"I was 24 years old, a kid, and I had no idea what I was doing," said photographer Larry Siegel, talking to A.i.A. about Image Gallery, which he opened in 1959 and which was the only New York gallery of its time devoted exclusively to exhibiting photography. Image was situated at 100 East 10th St., on the same block that housed the so-called 10th Street galleries. During its three-year run, Siegel, now 79, showed the work of many soon-to-be-famous younger photographers working in the realm of photojournalism, including Steve Schapiro, Enrico Natali and Saul Leiter. The gallery was the first to show the work of Duane Michals, and also gave Gary Winogrand his first solo show.
Those born too late will soon have another chance to understand the gallery's legacy. Featuring photographs by 21 artists shown at Image Gallery, "The Image Gallery Redux 1959-1963" opens Jan. 9 at New York's Howard Greenberg Gallery (through Feb. 15, 2014). The show will include the work of Leiter, Natali, Winogrand and Michals, as well as Sid Grossman, Rudy Burckhardt, David Vestal, Ann Treer, John Cohen and many others, including Siegel's own. (Siegel has made a living as a photographer since closing the gallery.)
What Siegel the young gallerist may have lacked in experience he made up for in good taste. In 1955, he saw photographer Edward Steichen's now-famous "Family of Man" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which included some 500 photographs made by photographers from around the world and was the first show of its kind in a major museum. The show inspired Siegel to introduce a potential audience to a new idea: viewing the work of photojournalists and street photographers in a fine-art context. "I liked the idea of seeing pictures on the wall," Siegel said. "Photography was not known in that way then. Photographers would show work by putting prints on the kitchen table, that sort of thing. It felt disrespectful, and it really wasn't the best way to look at them." Commenting on the rarity of seeing any photography in a gallery, he added, "I remember, at the time, Robert Frank had published [his photo book] The Americans. And he was represented by an uptown gallery-but he was really the only one. So everyone else just wanted to get their work shown, however possible."
As a street photographer living on the Lower East Side, Siegel found himself immersed in a community of like-minded artists. Fortuitously, many of these people were influential photographers, or those in the making. Saul Leiter lived across the street, and Siegel and Winogrand would occasionally go out shooting together on the street. Siegel's idea was to show images in the same way that the 10th Street galleries were showing painting. "I allied myself with those galleries," says Siegel. And he found a place on the same block: "it was an ex-laundry, and the rent was $50 a month," he said. Renowned war photographer and photo essayist W. Eugene Smith was the gallery's first visitor.
Siegel's gallery is predated by photographer Alfred Stieglitz's influential 291 gallery. Unlike Stieglitz, who began showing the work of the Photo-Secessionists but became increasingly passionate about introducing New York to new European and American art, Siegel wished to remain focused on presenting photography as art—though sometimes his exhibitions required explanation. "People had no idea what an original print was—some thought I had cut pictures out of a magazine," says Siegel. Image Gallery was too far ahead of its time to be profitable, but it foretold a market that would eventually support this kind of work. It predicted the success of galleries like Tennyson Schad's Light Gallery, which opened in 1971 and showed some of the same photographers as Siegel—while also turning a profit. And there were bargains to be had at Image, where an Atget print sold for $30, according to Siegel. An Atget print sold at Christie's New York in 2010 for $686,500.
Critical reaction to the Image Gallery's shows was mixed. Jacob Deschin reviewed several for the New York Times, mostly positively. When greeted with slightly more experimental work, however, he seemed to wince, indicating the conservative climate regarding photography. Of Gary Winogrand's January 1960 solo show, Deschin commented: "Unfortunately, these photographs are often distorted and wasted by the apparent lack of respect for the medium and of even ordinary craft standards." While Siegel consistently showed the work of photojournalists, he also exhibited more avant-garde work—such as Naomi Savage's photo-engravings—to show where photography was heading.
That range also featured a pioneering group show of the painting and sculpture of photographers-presaging a multi-medium identity that is common among artists today. Responding to the idea that this-and his gallery as a whole-was a bold foray into relatively uncharted waters, Siegel exclaimed, "I know! I was a good gallery person—it's true. I just didn't earn any money!"