkeley in 1974 it was a whole different world. Richard Misrach and Roger Minick were working at the student union studio. Brett Weston would let me come along on photographic expeditions in Point Lobos. Garnett asked me to be his studio assistant for $3 an hour. So many doors were opening.” Nichols begged his dad to pay for a $69 plane ticket to New York to attend
the fall photography auctions around that time. “I got off the plane and previewed the photographs,” he recalls. “I got a seat at the auction and Sam Wagstaff sat down next
to me. Then there was no looking back.”

Already an avid collector, Nichols started dealing privately in 1980, initially working out of his apartment in the Berkeley Hills, and later Telegraph Hill, specializing in Brett Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, and other f.64 artists. In 1992 he opened a gallery at 49 Geary Street, where you’ll find shows of the sort that make it clear that galleries can often set the bar for connoisseurship as much, if not more than, museums and auction houses. “I try to do things that you won’t see in New York,” says Nichols, whose shows are focused on print quality and rarity: Ansel Adams’s Manzanar Project (of a Japanese-American internment camp), of which there are only eight sets in circulation; the first solo Dorothea Lange show in 12 years; plus a few contemporary (even digital-based) artists who have managed to capture Nichols’s attention and respect. “This is our 20th anniversary,” says the dealer, “and curatorially, the longer I am in this business the more open I become. It’s not so much my way or the highway.”