In Profile

Stephen Daiter

BY Sarah Schmerler, July 1, 2016

Expertise is crucial in the photo world, but who possesses definitive knowledge, and how do you find those people? Stephen Daiter of Chicago, who’s been in the business for 25 years, will assert that he can’t know everything about 20th-century documentary or experimental photography (two of his specialties) – no one can. Yet, only a handful of dealers could give you the thread of information you need to understand the value and history of just such a print. “Our path [at the gallery] starts from the 20th century, and we try to draw a line that connects the work of the ‘20s and ‘30s to the work of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the work that’s being done now,” says Daiter. “For instance, you can see the foundations of Gary Schneider’s work in Moholy-Nagy (not to mention Helmar Lerski); you look at Eugene Richards and you see his connection to Eugene Smith; and Alex Webb’s imagery added an essential new dimension, color, to Cartier-Bresson’s visual vocabulary of decisive moments and elemental geometry. I don’t have a photographic memory at all,” Daiter says, “but when the information comes in, a lot of it stays.”

Daiter, 63, was born and raised in Philadelphia to a Canadian-Jewish father – a doctor – and a German-Catholic mother. The forward-thinking, socially concerned couple raised Daiter and his two siblings as Quakers – they attended Friends schools throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s and went to civil rights demonstrations and protest lines to boot. Daiter attended several colleges, ultimately majoring in sociology at Bucknell. He went to the University of Chicago for graduate school, where he studied human development and immersed himself in a doctoral dissertation on “uncertainty in the lives of young adults who have serious illnesses.” He taught full time at Northwestern and amassed some 600 hours of field interviews with his subjects, often in far-flung locations. When he arrived early for his appointments, he’d visit bookstores and antique shops, where he began to spot photo books of note that others had passed by. “I regularly saw books like Danny Lyon’s Bikeriders and bought them, initially because I liked them, later realizing I could supply them to people who were really interested in this work.” He found prints by the likes of Lewis Hine, Clarence John Laughlin, and Walker Evans, and publications by people like Marion Palfi (whose Suffer Little Children is still one of his favorites). In 1991, Daiter went into business for himself full time.

His gallery opened to the public in 1997, and specialties include the New Bauhaus/Institute of Design (Moholy-Nagy, Kepes, Callahan, and Siskind) and the Photo League. Daiter’s contemporary stable fits seamlessly into the mix. On view through July 30, Jay King: Good for Chicago features street work by the septuagenarian photographer, and a show by gallery artist Dawoud Bey is planned for the fall. “Bey does deep, interesting projects,” says Daiter, mentioning The Birmingham Project, in which Bey researched and depicted the faces of local children who would be the same age of the children who died during the bombing of the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and other violent acts of that day, “as well as adults the same age those children would be today – had they lived,” says Daiter. “You feel the absence of people; they’re there, because they’re not there.”