We photo professionals take for granted how often we rely on the vision of a handful of prominent dealers to educate us about the medium. Jeffrey Fraenkel is one such “statesman dealer.” Fraenkel has represented such influential photographers as Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus in his three-decades-old gallery in San Francisco, mounting shows that would make any museum proud. That said, he’s also one of the more idiosyncratic dealers. He hasn’t been afraid to ask his public to consider a Carl Andre floor sculpture in relation to a meditative seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto; or to mount a Robert Adams photograph next to a Robert Ryman painting (both of which he did in the 2006 show Nothing and Everything, in collaboration with dealer Peter Freeman). “My exhibition history is like an X-ray into who I am,” says Fraenkel, enigmatically. For the last 20 years he’s been using his exhibition program to append a new chapter onto photography’s ever-evolving history: breaking down the boundaries between photography and other mediums.
Fraenkel grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, his family arriving there from Shreveport when he was four years old. Although his was “a classically miserable childhood,” a couple of photo-related events acted as gentle epiphanies: one was a Diane Arbus photograph (Tattooed Man at a Carnival) he discovered in a Newsweek article when he was 17 years old. Says the now-54-year-old dealer: “I remember the effect was like an electric shock to my system. I don’t think I was the same after that.” Attending Antioch College in Ohio, he got a work-study job at Anschel Gallery in London, where he sold Warhol prints at the age of 20, then “haunted museums” in cities across Europe as well as in New York and San Francisco, seeing everything related to photography that he could see. Once he graduated, more revelatory moments followed—particularly at San Francisco’s Grapestake Gallery (which closed in 1984), where he first worked after college. There was the time the 22-year-old Fraenkel, while packing a Moonrise by Ansel Adams, “accidentally sliced it in two with a mat knife. That was a cosmic note to self,” says Fraenkel, “that I should not be representing Ansel Adams’s work.” And then there was the fateful day that Fraenkel, while emptying the trash, allowed an auction house press release to catch his eye: Swann Galleries was announcing the sale of two albums by the 19th-century photographer of the American West, Carleton Watkins. The perspicacious young Fraenkel went to New York, and, with three other investors, bought one album for the then-princely sum of $98,000. He returned to San Francisco and opened his own gallery with those works (the best of which sell for $400,000 to $500,000 today—when you can find them).
“The photo world was a very different place in 1979, and a lot of the key people were not being exhibited in the West,” Fraenkel recalls. That did not stop him from showing them: Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank. Since the mid-’80s, the Fraenkel roster has included some more wild cards like Sol LeWitt, famed for his minimalist wall drawings, and photographer Idris Kahn—a discovery of Fraenkel’s longtime partner, Frish Brandt. Says Fraenkel, “We are in many ways the same gallery we were when we started.” Still, Fraenkel has clearly not spoken the last word on the subject. The title of his upcoming show, planned for late 2009 or early 2010 to celebrate the gallery’s 30th anniversary year?Furthermore.