In Profile

Frish Brandt

BY Sarah Schmerler, August 17, 2015

Frish Brandt uses a mix of experience, logic, and intuition to make important photographic decisions, and over the 30 years she’s been at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, it’s worked like a charm. From the time the gallery came onto the scene in 1979, Fraenkel grew, quite literally, along with the medium it championed. Its name became synonymous with museum-quality shows of classic and groundbreaking photographic material (19th-century photographers like Carleton Watkins, and then-new faces like Nicholas Nixon and Robert Adams were stalwarts, key to the vision of the gallery’s founder, Jeffrey Fraenkel). Over her tenure, Brandt has augmented the gallery’s stable with artists like Idris Khan and Richard Learoyd, folding them into the gallery’s established core – a task that can’t be as easy as the silver-haired, personable Brandt makes it look. Yet, when she first saw Learoyd’s 4×6-foot-long camera obscura prints, for instance, she says the decision to show them was obvious. “He unfurled them, one print at a time, and taped them to my hotel room wall in Miami, and I had never seen anything like it. They aren’t just pictures, I thought; they’re objects that address the visual experience in a different way. I knew I would have to get people to see them in person – the chord they struck just wouldn’t translate otherwise – and do you know, the first collector who bought one hugged me? I don’t think that happens much.”

Brandt grew up outside of Chicago in “an art-friendly household” with her father, a construction superintendent and committed Sunday painter, her housewife mother, and two brothers – one a talented photographer in his own right. She credits her first real job, doing catalog sales at age 16 for the Sears Home Shopping Service, as providing some useful skills. “In some ways it’s not that dissimilar from what I do today – working with people, often remotely, telling them about how they might like or relate to something they can’t see.” Pursuing a liberal arts degree at Colorado College, Brandt decided to catch a ride out East and see what art schools there might have to offer – but she never made it. A message on the college’s ride board offered San Francisco instead, and she fell in love with the city. Brandt worked over the next three years at “all the sorts of jobs you do in your 20s” until she landed an administrative job at the Imogen Cunningham Trust. “It was a wonderful moment for me – seeing the way that Imogen considered the legacy of these prints. …
Just because an artist is gone doesn’t mean the negative is gone.” Brandt completed her art degree at the California College of Arts and Crafts, and by 1981, she was assisting and managing various editorial photographers. It was in 1984 that she first stepped into the Fraenkel Gallery with a collector friend to advise him on a purchase. Brandt liaised with Jeffrey Fraenkel on the sales. “We saw quickly what it was like to work together and before you know it,” she says, “I was there full time.” That was in 1985 (Brandt became a partner in the gallery in 1988 and recently its president). “From the moment I came in the door, I knew this work would not be redundant or predictable – and I was right. No two days here are ever the same, and I like that. That’s just how we play.”