Everyone knows that a serious photography dealer needs to have a “good eye.” But dealers with two-plus decades of continued success, like Joseph Bellows, have got to have eyes in the backs of their heads as well, enabling them to rediscover collections from the past, bring them to market before the hordes, and essentially influence taste. “Seventy-five percent of the artists on our website are photographers who are less well known, but important,” says Bellows from his La Jolla, California, gallery. Bellows shows the likes of Melissa Shook (whose candid and solitary black-and-white self portraiture pre-dates that of Francesca Woodman) and John Banasiak, (whose eerily illuminated nocturnal landscapes foreshadow the works of Tim Davis and Gregory Crewdson). ”Yes, I show photographers who are well known,” he says, “but what I really enjoy is researching not just artists, but collections that fill in gaps in movements like Pictorialism or the New Topographics – the sleuthing, the digging. I am a student of history, and for me, every photograph is a piece of history waiting to happen.”
Bellows, 57, got his photo education hands-on, from dealing and seeing work. He grew up in Rochester, New York, the son of two antique-dealer parents, from whom he learned the ins and outs of collectibles and valuation – everything from furniture to glass works to fine art. But it wasn’t until he went out West to La Jolla, at the advice of a girlfriend, to take a job with a photo collector and dealer that the medium truly entered his life. “I fell into it, and really took to it,” he says. “It was 1981, and everyone who visited this remote outpost came through our doors – I was so lucky: Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Arnold Newman, Susan Meiselas. You could buy an Adams for $1,200, or an Irving Penn for a few thousand dollars. Here I was at this job, at 24, and it was photography’s nascent market.“ By the time Bellows was 26, the fledgling Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego was being formed, and he transitioned into the post of exhibition designer, a catch-all position with creative carte blanche, from curatorial to graphic design. Bellows put on more than 100 exhibitions over the next ten years, including work by Arnold Newman, William Klein, and Roman Vishniac, until 1992, when he went into private dealing.
“Coming from a family of antique dealers my interest was to acquire and buy and sell,” he says, “I knew it was what I was meant to do. I would research and turn up collections, and I didn’t care if it had a market or not. I’d go through death indexes, city directories, and microfiche. I’d track down archives and estates.” In 1998, Bellows went public in his current space, 2,500 square feet on Girard Avenue, where works from the 1970s are something of a recent specialty. Troves like those of John Schott, who photographed low-lying architectural wonders along Route 66, and Thomas Barrow whose multiple-exposure works from the 1960s still look new. He also shows contemporary mid-career artists like 40-year-old Eric Antoine, who uses the rather retrograde ambrotype process to render dreamy portraits in bucolic settings. “The thrust of this is to get people’s work recognized” says Bellows, “not to play it safe. We like a challenge here.”