The more carefully you hone your photographic specialty, the greater your ability to appreciate it—and the greater its rewards. Serious collectors know this, as does Hans P. Kraus, Jr., the veteran dealer and leading specialist in 19th and early 20th-century photography. He’s placed masterworks in such collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Gallery of Art, to name a few. And through November 20, some 25 works by the likes of Henry Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard, Roger Fenton, and Alfred Stieglitz will be on view in Kraus’s Upper East Side gallery as part of his Silver Anniversary exhibition. At press time, Kraus paused to regard a print that’s not in the show, but could well have been, were it not being sent to a client on approval—Frederick Evans’s iconic 1903 A Sea of Steps, Wells Cathedral. “Images like this,” he says, “they’ll just knock your socks off. I’m constantly having my socks knocked off. I put them back on, but it still happens again and again.”
The 51-year-old dealer is fastidious on points of detail, but far from fussy in manner. He arrived at his appreciation for beautiful historical objects naturally: his Viennese émigré father, H. P. Kraus, was the eminent antiquarian book dealer. “My father desperately wanted me to come into his business, and I didn’t want to,” says Kraus. “I wrestled with that. Photography was my refuge, in a way—something that I found for myself.” Kraus first discovered the medium in high school in Connecticut, where he loved taking photographs, working in the darkroom, and poring over photo books he found in the library. Ansel Adams was a particular inspiration, and at the age of 19, Kraus bought his first print, Adams’sMoonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, from Light Gallery in 1977. Kraus still continued to make his own photographs while an art history undergraduate at Tufts—until his senior year abroad, that is. One rainy afternoon, on a rooftop in Tübingen, Germany, the 21-year-old Kraus attempted to capture an image of lightning on 35mm film—and ended up getting struck by lightning himself. The event was both a revelation and a confirmation: Kraus would leave the making of photographs to his betters, but he would ardently pursue those practitioners of the medium who first, and to his eye, best, fixed images with light.
He worked for a year in the photography department at Christie’s London, where “the greatest early material I could imagine was being consigned for sale,” he says, and where he met such important collectors as Sam Wagstaff and Pierre Apraxine. He later moved to Christie’s New York. With the contacts he’d formed, he became a private dealer in 1984, inaugurating his business with the publication of the first-ever monograph on the cyanotypes of the 19th-century photographer and botanist Anna Atkins. He has since produced at least one major scholarly publication a year (including a highly ambitious and painstaking facsimile of Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature with an introductory essay by Talbot scholar Larry J. Schaaf) as well as equally scholarly shows such as Frederick H. Evans: A Logical Perfection and The British Paper Negative (a favorite topic of Kraus’s), among other exhibitions. In 2006, Kraus moved into his current space on Park Avenue where he continues to organize exhibitions that reflect his long study of photography’s rich history. “When people collect—even a collector of contemporary work—they want to see antecedents,” Kraus explains. “They start looking backward. And when people start looking backwards, they come here.”