Daile Kaplan has worn many hats over the years – artist, curator, photo historian, drummer in a rock band, performance artist, collector, expert on the long-running television program Antiques Roadshow, and, of course, head of photographs at Swann Auction Galleries, a job she’s held since 1990.
Kaplan is interested in the broadest possible definition of photography, an attitude evident at Swann, where she assembles sales of fine art photographs, photo books, and vernacular photography. Swann held its first sale dedicated to vernacular photography in 2014, and it brought a total of $784,836. “There’s been a groundswell of interest in that material,” she says, adding, “The idea of how vernacular photography connects to the contemporary art world is important to me personally, because we are looking for bridges that can expand what photography is understood to be.”
Kaplan also builds those bridges through her personal collection, what she calls Pop Photographica, a term she coined to describe three-dimensional objects adorned with photographic images. She now has 2,500 objects in her collection, including a 1969 Hills Brothers coffee can wrapped by an Ansel Adams image; a Laurie Simmons dessert plate covered with photos of sweets; and a church fan with a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., circa 1965. Part of the collection was shown at the Arles Photo Festival last summer.
Kaplan resisted becoming a collector for a long time, aware of potential conflicts of interest. But then she spotted a hat veil display in the window of an antiques store in Pennsylvania. It was a circular piece of board with the face of a pretty flapper, from about 1925. A flurry of associations – from the image of Duchamp’s alter ego Rose Sélavy on a perfume bottle to Kaplan’s grandma Dora, who was a hat designer – convinced her to make the purchase, and the rest is history.
Born in Brooklyn, Kaplan initially majored in Russian studies at Harpur College (now SUNY Binghamton). But two of her teachers, the filmmaker Ken Jacobs and Larry Gottheim (who since founded Be-hold auctions), were so influential that she abandoned Russian for cinema studies. After college, she was a drummer in Rhys Chatham’s band, The Gynecologists; a member of Martha Wilson’s performance group Disband; and a photographer. She moved to Paris for a time, and when she came back to New York, she took the next logical step for a Jewish girl from Brooklyn: she directed a preservation and research program for the United Methodist Church. It was there that she uncovered a cache of Lewis Hine photographs that he had taken for the social welfare magazine Charities And The Commons. Her first book, Lewis Hine in Europe: The Lost Photographs, was published by Abbeville in 1988. “I continue to be fascinated by Hine and what a visionary he was,” says Kaplan, crediting him with leading her to think about photography outside of its orthodox confines. “From the get go, it was about making photography bigger, connecting the dots between our field and the larger visual culture.”