Cultured Magazine

Winter 2015

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CULTURED 277 effrey is the only non-photographer who loves photography as much as we do," says Nicholas Nixon with a glance across the table at Lee Friedlander. The two master photographers are drinking J&B whisky in the library of Jeffrey Fraenkel's gallery alongside Frish Brandt, Fraenkel's right-hand woman, whose open-door policy often leads to impromptu merriment. Nixon, aged 68, best known for his black and white photographs of The Brown Sisters, has exhibited with Fraenkel for 35 years. Friedlander, 81, considered America's greatest living documentary photographer, showed at the gallery in its first year of operations—1979. When asked how he would describe Fraenkel, Friedlander says, "I don't know. Words are not my thing. I use this." He lifts his old-school 35mm Voigtlander Bessa, a lightweight Japanese version of a Leica. Brandt, by contrast, is never tongue-tied. "Jeffrey is a classic 'Driver' with a capital D," she declares. "He's incisive, intelligent, insightful, playful and very focused." "Focused" is an amusing way to describe any photography dealer, and particularly apt when applied to Fraenkel, who not only started his own gallery at the age of 24, but did so with single-minded bravado. The young dealer's inaugural exhibition consisted of 19th century photographs by Carleton Watkins for which he and a consortium of investors had paid $100,000, then a record price for a photo album. Watkins, who came West during the gold rush and took the first great landscape pictures of California, lost his negatives in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Few prints survived. In an article titled "Spectacular Bidding Defeats the Met," The New York Times announced that the willingness of Fraenkel and his fellow dealers to pay such a high price would "re-structure the market." Indeed, Fraenkel has been a consistent leader in the re-appraisal of specific photographers, if not the medium as a whole. Son of a wholesale furniture dealer, Fraenkel grew up in Baton Rouge. The first artful photograph he remembers seeing was Diane Arbus' photo of a wizened, tattooed carnival man, which he came across in a weekly magazine at his high school library. "It sent an electric shock through me," Fraenkel told me when we met at his 1938 International Style home in Russian Hill, where he lives with his husband Alan Mark. "I would have been 16 years old. The tattooed man is super-charged with energy. It looks like the light is coming from within him." While discussing his favorite art form, Fraenkel often conveys wide-eyed amazement. "When photography was invented in 1839, it didn't look like anything made in the history of humankind!" he says. The dealer has brown eyes, spikey gray hair, and a compact frame that bears witness to his daily workout regimen. "The entire history of photography is essentially modernist," he adds, straightening the collar of his pale blue button-down shirt. During its first decade, Fraenkel Gallery made most of its revenues through the sale of 19th century photographs, but as that inventory dried up and 20th century images gained in acclaim, the gallery's income shifted into the primary sale of work by living artists. "I enjoy incorporating great 19th century photographs into the program when I can find them," says Fraenkel. The gallery's current roster consists of 19th century giants like Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, 20th century greats like Arbus, Friedlander, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, as well as inventive artists from younger generations such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Christian Marclay, Sophie Calle and Idris Khan. Fraenkel has veered away from fashion photographers (with the exception of Richard Avedon) and artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger, who construct fictions. When asked to identify his aesthetic sensibility, Fraenkel admits, "I admire work that is engaged with real life… with the meat of the real world." Although Fraenkel believes that "singling out artists is what defines a gallery," he has overseen many exhibitions of photographs taken by anonymous non-professionals, which show off his curatorial know-how. One such project focused on images in which amateur photographers' shadows dominate the frame. Fraenkel gathered 2,000 images from flea markets for over a decade, then selected 88 of the most riveting, which were displayed in the gallery and then donated to MoMA New York. The results were also published as The Book of Shadows, with a two-page introduction by Fraenkel. "I like to write. I hate to write," says Fraenkel, with a glance up at a large-scale Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph of five taxidermy antelopes, one of several black and white pictures that hang in his living room. "Either way, publishing is a key part of what the gallery does." Not only has the gallery produced some 58 catalogues and monographs, publications have often had a structuring role in gallery programming. Fraenkel's first showing of Diane Arbus, for example, was called "Unpublished Arbus" (1980). "Arbus died in 1971 and virtually all her known work was in an Aperture monograph published at the time of her MoMA retrospective in 1972," explains Fraenkel. "I bought this book as a student and memorized it, but knew that there had to be more to the story." The gallery's publications continue the tradition of grouping photographs into albums—the dominant mode of viewing before the medium was considered worthy of the wall. Fraenkel relishes the fact that his gallery is not in New York. "I have no doubt that San Francisco will become a hub city. The new SFMoMA will be jaw-droppingly great," he explains. The Pritzker Center for Photography (underwritten by John and Lisa Pritzker) will take up prime real estate in the renovated SFMoMA, which opens next May. "Photography will not be treated as secondary," he adds, "but as an art form integral to the history of art." Restless in their determination to grow the gallery in this context, Fraenkel and Brandt will open another space in March on Market Street next to Zuni Café, an SF institution. The small gallery with high ceilings will host experiments and artists the main space hasn't shown before. The brainchild of "Frish Brandt, my other spouse, and me," as Fraenkel puts it, the project room will be open between 5pm and 10pm and be called FraenkelLAB even if it already has the nickname, "Fraenkel Five and Dime." J

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