Focus On: Bill Hunt

Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas, 1980. Courtesy Christie’s Images, Ltd. 2020

“Photography, for me, is a life’s mission,” says collector, curator, teacher, writer, former dealer, onetime actor, and full-time storyteller Bill Hunt. “I think of the enormous pleasure that photography’s brought to me over the years, and I’m happy to share it, and I’m energized to talk about it and to direct people to it.” Hunt has been collecting photographs for some 40 years, amassing a couple thousand objects in his two main collections – one on the theme of closed or averted eyes, the other featuring American photographs of groups before 1950. Over the next three years, he is deaccessioning everything, beginning with an online sale at Christie’s, The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the W.M. Hunt Collection, that starts October 5 and runs until October 14 and includes more than 100 photographs. “I will say that Darius Himes [head of photography at Christie’s], to his infinite credit, picked some real screwball curiosities that are just great,” says Hunt. I spoke with Hunt, just over a week before the sale began, about how he began collecting, what it is like to begin deaccessioning his collections now, and his advice for collectors. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space.

JD: You’ve spoken movingly about your photography collection over the years, calling many of the images pictures of you, metaphorically speaking. What is it like to deaccession such a personal collection, and why now?

BH: One of the things is the real difficulty of physically taking care of them. I just can’t handle it and I want to respect the pictures, and having them just sitting in my studio is no good for anybody. It seemed to be the right moment in time.  I never talk about my age, but I will be 75 this year, and that’s a time when you do things like this.

My instinct is to trim down everything, and I’ve given myself three years to do it. I do want museums to know that I want to place work that I’m not selling, and in particular works by artists who would benefit by being in a museum. One of the things that’s sweet is to go back through all these pictures and think of the relationships with the various artists over the years. I really love photographers, I like what they do, and the longer I’m around, the less I ever imagine making photographs myself.

Phyllis Galembo, Brazil, 1987. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020

JD: Christie’s is selling more than 100 pieces – what are your plans for the rest?

BH: I want to give some away, and I want to sell the rest…. I am trying to return things to where they came from – if I’ve got stuff from FotoFest [in Houston], for example, my intention is to offer it to some place like the MFA Houston. Or to the Menil Collection [in Houston], which is  probably my favorite museum in the world. And they have a photography collection that is kind of unusual, and my collection is … kind of unusual. I mean how many people are going to take these Joel-Peter Witkins – not everybody!

JD: How many Witkins are in the collection?

BH: I have eight, including the one in the Christie’s sale – the bomb [Man without a Head, 1993] – which is a great picture for me, terrifying to most.

Joel-Peter Witkin, Man without a Head, 1993. Courtesy Christie’s Images, Ltd. 2020

JD: What is it that you like about that picture?

BH: I will tell you exactly. When I turned 50, I was at Pace/MacGill, and they had a Witkin show. (I actually ended up representing Joel for a period of time). I walk in, and there’s this picture, and it just made my – the opposite of sweating – it adrenalized me. And I thought: if you owned this, you would be powerful. I’m amazed that Trump doesn’t have this picture. It appealed to every mega-maniacal button in me.  Buying it was a real “fuck you” to everybody, a way of saying “I am going my own way, and here’s the picture that announces that.” It’s not a popular picture.

JD: Is it because it’s such an intense and difficult picture that you felt it made you powerful to own it?

 BH: I don’t know how that picture behaves for other people. It behaves for me very intensely.  And I do know from other people that the nature of that intensity is that they’re wounded or offended or they feel violated. It’s like people who don’t like pictures of snakes.

JD: It’s visceral.

BH: Yeah.  What a strange phenomenon to think that owning it would be empowering. But I think that happens with certain pictures. You think if you can bring this into your life you will be kinder, more grounded, it will change your perception of things.

Irving Penn, Two Guedras, Morocco, 1971. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020

JD: Along those lines, you’ve spoken previously about your “Hair, Head, Feet” philosophy of collecting. Can you describe that?

BH: I have three pieces of advice for collectors: First hair – the hair on the back of your hand (or the back of your neck if you’re a lady) should stand up. Second, the sound of your heart beating should be louder than the voice in your head that says you can’t possibly afford it. And the third thing is your feet. Your feet will always walk you up to what you like.

JD: Do you still find yourself having those reactions?

BH: The adjustment now is to try to get back to a place of innocence, where I don’t know anything. To really just walk into a room and let it happen. Because I know a lot, and that doesn’t serve me at all in terms of pleasure. The pleasure is when you walk in and you really just get knocked out by something that’s just so spectacular and singular and wow, wow, wow.

Diane Arbus, Anderson Hays Cooper (The Vanderbilt Baby), 1968. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020

JD: When was the last time that happened to you?

BH: I was at the Met the other day, and there’s this Tenenbaum show up [Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, through November 30], and there was this [Edward] Weston that I fell in love with a couple of years ago, which is a cloudscape [Cloud, Mexico, 1926]. I just think it’s so gorgeous. It doesn’t take very much information to really wow me. Overwhelmingly, there’s way too much stuff in pictures. …. The really good photographs are all neutrons: they’re like magnets, to see it you have to physically come closer. The Witkin is an exception, it says Back Up. But the other ones – you want to pick them up and dance around the room with them.

Annie Leibovitz, Karen Finley, New York City, 1992. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020

JD: When you began buying photographs, how did it become a collection of images that included closed or averted eyes?

BH: Basically, the voices said go out and buy this romantic picture of a woman in the woods with a sheet over her head. So I bought a picture – it’s not in the Christie’s sale, which is weird, because I bought it at Christie’s –  it was an Imogen Cunningham [Veiled Woman, 1910]. At the time I thought – what have you done?! You don’t have $300, and you’re taking it home and then you just head right out the door to look at some others. I would buy two or three a year, initially, and take them home. You do know you’re a collector when you have to take something down to put the new things up. And it was always magical pictures of people where you couldn’t see their eyes. I don’t think I articulated it until the fourth picture, but that’s what I was looking for. And then after about the twelfth picture, you go, this is a really good way to look at pictures, because I can look with some dispatch. By the 500th picture you go – you should look at some landscapes, maybe?

JD: Are you keeping anything?

BH: Last night I was going through some photographs and I went, you know, there are eight pictures here I want to keep. They’re all small, and they all have some weird meaning to me. The picture I stopped at was this vernacular photograph of [boxer] Jack Dempsey with one arm out. I thought, why in the world do you like this picture? And I really love this picture, because it has no story around it, it’s just power. It’s a little reminder: don’t be a chump, go out there and speak what you mean. Or they’re by artists I know. There’s a Paolo Ventura  picture that means something to me because I like that friendship. There’s a way in which pictures by friends become little talismans about who you are, and the complexity of who you are, and the value of who you are. A lot of that is in those pictures. When you’re with those pictures, you go – yes, this is me.

JD: Are you still buying photographs?

BH: I buy vernacular stuff, yeah. You’d laugh because I basically put them in a box and then I go, I’ll get to this. I have a lot of snapshots, press prints — how could I pass them up, they’re so cool!

Godfrey Frankel, Lexington & 110th Street (The Unseen Eye Is Watching You), 1947. Courtesy Christie’s Images, Ltd., 2020