Unknown Photographer, 'Tornado, USA', 1950s. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery. Since its foundation in 1993, Michael Hoppen Gallery in Chelsea has collected, presented, promoted, sold and published photography in all its myriad forms, becoming one of London’s most influential advocates for the medium. Its exhibitions of outstanding contemporary, modern and vintage photographs are more often than not the best photography shows one can see in the city.
To celebrate 20 years since its inception, the space shows from this week 130 works from the fascinating, varied collection of its founder, Hoppen, who was a photographer himself before dedicating himself to curating and dealing photographs. The show is very much a personal choice by the South African-born collector; he wisely avoids an attempt to display every important photograph by every important photographer in his collection, instead commonly showing captivating pieces by anonymous and lesser-known artists.
Unknown Photographer, 'Nude Zoomorphic', 1870s. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery. When he does show the great names – such as Richard Avedon, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Irving Penn, Garry Winogrand, Lee Miller and Weegee – he often selects unusual pieces. As well as a characteristically lustrous portrait of his Romanian lover Renée Perle, Lartigue is represented by a magical group portrait of pastry chefs created by the Autochrome process, an early type of colour photography whose effect Hoppen declares, in the exhibition catalogue, is close to ‘that of pointillist paintings’. Rather than Weegee’s crime pictures, some of the most famous in the photographic canon, Hoppen presents a comical shot by the New Yorker: an opera buff shares a table with a pig at Sammy’s bar on the Lower East Side.
Denise Grünstein, 'Tied', 2009. © Denise Grünstein. Courtesy of Charlotte Lund Gallery. Indeed, it seems that a marked individuality in either content or composition is the abiding criteria for any work’s inclusion – there is little here that is not odd, unexpected, weird, fantastical. The nineteenth-century pieces set the tone: a small circular print from the 1870s entitled Nude Zoomorphic, for example, conjoins a nude woman and a small owl, the model holding the bird so that it covers, and stands for, her face. But this Magritte-style surrealism also finds its echoes in more recent works, such as Tied (2009) by Denise Grünstein, where a figure in a black suit – lying strangely on a white sheet on a table – has their face replaced with the back of their head.
Finders Keepers: A Survey of Collecting is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery until 31 January 2013.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine