Who Are the World’s 12 Most Influential Photography Collectors?
The A-list includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Elton John, and Michael Wilson.
Photography collectors are the world’s coolest collectors, it seems.
While contemporary painting and sculpture collectors are often fickle, photography collectors tend to stick to beloved artists and fly below the radar, sometimes going as far as to make their auction purchases through an agent. “I never get fed up with looking at the images,” Elton John told the Guardian (see The Top 10 Uber Rich Art Collectors and The Must-See Booths at the AIPAD Photography Show).
As the list below reveals, the world’s top photography collectors can’t be pinned down. From Hollywood celebrities and hotel heirs to Wall Streeters and CEOs, these A-list collectors know how to build the best collection on their own terms (see artnet News’ Top 200 Collectors Worldwide Part One and Part Two).
In the early 1990s, the German-American collector and former Goldman Sachs partner began purchasing photography and video art primarily from Asia and Africa. The Walther Collection, which boasts two spaces—one in Germany and the other in New York—features work by Ai Weiwei, Zhang Dali, Samuel Fosso, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, David Goldblatt, Seydou Keïta, Santu Mofokeng, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, Wang Qingsong, Jo Ractliffe, Song Dong, Mikhael Subotzky, Guy Tillim, Malick Sidibé, and Zhang Huan. It’s been speculated that Walther may have the largest collection of African photography in existence.
Sir Elton is more than just a legendary performer—he’s also an avid collector of photography who, in the early ’90s, began purchasing the likes of Brancusi, Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edward Steichen, Richard Caldicott, Adam Fuss, and Sandy Skoglund. In 2004, Christie’s held a sale of over 70 photos from his collection that netted $900,000.
Works from the John collection have been exhibited at the the Pinchuk Art Centre and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (where it generated some extra press when it was abruptly closed after a controversial image by Nan Goldin that was seized by police on child pornography charges). “I never get fed up with looking at the images,” he once told the Guardian.
Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla
Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla, who reside in New York, are widely known for having one of the world’s finest private photography collections, including Diane Arbus, Man Ray, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, Loretta Lux, Sally Mann, Doug and Mike Starn, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Alfred Stieglitz. The collection was the subject of the exhibition “Shared Vision: The Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection of Photography,” which toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and Princeton University.
In 2014, the pair announced plans to make a significant donation of photographs to the Whitney Museum, many of which were included in the recent inaugural exhibition (see Unprecedented Gift to Whitney Museum’s Photo Collection).
Dechman is the CEO and co-founder of the wealth management firm Summit Rock Advisors, and a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, where he is Chair of their Photography Committee. He is a past trustee of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Along with his partner Michel Mercure, he collects early modernism, and also later artists including Cindy Sherman, Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan, Bill Brandt, and Robert Frank. Dechman has loaned and gifted works to MoMA and other museums on multiple occasions, and sponsors the annual David A. Dechman Photography Award.
Pilara, a San Francisco investment banker, began collecting in 2004 when he purchased a photograph from Fraenkel Gallery on a whim. A couple of thousand photos later, he operates the Pilara Foundation and Collection on San Francisco’s Pier 24. His collection list reads like a “who’s who” of photography history, featuring a diverse mix of artists from America, Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser
The Los Angeles-based couple didn’t begin with photos; they began collecting ceramics and glass in the late 1960s. After giving away many of their acquisitions to museums like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, they graduated to photography (as well as Neolithic Chinese jade).
In 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented “Photography in Mexico,” an exhibition of works culled from their collection, which includes Lola Alvarez Bravo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Héctor Garcia, Lourdes Grobet, Graciela Iturbide, Enrique Metinides, Pedro Meyer, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, and Mariana Yampolsky.
John and Lisa Pritzker
A son of the prominent Pritzker family, best known for creating the Hyatt hotel chain and sponsoring the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, John Pritzker has been collecting photography alongside his wife Lisa for decades. In 2016, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will open the John and Lisa Pritzker Center for Photography, which will be the largest exhibition space in the US devoted exclusively to photo.
Wilson made his fortune as a producer for the legendary James Bond film empire, producing every film in the series since 1977. His step-father, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli worked on the films, and despite a flourishing legal career, Wilson was eventually compelled to join him on the 007 set.
Wilson’s 11,000-piece photography collection is contained inside the Wilson Centre for Photography, which adjoins his London home. He’s considered the world’s foremost collector of 19th century photographs, and his collection furnished “Salt and Silver: A Rare and Revealing Collection of Early Photography,” which is currently on display at the Tate Britain.
Bob and Randi Fisher
Fisher, the son of Gap founder Don Fisher, and his wife Randi prefer to amass a collection comprised of in-depth surveys of their favorite artists, rather than just buying up a piece or two of whatever happens to be trendy—a refreshing attitude in an age of conspicuous consumption on the part of international megacollectors. Their 1,400 piece collection emphasizes 20th century black-and-white photography from about 40 seminal artists.
In 2010, the aforementioned Pilara foundation in San Francisco featured highlights including Man Ray, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, and Walker Evans. “It was only by studying an artist in particular, and by going deep into their work, that I found that I could really understand what it was that they were about,” Bob told Phaidon.
Cohen, an investment banker, began his photo collection in the early 1990s, purchasing amateur snapshots from a Chelsea flea market. Now he chooses to divide his collection not by individual artists, but in terms of subject matter: quirky categories like “mad hatters,” “drive by’s,” and “people on ladders, poles and trees.” Several books based on these categories have been released.
He is considered the foremost collector of amateur and vernacular photography, and has made gifts to the Museum of Modern Art, the Met, the Morgan Library, and elsewhere. “I buy a wide range of pictures because I like the images,” he told Artinfo.
Richard and Ellen Sandor
The couple have been collecting both photography and outsider art for three decades, and focus on obtaining works that reflect a theme in the collection—Hollywood, surrealism, Paris between the wars, etc. Ellen was inspired to begin collecting during graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was studying photography herself.
“I knew I would be working on expanding the future of photography so I suggested to my husband that he concentrate on the best of photography’s past,” she told Art & Antiques magazine in 2001. Selections from the 1,800 piece collection have been exhibited at museums around the world.
Jamie Lee Curtis
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis has developed a reputation as an avid photography collector in recent years, favoring work by Cindy Sherman, Irving Penn, Sally Mann, and newer photographers like Shawna Ankenbrandt.
She was spotted at this year’s Paris Photo LA (see 7 Reasons Why Paris Photo LA Is the Ultimate California Art Fair), has written about collecting for Artsy, and even curated a show in 2013 at the Frostig Collection. Curtis is also a photographer herself, and has (obviously) been in front of the lens more than a few times.
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