Collectors' Roundtable: Keith F. Davis on Collecting Photographs
April 13, 2009
The Hallmark Photo Collection (yes, that Hallmark) began in the early 1960s, and was even displayed in a gallery on the ground level of their flagship store in Manhattan. Keith F. Davis joined the Hallmark Fine Art Collection in 1979, when its holdings included about 2500 photos. By 2006, when Hallmark donated the collection to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (where Davis was named curator of photography), the collection boasted 6500 photos by 900 different photographers.
"Collecting is a reflection of when and where. One can only collect in the present moment," Davis told us early in the talk, and made reference to one piece by Cindy Sherman he bought in the eighties for a song, and regretted that he didn't buy more. When Davis began at Hallmark, their priority was to collect portfolios of work by major photographers. His initial goal was to build logically within that framework. "The goal I was working on was to have something original to say about American photography," he told us. The next period of building Hallmark's collection, roughly from 1995 to 2006 saw a shift of emphasis with a "major focus on nineteenth-century American work," chiefly the daguerreotype. According to Davis, "these works made between 1840 and 1860 lay the groundwork for everything that followed. The daguerreotype era was a primal, formidable, period." And some of the examples he showed us were just beautiful, including some fine examples from the Boston studio of Southworth and Hawes.
The collecting Davis does now for the Nelson-Atkins is based on "expanding the canon and the exhibitions that [he'd] like to do." All in all, Davis shared with us his thirty years of amassing one of the world's most important collections of photographs. It's a collection that benefitted from Davis's eye and one to which Davis feels strongly attached. "I always thought the Hallmark collection was mine," he said with a smile, "though not technically or legally mine."
When it came time for questions, members of the audience wanted to know how to start a photography collection. "Buy the things that people twenty years ago are going to be crazy about," he said to the amused crowd, adding, "2009 is a jolly good time to be collecting. The way to start is to go out and look. It's more important to look and to think than it is to write checks."
And lucky you, if you're looking at photos by the next Cindy Sherman.
- Photography, Hallmark Photo Collection, Keith F. Davis, American Art,
Smithsonian American Art Museum
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