WHEN THE photographers for "House & Gardens" came to take pictures of Judy and Bob Elliot's newly remodeled Victorian manse in Chevy Chase, the first thing they did was remove from the walls all evidence of the Elliot's photography collection, including works by Stieglitz, Steichen and Imogen Cunningham.
When the house is published this spring, the walls will be resplendent in Gene Davis stripe paintings, hauled in for the occasion (and subsequently hauled out) by architect Hugh Jacobsen. "Too much glare from the glass," explained "House & Gardens."
It was a bit of sleight-of-hand that characterized the current state of the so-called photography boom - now you see it, now you don't. Over the past few years the growth of interest in photography as art has been phenomenal. In Washington, as elsewhere, the number of photographers and artists switching from paint to film has proliferated, as have books articles and museum exhibitions on photography, old and new. The number of gallaries devoted chiefly or exclusively to photographs has also grown to four here and well over a dozen in New York. And then, of course, there are the photography collectors.
Photography collectors?What photography collectors," says Gerd Sander, who deals world-wide in European photographs and opened a gallary here last fall. "I've met two, and if I had to depend on collectors in Washington, I'd starve."
It is a refrain that has been uttered often by Washington dealers in every aspect of art here, including prints and paintings. "This is a staid, conservative town, and people need to be told what's what before they buy," says Mary Schumaker, whose four-year-old Washington Gallery of Photography (which deals chiefly with contemporaries) is closing in June. "Photography is just too sophisticated for most people."
So where's the boom? Renato Danese, assistant director of Visual Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts, a collector himself, explains: "What is being called a boom is not so much a commercial phenomenon as the sudden, widespread awareness of photography as an art-form. Until a few years ago, neither old nor new photography attracted much scholarly or curatorial interest. Now, suddenly, the history of photography is being included in college curricula, and books and articles are being written about it, and exhibitions arranged in museums. As for the market, however, there is in fact a leveling off right now. Serious collectors are staying in, but photography is not the "fad" proposition it was a few years back. Most of the current activity is in vintage prints and historical material. The real interest in contemporary work is yet to come."
If further proof is necessary to verify the rather surprising fact that contemporary work has not yet caught on commercially, Washington's own John Gossage, who is handled by Leo Castelli in New York, and has by any measure "made it" as a photographer, reveals that over the last five years, he has sold fewer than 150 photographs.
So Bob and Judy Elliot seem to be typical of Washington photography collectors at the moment. Also typical is the fact that they started out as collectors of paintings. When they returned to Washington in 1974 after four years in London, they decided they were tired of shipping and rehanging their small collection of "Pop" paintings (which has increased in value by factor of 10 in as many years) and sent them straight through, uncrated, to a west coast dealer for resale. (Pop prices were high.) "We took that money in the form of a credit from the dealer," says Elliot, "and subsequently bought dozens of photographs with it." (Photo prices were low.) Elliot, no stranger to capital gains, is an international tax lawyer with the firm of Caplin and Drysdale.
Though the Elliots had acquired a few photographs by John Gossage, Mark Power and Joe Cameron back in the '60s when they were all involved with the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and the Corcoran, (where Bob Elliot served on the board of governors) their interest in photography was marginal. "I couldn't see paying a lot of money for something that could exist in endless copies," he says.
Meanwhile, along with the Warhols and other "Pop" paintings, the Elliots were buying works by Washington artists, which they still proudly display. A plexiglas sculpture by Rockne Krebs sparkles in the window of the sundrenched living room. A large Sam Gilliam hangs elsewheree, near a burled walnut piano made in London in 1872.
The Elliots' interest in collecting obviously extends to beautiful things from every age. Over the sleek white Saarinen dining room table and chairs hangs a megafaceted Victorian chanelier, a Christmas gift from him to her. It is characteristic of the bold juxtapositions of past and present that are visible throughout the house, which in itself is something of a contradiction - 1870 on the outside and top-of-the-'70s Jacobsen on the inside. This is their second Hugh Jacobsen house.
It was in London that the Elliots first became seriously interested in old photographs. "I found a book written by a curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum," says Bob, "and began looking around for more. There was very little in print on the subject at the time, although newspaper and magazine articles on photography were beginning to appear regularly."
By 1974, when Sotheby had its first auction devoted exclusively to photography, the Elliots were ready to jump in. "There was no place to buy old photographs at the time," he recalls. "The rare book shops had been cleaned out by dealers who were buying up everything they could get their hands on, in preparation for the anticipated photo boom, and the few photography galleries were concerned with contemporaries." At that first Sothebys auction, the Elliots bought their first photograph, a platinum print by a late 19th-century English architectural photographer named Frederick Evans. It was called "Evening on a French River," and the knock-down price was $1,200.
"It was much too much, and it was a long time before I paid that much for another photograph," says Elliot. "Auctions are amusing and educational, but they're a dicey business if you don't know what you're doing. It's much better to go to a good dealer and look and learn. But at that point, you either bought at auction or not at all."
At that auction the Elliots met Washington dealer Harry Lunn, who has played a major rold in stimulating the market in historic and vintage photographs world wide. They subsequently were introduced to other private dealers in London, and before long, they were hooked. "I remember the night before we left to come home," laughs Judy Elliot, "we were running all over London buying photographs."
It was at that point that the Elliots decided to trade in their paintings for photographs. "Paintings were getting too expensive anyhow," recalls Bob, "and we could only buy two or three a year. For the same money, we could buy dozens of photographs, and it's the collecting that we love. For us it's a focus for looking, wherever we go, and it makes living more fun."
"But to collect, you have to be able to buy," adds Judy Elliot, who talks less, but clearly shares and may even exceed her husband's passion for the joys of seeking out and discovering beautiful things. "For me," she says, "collecting offers the same kind of excitement a child feels picking up seashells and rocks on the beach."
Though theirs is not a princely collection, it is large by Washington standards, including 100 to 200 prints.There are only a few other known collectors on that scale in Washington, two of whom happen to be law partners of Bob Elliot. But this collection does not include many of what Elliot calls "the classy classics," such as the famous Stieglitz "Steerage," or Paul Strand's "Picket Fence," nor a great Walker Evens.
"Frankly, I'm not mad for Walker Evans," says Elliot, "nor do I like the recent work of Ansel Adams, which I think is getting rather slick and overpriced. I'd be happy to have one of his great early views of Yosemite, but as for recent work, I'd rather have a John Gossage, even though I really don't go for tough contemporary photography.
"We've developed our own views, and are stubborn about what we like and don't like," says Elliot. What the Elliots like is late 19th-century European photography, and "the European look" of early Stieglitz and others. There are several photographs of Gothic cathederals by Frederick Evans and landscapes by P.H. Emerson on the living room walls. Stashed away here and there are other examples by the Scottish photograpber Thomas Annan and the Frenchman Atget.
But there are also splendid examples by American masters hanging on their walls, including Stieglitz and Steichen. Over the closeted, recessed bar are a vintage Imogen Cunningham "Calla Lilly," (vintage meaning printed by the photographer just after the photograph was taken); a lush Berenice Arbott view of Manhattan at night, and an Edward Weston "Eggplant," vintage. "I have vintage Abbort, but that one was printed recently. I wouldn't buy it now," says Elliot. "I also have several Edward Westons photographs which I bought early on which were printed by his son and approved by him, but I wouldn't buy them now either. The excitement is in owning the vintage piece, the old and the rare. If you just want the image, you might as well buy a book of photographs, or order copy prints from the Library of Congress for $2.50 each."
And how about photos printed posthumously? "I wouldn't have them," says Elloit, "unless I just wanted the image. Printing photographs posthumously is nothing more than a production job."
The Elliots are still not terribly interested in very recent photography, and for several months have held off buying at all while they completed what he calls "this Taj Mahal." "But when I do get going again, I'm going to look at people doing platinum prints, like George Tice and Steve Szabo, and also at 20th-century Europeans.
But the time of the contemporary photographers will have to wait some, it would seem. Most of the heavy buying at the moment is clearly in rare and historical material. As Elliot points out, "there's just so much vintage and old material around. If you don't get it now it will be gone, or just too expensive."