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Q&A: Ben Breard Reflects on 40 Years With Afterimage Gallery

by Tina Aguilar 30 Dec 2011 11:18 AM

Guest blogger Tina Aguilar talks to the gallery owner about what he’s learned from running the space and what he looks for in the photographers he represents.


Photo: Tina Aguilar

Afterimage Gallery, run by owner and director Ben Breard, marked its 40th anniversary in 2011. The gallery boasts an extraordinary collection of artists and a legacy for the medium. Breard took time recently at the gallery to visit with me about the space and the nuances of running a gallery.

Tina Aguilar: Who are some of the artists that you represent?
Ben Breard: First off, they are all photographers. That’s important – people call all the time. We have all kinds of people, people who are virtually unknown to people who are internationally known. I guess the most famous person we directly represent would be George Tice. He has authored many books and had many shows. He had a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum back in the 1970s. Then we have new people all the time, like this fellow behind you, Michael Massaia. He goes out and photographs at night and he’s totally innovative with his work. There’s nobody who approaches night photography like he does. And that’s a platinum/palladium print. In other words, he uses platinum on the paper instead of silver. That has an astounding technique. He uses a lot of dodging to make those light areas – a real dark room master.

T.A.: Three words that describe the gallery?
B.B.: Dealing exclusively [in] photography.

T.A.: I like that.
B.B: Well, I use that all the time. I say an “art gallery exclusively devoted to photography.” I should say “art gallery,” because when you mention photography people think of a studio. They think of a professional photographer and portrait studio. So if I say art gallery and then you combine with “we only show photography,” that still throws them off. Then we say you just have to come in here and see what we’re talking about.

T.A.: Tell me more about your 40 years running the gallery.
B.B.: I majored in photojournalism, and I just thought I would like to show other people’s work. That’s basically it. So we started with only local people at first, until I got running the place down, and then we started contacting nationally known photographers. We’ve had the same philosophy of showing all that time. In other words, part of the gallery is the one person or group show area, the bigger show; and the other half is the miscellaneous – all kinds of different people. Most galleries don’t do that. They just have one person up, and I think it helps our sales to have a variety.

T.A.: Was it very difficult to find your space?
B.B.: I searched around different shopping centers and saw the demographics of the people and the Quadrangle at that time. There were 50 stores here [laughinh]; there’s only a couple now. We had the best demographics.

T.A.: What were your original ideas as you were finishing your studies?
B.B.: There were some other galleries at the time in New York City that I liked and I noticed; nothing real profound. When I started out, the rent was pretty cheap and everything is consigned, and still is. The costs of starting up weren’t that bad.

T.A.: You show a vibrant collection.
B.B.: Photography’s a democratic art form, most everybody likes it and it’s less expensive than all the other media. So I have things that you could come in here and buy something for a couple hundred bucks, or you could spend $50,000 if you want. I want to appeal to all price ranges and people.

T.A.: What about your online business for the gallery?
B.B.: It’s essential. I don’t know where we would be without it. I started our website in 1997, and we get – at least we have been getting – about a million visitors a year. That might have gone down since the advent of Facebook. But all I have is an old, cheap computer and the service costs $20 a month – and that’s all. You get 24/7 advertising. We’ve built up a big e-mail list, and so when I get a special item in or something, sometimes if it’s something with a lot of demand, you send out a bulk e-mail and you sell out, immediately, that day. That’s what happened recently. I had three Ansel Adams, signed and numbered, lithographs and I told everybody in the e-mail, “you better call fast.”

T.A.: Have you found new trends over the last year?
B.B.: I can’t say there are different trends in people collecting, except that people who have money are not affected as much with the economic downturn. But yet psychologically they might feel it. The big change in the field is going digital with everything, so that’s the biggest change. And some collectors don’t like it, they just insist on darkroom prints. And others don’t mind.

T.A.: Do you advise folks that are interested in starting a collection?
B.B.: Usually I tell them just buy what you like. That’s an old adage, but if you’re a decent gallery it’s going to be a decent piece of art to begin with and you just buy what you like in the gallery. You might run into trouble in a flea market or something.

T.A. Trust your gut, trust yourself.
B.B.: And you know, your taste may change – you might re-sell stuff five or 10 years down the road that you don’t like anymore. And that’s fine.

Fry Canyon, Utah, 1984, Terry Falke

T.A.: With your photojournalism background, what photographers were you interested in and what about today?
B.B.: Back in the old days, one of my favorites was a guy named Bruce Davidson. He did a classic book called East 100th Street, photographs of Harlem and different people’s apartments – just portraiture in their environment, living environment, very, very powerful work. And he’s still around and shooting. Today, you’ve got some great war photographers like [James] Nachtwey. And also I do have a relationship with David Hume Kennerly. He was President Ford’s photographer. That’s how he got really well known. He’s still doing a lot of things.
Then you have a lot of people doing surreal photography, and they create things, mental concepts – they do the work beforehand, then they do the photograph to match what they’re thinking. We have a new photographer named Angela Bacon-Kidwell from Wichita Falls who does some amazingly creative work, creating a feeling or a dream-like image.

T.A.: Talk to me about the nitty-gritty process of selecting your work.
B.B.: It’s easy. There are three things I look for. You look for saleability for one thing. I am not a non-profit, and it may be good work, so I’ll send them to a non-profit space or something. Then I look for maturity; has the person been at it long enough. Usually you can tell if it’s mature or not by does it have a style. If that’s a Sam Jones photograph, you can just look at it and tell. If you can’t tell that from looking at his prints, then he doesn’t have a style yet, so he’s just not mature in what he’s doing. The third is uniqueness. I don’t want somebody who’s doing something like I’ve already got represented here. You want some element of innovation with the work.
So those three things I look for, and we get a thousand requests to look at stuff a year. And we might only choose one or two. I say I get requests, but I don’t look at that many – it’s too hard. My first loyalty is to people we represent already, as opposed to somebody mailing me a bunch of prints or website address or something.

T.A.: I think artists should be looking at where they want to be represented. Just like you said, you knew of galleries in New York that you went to, so the question becomes: How do I find a space?
B.B.: Well, I send people to other galleries. If I’m not interested in the work, so-and-so may be.

T.A.: Do you have any particular words of wisdom that artists should keep in mind?
B.B.: Most people don’t have a clue with these kinds of things. They don’t have a clue as to what may be saleable. The work may be very personal and nobody cares about your feelings, until you get well-known, then they might care. Like Frida Kahlo’s work, not to be using a non-photographer, is very personal work, but it was good art. But you can’t always just start off like that and make it. And some people don’t realize the amount of work they have to do. The years they have to pay. A lot of people are clueless, but then every once in a while you get some people that know what they are doing. You almost have to be represented by another gallery before you can get in here. And there are exceptions. I do look at work, and there are some people that get in that don’t have any experience. Usually they have had some experience somewhere if they’ve been at it long enough.

T.A.: Who is the next artist in the gallery?
B. B.: It’s “Terry Falke: No Straight Lines in Nature, Black and White Landscapes Revisited.” (Through Jan. 24)  He’s revisiting earlier black and white imagery. The prints are simply outstanding. He’s known in the last few years for his color work. In fact, he has a nationally published book out that is all color and the Amon Carter Museum is always showing his color work. This show will be the earlier work revisited, and nobody has ever seen a lot of these things – it’s spectacular stuff.

  • Rick

    40 fast years…Ben’s gallery is tops, has been for decades. We all are most grateful for the variety and depth of photographers he represents. TINA: Nice questions

  • congrats to Ben…much deserved for such a hardworking arts supporter!