Eric Pickersgill talks about his art collection
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
As a younger artist, you approach the whole idea of collecting in a different way.
I was working with Frank Konhaus, a collector in Chapel Hill, as an intern during my last year of graduate school. I was able to see how his collecting was guided by his life choices and it kind of helped me catch the bug. I was always insular. I’m an artist: I produce and I distribute. Only after working with Frank was I able to understand the joy that comes from collecting. When you avidly collect, you are supporting a system that sustains your career. It comes full circle.
So, I got accepted to Review Santa Fe, where 100 photographers have their work reviewed by esteemed curators, gallerists, publishers and the like. I linked up with a small group of artists. One said, “Let’s do a print swap.” So we began thinking: We’ve got to make it cool and to bring attention to it. One of the artists was in the hotel at the convention center, in room 145. We decided to do it there and taped a piece of blue tape with “The Gallery” on it above the room number “145.” That Sunday night before we knew it, people started showing up to swap prints.
As a group, we’ve descended on different portfolio reviews and just did it on our own and we’ve gotten people to participate.
This year, we’ll have our first two official events: Atlanta Celebrates Photography, where I’ll coordinate a kick-off event swap, and at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham for the Click Triangle Photography Festival Review. These organizations see why the model makes sense. Photographers have a thirst for each other’s work and this gives them a space to do that.
So that’s how it all got started. I think that first night in Santa Fe, I left with between 10 and 15 prints and several were mailed to me following the swap. I got to ship a print of mine to Japan to my buddy Hiroki Nakashima, so now I have work that lives in Japan.
Can you describe how your artistic training informs your collecting eye and taste?
I’m often attracted to work that validates my own practice. For example: Nakashima. He is working on this project called “Tokyo Atribute.” He finds quintessential residents there and makes very formal portraits of them. I see my own practice within that body of work. Oftentimes, the work that I really want from other people (is when) they’re trying to accomplish something outside of themselves, or maybe a commentary or socially based approach. Another artist, Krista Wortendyke, is very interested in the way the media affects the common American’s perception of war. She’s created collages sourcing low-res images of explosions that have happened in wartime and that are amassed into images of clouds. I’m really interested in work that is pushing the boundaries of the medium but also making people think further about the normal stuff in our lives.
Can you talk about the relationship that you have with the photographs that you collect?
I remember the pieces and the interaction I’ve had with the artists. The print is the representation of the relationship that I’ve had with each artist. Some folks come at it from an investment perspective, that it will grow in value, become part of their estate. I’m a little less interested in this aspect. I do collect 100 percent contemporary living artists: I can collect these pieces, share them and in doing so, grow an audience for their work and photography generally.
How do you school your eye?
As an artist, it comes from making my own work. It also comes from spending a lot of time looking at work. Going to gallery shows. Training the eye is like practice. You have to look at photography every day.
I think the conceptual side of the work is interesting to me: For me, the idea is slightly more than half of the value. What with the mass accumulation of photographs on the Internet and Instagram and those we carry around with us on our smart phones, how do you navigate that and know what’s important through all the “noise”? I think that having a print is a surefire way of getting away from the noise. An artist has committed to making that moment an object.
Can you talk a bit about how you display your collection in your home?
Well, honestly, most of them are in my flat file at the moment. I haven’t had time to frame many of them. I keep the work I own thus far in the middle of a five-drawer folio cabinet. Were someone to spill something on top, the liquid would have a buffer and were we to have a flood, maybe it wouldn’t rise to the elevation of the third drawer. Everything is in acid-free material and I try to keep the temperature constant with minimal moisture to protect the paper from mold growth.
I have ideas of where I want to put things.
Do you have several favorite photographs on which you’d care to comment?
Hiroki Nakashima’s silver print: I loved that he traveled all the way from Japan with a box full of prints! It just astounded me. I looked through a number of his pictures and this one is shot in a way I would never have arranged the compositions. There’s so much that pushes and pulls at my understanding of how I make my own work. It really resonated with me. He’s such a sweet guy!
A pigment print by South Carolina artist Meg Griffiths: I was thinking about putting it in my kitchen. The still-life subject and the habaneros are so vibrant in hue!
The piece by Krista Wortendyke.
Are there other nontraditional prototypes that you admire?
There’s an amazing little set of up-and-coming contemporary photographers put together by a Chicago artist/organizer, Jennifer Keiths. She created what’s called “The Donut Shop.” Essentially, you can buy large editions of small prints, usually in the form of a dozen, like a dozen donuts. Great artists and great pieces included. If you are a new collector, this is a really cool way to get started.
Here’s another interesting format: Durham artist Ben Alper has been doing small editions of artist books and including an individual print in each one. Essentially, he found this image archive, curated it and shifted the narrative to tell a different story. I see a shift in the photography world toward this type of work.
What kind of advice would you give someone who’s just starting out on a collecting journey?
Well, first, I’d say “Start!” Get going and dive in! I feel like you have to make mistakes. You’ll have to collect some things that maybe you weren’t so sure about and you’ll get better at refining your gut instinct! One collector I know, Fred Konhaus, has a three-day rule. He has to go back three days in a row and want to purchase the photo in question each day.
Maybe come up with some parameters. Come up with your budget, how much you’re willing to spend.
If you were going to pivot and change the type of work you collect, where would you turn next?
My next move is to be focused on Charlotte photographers! There’s a lot going in and around Charlotte. Chandra Johnson’s (SOCO) gallery is an exciting venue. The Light Factory is doing inspired exhibitions. Contemporary artists in our community are making important work! Work that is socially engaged—work that relates to the current times and has an active role, more than simple observation. We need more than awareness, photos can function as social mirrors and activate us. It’s exciting and powerful!