Last Monday night I had the privilege to hear one of the leading pioneers in the field of collectible photography: Agathe Gaillard, who after nearly 40 years of running a gallery in her name, has now published a swan song: “Agathe Gaillard: Memoirs of a Gallery.” Like all mavericks, Ms. Gaillard confessed that her background as a bookseller in the arts section at the La Hune bookstore on the Left Bank certainly didn’t equip her to open a gallery, especially without even a degree in fine arts.
In fact, it was her love for a photographer–Jean-Philippe Charbonnier–a man whom she later married, that gave her a head start. It also helped that in 1975, the year she opened her gallery on the rue Pont Louis Philippe, France’s president at the time, Georges Pompidou, took it upon himself to renovate and restore a very run-down part of Paris. She had the pick of the empty stores, and soon found one that suited her needs perfectly. Recalling the day she opened–June 10, 1975–Ms Gaillard acknowledged that it was a long held dream, “that I was certain was both necessary and inevitable.”
“My idea was to show that there were photographers, creators of different worlds, and not just of photos taken due to luck and photographic equipment.” And what photographers! Ralph Gibson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertesz, Robert Doisneau, Gisèle Freund, Lucien Clergue, to name a few.
According to Marianne Valio, Agathe Gaillard was the first to open a fine art photography gallery in Paris, as well as the first to show the public photographers to whom she has maintained ties for close to 40 years. Luck certainly helped her dream become a reality. “I was particularly encouraged by two photographers–Ralph Gibson and Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, both of whom had already achieved a certain fame. “Charbonnier, helped me to open at 3 rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, and Ralph Gibson headlined by first show.”
For Agathe, those occasions and others that followed were “moments of euphoria, filled with unique energy.” As for her gallery’s selection of photographers and exhibitions, she maintains that each photographer “has led me to the next photographer. Each exhibition has reflected my approach to photography and my understanding of what life is about. It is through my own discoveries that I select the artists. That is vital for me.”
Whereas other gallery owners often put the market first, that has never been Gaillard’s bent. “Each exhibition is a renewed experience. I like to see what each hanging of photographs evokes and share that with the public. I discover, I show, I ask ‘what do you think?’ Sometimes the reaction is enthusiastic, sometimes it is disappointing.”
She adds: “At the end of each exhibition, I am no longer the same; I have experienced something that is unique. Then I make another choice, enter another world. There are some worlds that are more agreeable than others. I still make it a point to never surround myself with photographers who could depress me or demotivate me.”
Gaillard is very clear and precise in her approach to both photography and collecting, and her experience with the art form has given her a unique insight into the qualities of photography. “Photography appeared on the scene at the same time as psychoanalysis,” she notes. “It is through this medium that one looks for spontaneity as opposed to control. Certainly the photographer has a connection to reality, but above all to the subconscious.”
When Gaillard visits a photography show or mounts one herself, she first likes to take in the overall atmosphere of the works of view; that way she is able to envision the photographer’s particular universe. Only after she has taken in the entire exhibition, will she then return to gaze and study individual works.
Whether you are a collector or simply an amateur of fine photography, you are sure to enjoy the personal memoir of Agathe Gaillard, as she recounts her experiences with different photographers who marked the second half of the 20th century and part of this one. (Be sure to stop by her gallery to purchase prints, books and postcards before the gallery closes in May 2014).
While she can celebrate her own mission accomplished as the first major art photography gallery in France, she worries that the rich photographic heritage of France may be lost forever to foreign collectors and museums outside of France. “We don’t value enough what we have and what our French photographers have created,” she observes.
Perhaps with her book of memoirs, her legacy in photography will move both the pundits and power brokers in French culture to examine the value of fine art photography, and its glorious legacy to France.
— Rachel Kaplan’s INSIDER FRANCE