G. Ray Hawkins had flirted with photography from the time he was a young boy in the Midwest, but his real courtship didn’t begin until 1975, when he opened a gallery devoted to the medium.
The first gallery of its sort in Los Angeles, the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a series of shows that bring together some greatest hits. The first show, “Old Friends,” on view through July 8, includes signature images by Diane Arbus, Weegee and Eugene Atget, among others. Opening July 12 is “Kissing,” a survey of photographs of couples kissing, after which comes “Encore! Man Ray! Encore! Paul Outerbridge,” an homage to two artists who’ve played key roles in the gallery’s history.
In a sense the history of the Hawkins Gallery is a history of the photography market, because the two came of age in tandem. Although artist-impresario Alfred Stieglitz exhibited photography at his seminal 291 Gallery, opened in New York in 1905, it took the rest of the world 70 years to catch up; New York auction houses didn’t start handling photography until the mid-'70s, and when Hawkins first opened shop it was still possible to buy vintage photographs for a few hundred dollars. By 1989, many of those same prints were selling for more than $100,000.
It all got a lot bigger than anticipated by Hawkins, who is now 51. Born in northern Indiana in 1944, the middle child in a family of three children, Hawkins had an uneventful postwar childhood, but for one dramatic exception: His father, who worked as a pipe fitter, was left to raise his children alone when their mother committed suicide in 1950. Like most middle-class American children of the period, Hawkins was familiar with Life magazine but had no exposure to art beyond that, nor does he recall desiring any.
His relationship with photography began when he was 14, while attending a military school where he was assigned the job of cleaning up the school darkroom. “They had tons of equipment, and I got permission to teach myself how to make pictures,” recalls Hawkins, who soon found himself shooting photos for his high school yearbook and for a local paper. The notion of photography as art, however, still hadn’t occurred to him. “My dream then was to be a cinematographer,” he says.
On graduating from high school, Hawkins enlisted in the Navy where he attended photography school. “The emphasis was on technical stuff, and I did every kind of photography imaginable, including working as a newsreel cameraman.”
Leaving the Navy in 1966, Hawkins moved to Seattle, where his brother was living, and embarked on a series of odd jobs. “My brother was dealing collectibles then, and I learned a lot about buying and selling from him,” recalls Hawkins, who began buying and selling illustrated children’s books while in Seattle. He was still dreaming of making movies though, so he moved to L.A. in 1967 and spent three years at Santa Monica City College on the G.I. Bill, prior to transferring to UCLA as a film major in 1970.
“I was at UCLA three years and did every job imaginable to survive,” he says. “I bought and sold collectibles, worked in the L.A. County Probation Department as a night attendant and was the janitor at the Ashgrove, among other things.”
It was at the Ashgrove that Hawkins met his first wife, Randee Klein, whom he married in 1974 and divorced in 1981. “By then I’d completed all the requirements to graduate except my thesis film. Because I had no contacts in the film world, I knew I had to make a strong film if I wanted any kind of career, so I decided that instead of making a short, I’d do a dramatic feature--and to do that I needed money.
“I’d moved from buying and selling collectibles to fine art, and in the process became interested in historical photographs,” recalls Hawkins, whose effort to educate himself on the subject of fine art involved regular visits to Zeitlin & Ver Brugge, a now defunct rare-book store that opened in the 1920s and was a hangout for L.A.'s intellectual community.
“Susan Martin was working for Jake [Zeitlin] then, and she loved photography and was trying to create a photography market for him,” Hawkins says. “She gave me the names of a few collectors of photography, and in talking to them I realized a whole new field was taking shape nobody knew anything about. At that point, there were maybe 25 dealers in the country who handled photography, but they only did it as a sideline. Here was something nobody had done before.”
Hawkins was intrigued by the challenge but still had his sights set on filmmaking. “I thought if I opened a gallery I could make a lot of money, quit my other jobs and just work on my film. I honestly thought I could open a gallery, then go make a film,” he says with a laugh.
“My decision to open a gallery hinged on whether Susan Martin would agree to run it, so when she said yes, we were in business,” continues Hawkins, who estimates the start-up cost of the gallery at about $40,000. “We rented a space at the corner of Almont and Melrose in January of 1975 and opened with a show of Man Ray six weeks later. We opened with Man Ray because people resisted taking photography seriously as art then, so we needed an opening exhibition nobody could dismiss. Our second show was Edward Curtis, the third was James Van Der Zee, and in six months we were out of the red.
“I’d taken a quarter off from school to open the gallery, but I realized I needed more than one quarter off. When I tried to take more time off they told me I had to come back or drop out. That was probably the toughest decision I’ve ever made--do I pursue my longtime dream of making a film, or do I move into uncharted territory?”
Hawkins felt he’d made the right decision three years later when the photography market exploded. “1979-1980 were gigantic years, and the growth in the market was triggered by Ansel Adams,” says Hawkins, who moved his gallery to larger quarters on East Melrose in 1980.
“We did Ansel’s retirement show in December of 1975, and at that time you could buy any of his work for $800. On Jan. 1, Ansel’s dealers raised the price of one of his most popular images, ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M.,’ to $1,000, and 18 months later it was selling for $2,500. ‘Moonrise’ took the market to a whole new level because, as its price went up, the price of everything else went up too. The entire market was pegged to what ‘Moonrise’ sold for, so it was a house of cards that was fated to collapse, which it did. By the fall of 1981 the market was in a total downward spiral; there were four photo galleries in L.A. in 1981--a year later I was the only one left, and by 1983 ‘Moonrise’ had collapsed to $4,700.
“Being in business from 1982-86 took us seriously into debt, but I felt it was crucial for us to survive for photography to hold onto the gains it had made in terms of being accepted as art,” says Hawkins, who married his second wife, Susan Hawkins, in 1985. “The main reason we made it was because, at the urging of my wife, I began to do auctions in 1983. Then when the art market kicked into high gear in 1988, the photography market picked up too.”
Things have quieted down since then in terms of how much people are willing to pay for art, and the photography market has achieved a stability it has never had before. “We have 700 collectors on our computer list, and, of those, maybe 100 are serious,” says Hawkins, who moved to his present location in Santa Monica in 1990.
As the market has grown up, Hawkins’ sensibility as a dealer has evolved too. “When I opened the gallery I used to say I didn’t want to talk to an artist unless they were dead, but when I realized people like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank were still alive I stopped saying that. I used to be wary of contemporary work because I didn’t trust my ability to identify what’s good from what’s great. [Contemporary photographers are defined as those whose reputations were established after 1960.] Over the years, however, I’ve come to trust my eye. At first, every cliche you see affects you, but with enough looking, the cliches no longer affect you.
“I realized I’d achieved another of my goals for photography one day a few years ago when I was at [collector] Marcia Weisman’s house. Marcia was telling me she would never collect photography, but hanging on the wall behind her as she spoke was a David Hockney photo collage. I knew then that photography had finally made it into the major leagues.”