Working from the Head and the Heart – Photographs by various artists | Interview by Sophie Wright

LensCulture is delighted and honored to have gallerist Brian Clamp on the jury of the Art Photography Awards 2023. Throughout Clamp’s career, enthusiasm has always proved contagious. It was the seed for his interest in photography and it remains at the heart of his relationship with the artists represented by CLAMP, the gallery he founded in New York in 2000.

Whether educating the public or learning about something new himself, the act of sharing is at the forefront of the gallery’s vision. Unrestricted by genre, CLAMP shows a large range of different approaches to photography based on its founder’s enduring curiosity for experimentation in and around the medium. It is a deep commitment to the ideas of the work paired with a willingness to communicate them that are the hallmarks of the kind of artist that Clamp is drawn to, describing the gallerist-artist relationship as a “partnership” that requires work on both sides.

In this interview for LensCulture, Clamp speaks to Sophie Wright about trusting your gut, the key tenets of a successful gallerist-artist relationship and keeping the door open to young artists in a shifting gallery landscape.

“Hanging Off Bed (Bobby Kendall),” mid-to-late 1960s/printed later. Digital C-print © Estate of James Bidgood. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York

Sophie Wright: You have a background in art history. How and why did you become interested in photography?

Brian Clamp: I first became interested in photography during my last semester of high school in Colorado. I had one elective course to enjoy, and for reasons still unknown to me, I chose a black and white darkroom class. It was the instructor’s first year teaching, and she was young and enthusiastic. In addition to darkroom instruction, she started each class with a short slideshow taking us through the history of the medium. This inspired me to hit the library where I began pouring through all of the photography monographs I could find. It was Diane Arbus’s Untitled monograph and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (both from Aperture) which won me over forever.

Installation view of Aziz+Cucher exhibition at CLAMP, 2019

SW: How did this interest evolve into a career? Can you describe the journey that led you to open your gallery CLAMP in 2000?

BC: I first attended undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder as a math major. However, I took darkroom classes and art history courses as often as I could manage. By the first semester of my junior year, I made a life-changing decision to switch to a double-degree program in Art History and Advertising. I moved to New York City immediately after graduation with the intention of finding an entry-level position in the advertising world.

However, the art history degree landed me at an art gallery on the Upper East Side specializing in late 19th and early 20th century American paintings. I loved the job and learned a great deal while I was there for eight years. Ultimately I enrolled in a Master’s program at Columbia University headed by scholar Rosalind Kraus and earned a degree in Critical Studies in Modern Art. Upon graduation I finally had the courage to go out on my own, and that is when I opened my gallery in 2000.

“Oscar and Zach (Embrace),” 2020. Archival pigment print, 24 x 18 inches © Jess T. Dugan. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York

SW: From emerging to mid-career artists to photography via collage, painting and sculpture, the work you support creates a rich and varied artistic programme. Is there an underlying vision that guides CLAMP as a gallery? Has it changed over time?

BC: Honestly, I follow my own intuition and personal interests when it comes to programming. My taste is broad, which is reflected in what the gallery exhibits, but I often come back to figurative work and portraiture, in particular. Over time I have learned to not second-guess visceral reactions to work and to allow for more experimentation and freedom in what I show.

SW: How do you see your role as a gallerist and how would you describe the gallerist-artist relationship? What are the most useful snippets of wisdom you’ve picked up over your career in regards to achieving a good partnership?

BC: As a gallerist, to a great extent I see my role as an educator to the public at large. I enjoy bringing work to new people and sharing my knowledge and excitement. The gallerist-artist relationship is a partnership. The artists who agree with this and take a hand in their own success are the ones who reap the most benefits.

“Handshake,” Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, September 1984/printed later. Archival pigment print © Meryl Meisler. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York

SW: The work you show in the gallery seems to celebrate the elasticity of fine art photography—from the analog alchemy of Brian Buckley to Joseph Desler Costa’s new media experiments to Jess T. Dugan’s powerful exploration of identity through portraiture. Can you tell me a bit about the variety of artists and work that you represent?

BC: Again, I follow my own personal passions and hope my audience will share in my interests. Much of my enthusiasm for particular artworks comes from the artist—meaning that certain artists are articulate in discussing their work, and their commitment and vision can influence me and my desire to join in promoting their photography. I enjoy working with artists who can teach me new things and challenge deeply ingrained modes of thought and doing business.

SW: What kind of approach to the medium excites you when you’re choosing artists to work with?

BC: I am not sure there is any one approach which dominates. It can be conceptual, formal, intuitive, or poetic.

“Green Apples,” 2019. Layered laser cut dye sublimation prints on aluminum © Joseph Desler Costa. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York

SW: How has the world of fine art photography and its market changed over the 25 years of your career?

BC: I could spend all day answering this question. The photography market has changed drastically in the last quarter of a century. For example, technology has drawn artists closer to their patrons through social media. Gallerists are no longer the gatekeepers they once were, and many clients hope to find new talent on their own, completely bypassing the gallery system. And in that regard, many young, talented artists no longer seek gallery representation at all, preferring to sell work from their studio so that they do not have to split their commission.

Also with technology, many galleries have given up brick-and-mortar spaces, which is a shame for artists who are looking for walls to exhibit their work. Ironically, though, the art world is significantly larger than it was, and one can no longer know all of the exhibiting artists. It is now a challenge even keeping on top of all of the galleries in a city like New York City. Lastly, art fairs have radically shifted how much of contemporary art is displayed and sold.

SW: Developing a fine art practice can be as challenging as it is enriching. Do you have any advice for artists trying to find their artistic voice? What would you watch out for?

BC: You need to be open to criticism and advice, but ultimately you need to trust your own gut. And be careful not to try to anticipate what collectors may want. Produce work that comes from your own head and heart.

“Male Impersonator,” 2015. Archival pigment print © Lissa Rivera. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York

SW: An idea can often gain strength over multiple images. How would you describe the advantages of working in series as an art photographer?

BC: A series enables an artist to think harder and longer about their work. A series is also helpful in terms of packaging and marketing. That is why so many gallerists think in terms of discrete bodies of work.

SW: The way galleries work can often be opaque for young artists. I see that both you as an individual and the gallery offer its own portfolio review system. Can you tell me a bit more about this and how it started?

BC: I understand that young artists often find the process of establishing a relationship with a gallery baffling. That is why I have always maintained an open portfolio review guideline policy, so artists can at least get work in front of my eyes. Twenty years ago artists could drop off physical portfolios to the gallery and receive a written response, but as time moved on, the volume of submissions became overwhelming. Nonetheless, I hope I can always remain accessible to artists in some capacity. That is part of the reason why I agree to jury contests and group shows.

“20CM_003,” 2022; Collage; 10.25 x 8.75 inches © Aaron Krach. Courtesy of CLAMP, New York.

SW: What excites you about the next generation of art photographers and the way the medium is changing?

BC: In my years as a gallerist I have seen artists moving beyond the constraints of medium specificity. I find it exciting to watch creative individuals unconstrained by one particular artistic approach. We are now in what Krauss identifies as the ‘post-medium’ condition.

SW: The past years have been difficult for physical exhibition spaces. What was your experience as a gallery? How do you think our experience of art photography has changed with the rise of virtual viewing rooms?

BC: Even prior to the pandemic, galleries were witnessing a decline in foot traffic. Lockdowns certainly accelerated this trend, and I suspect we may never head back in the other direction. With collectors now being comfortable with buying artwork virtually (and photography in particular), artists may be faced with even more extreme challenges in finding physical venues for exhibiting their work. This certainly could influence the kind of work coming out of studios—for better or for worse.

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