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Photography Comes of Age

Posted on 26 September 2008

Charles Cowles will tell you that he didn’t intentionally set out to amass a collection that reflects the evolution of photography through the 20th century. Nor did he focus on specific themes when it came to deciding what to add to his collection over the years. He just buys what he likes and always has.

And what he likes has turned out to be some of the most iconic images by some of the most renowned photographers of the past 100 years.

“I have about 1,000 pictures in my collection,” says Cowles who owns photographs by Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier- Bresson, Joel-Peter Witkin, Andres Serrano, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others.

Cowles is the stepson of Gardner “Mike” Cowles, co-founder of Look magazine and he cut his teeth at the tender age of 14 in the photo department at the magazine.

“My first summer job was in the editorial department doing photo archiving,” recalls Cowles. “There was a Sam Shaw photo of Marilyn Monroe on a park bench. An editor plopped it down on my desk and said, ‘Who’s that couple on the bench with her?’”

After a wild goose chase and dropped hints from doormen on the Upper East Side, though Cowles got tantalizingly close to the answer, in the end, the mystery couple remained a mystery and the photo did not run. But little could Cowles have known at the time that his first foray into the world of photography would grow into a life long interest in the medium at a time when photography itself was coming of age, turning from fad into art form.

On September 21, the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton opened “Modern Photographs: The Machine, the Body and the City — Selections from the Charles Cowles Collection.” The show was organized by the Miami Art Museum and is guest curated by Andy Grundberg. It runs through November 30, and on view are 200 photographs from Cowles private collection. The images are a study in the growth of photography in the 20th century and reflect the three prominent themes of the show’s title — the metropolis, modern machinery and the human figure. Also on view are photographic portraits of 20th century artists including Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

One hundred and one of the images on view in the show are gifts Cowles has promised to the Miami Art Museum. The additional 100 works on view were chosen personally by Cowles and Parrish Art Museum Director Terrie Sultan. Several of them will join the permanent collection of the Parrish — Cowles has promised to give 50 photographs to the museum. He explains why he has chosen to make the gifts to the two museums.

“I grew up in Miami and have been coming here since 1959,” says Cowles. “I love both communities. Interestingly, both are about to build new museums using the same architect — Herzog & de Meuron — and adding to their collection.”

“That was part of the reason I gave to the Miami Art Museum and to The Parrish. In both cases, I said, ‘You choose what you want — one photograph by each person.’ Terrie will get 50 images by 50 photographers.”

One of Cowles’ first major acquisitions as a collector was a circa late 1920s Walker Evans photo of truckers moving a sign that reads “Damaged.”

“I didn’t buy it because it was Walker Evans, but because of the words,” explains Cowles. “My friend Ed Ruscha, had used the same word in his work.”

“It’s very random,” adds Cowles in explaining how he decides what to buy. “I see something I like, I get it. In some instances, I like the work. Or it may be by a well known photographer, but it’s not his most famous image.”

After he finished college at Stanford University in 1963, Cowles took over Artforum magazine which he ran for 10 years. A stint as the first curator of modern art at the Seattle Art museum followed. Then, in 1980, Cowles opened the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York City, which he continues to direct.

With 1,000 photographs in his collection, displaying them all in his home simultaneously is not an option. So Cowles has created a gallery of sorts, which gives him an opportunity to view them on a rotating basis.

“In 1990, I moved to a loft in Soho,” he explains. “One wall is 80 feet long. I hang the photographs salon style — no more than three high — and change them twice a year. I’ve gotten a lot of fun out that.”

Likewise, the show at the Parrish is also displayed salon style. The walls are lined with photographs organized by theme and composition. With so many images, trying to sort out what should go where can be an art form in itself.

“I’ve been hanging around and helping with the installation,” said Cowles. “It’s fabulous get to see my old friends again and decide  what goes where. You start by arranging them in alphabetical order and then move onto themes — ‘Now we need a group of fashion…swimmers…boys getting in trouble…the big picture to get the big view.’”

While he possesses a great many important images from the 20th century, Cowles confesses that he has not been inspired to add other centuries to his collection.

“I’ve lost interest in 19th century photography and can’t get excited about much in the 21st,” he says.

And if you ask Cowles which of his 1,000 photographs he likes best, he’s not likely to answer.

“I don’t think I can say which is my favorite. You get yourself in trouble that way,” says Cowles who has ultimately found that the key to collecting has been to not take it all too seriously.

“It’s been a lot of fun for me over the years. It’s all about having a good time.”

The Parrish Art Museum is located at 25 Job’s Lane, Southampton. On Saturday, October 11, 2008 the museum hosts “Collecting with Charles Cowles” at 6 p.m. Cowles will share personal recollections and observations of photography’s struggle for acceptance as art and its eventual triumph. For more information, call 283-2118.


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