Process, Place, Imperfection: In Conversation with Gallerist Anna Walker Skillman – Owner and Director of Jackson Fine Art

Editor’s Note: We’re re-publishing this interview from 2017 because we find all of the advice and insights seem especially relevant for Art Photographers today.

As owner and director of Jackson Fine Art, a renowned gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, Anna Walker Skillman represents photographers like John Chiara, Elliott Erwitt, Walker Evans, Sally Mann, Roger Ballen and Joel Meyerowitz, among many others.

The gallery opened its doors in 1990. In 2003, Walker Skillman purchased the gallery from its previous owner, Jane Jackson (who then went on to direct the famed Sir Elton John Photography Collection). She pledged to continue the gallery’s commitment to exhibiting both world-renowned and emerging photographers.

Below, Walker Skillman offers her insights on succeeding in the gallery business, the importance (and omnipresence) of past masters, and how physical experiences remain the cornerstone of photography, especially in our increasingly digital world.

Andrew Moore, “Blue Sweep,” Dallas County, Alabama, 2017. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

LensCulture: You have been working in galleries for well over two decades. What’s special about the gallery world for you?

Anna Walker Skillman: At the core, I really enjoy the people I meet, the experiences I share with them and working with artists. The mentality of the people working in this field suits me: there is a profound likeness of things we find inspiring. I also really enjoy working with clients to build collections. In the end, all of it is rewarding. It’s like a close family.

LC: You bought Jackson Fine Art in 2003. Facebook was started in 2004. So, your ownership of the gallery has directly coincided with the rise of social media and with it, the spread of photography online. Can you say more about the opportunities and challenges this has presented to you as a gallery owner?

AWS: The gallery world has changed a lot, especially in the last five years. From my end, the change is primarily due to internet sales and the rise of “disconnectivity” in knowing who you are selling to. That’s probably the hardest change for me. I’m still processing this new lack of physicality—both of the objects, and of having the person in your space, getting to know them, understanding their collection, building a relationship and ultimately selling them work. It’s great to reach so many people, but I miss the depth of face-to-face exchange.

Mona Kuhn. AD 6046, 2014. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta

I also recognize there are a lot of advantages to the internet. The ability to explore and discover an astounding variety of work is wonderful. And like I said, reaching more people, more easily, is a plus—connecting is easier than ever. But with this, I think, comes a lack of education and understanding. Things like print quality, the materiality of objects, the provenance of work…they all become lost so quickly. Not to mention the expert guidance of someone who really understands collecting. Things move fast now—often too fast. Everything feels passing.

That’s why it’s essential to return to the fact that photographs are objects. When you see a work in person, the colors are different, the saturation is completely unlike how it looks on a screen…the size, the frame, all of these things can only be appreciated when you’re with the photograph itself! That is why we remain committed to running the gallery space and coming to fairs like Paris Photo.

Some dealers can work without a fixed address, operating with their phones and an email address. But I’m someone who really enjoys having a space to work, a dedicated site where it can all happen. For example, I don’t like to curate shows outside my gallery. I want everything to come together in a consistent space. I think it helps me be more focused and it helps reinforce the importance of place.

This belief probably has its roots in the very first show I helped put together, at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. The exhibition was Andy Goldsworthy. I watched him put together his installation in the space. It was an amazing way to witness the power created in a physical location. I was 21—what a great introduction!

Meghan Riepenhoff. Littoral Drift #556, 2017. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta

LC: What a wonderful segue into the work of John Chiara, the artist who you are showcasing here at Paris Photo. His work feels relevant because it’s so material, so much an intuitive response to the world.

AWS: Indeed, John Chiara is all about process, place, and imperfection. For many years, he worked like other photographers, using his camera obscura in a very delicate, precise way. Eventually, he was able to break down a lot of creative barriers and started using the camera as a tool to express a feeling, capture a memory, and say something beyond a “straight photograph.”

The work we’re showing here at Paris Photo was made on commission in Mississippi. To produce the series, he created a giant camera and hitched it to the back of his Cherokee truck. He then drove around the Mississippi Delta, and wherever he landed and whenever felt right, he would make a picture. To create each image, he would crawl inside the camera and—using a trapdoor he made—ensure that no light got into the space. Like a pinhole camera, he would adhere the paper to the back of the device and then burn the image onto the photosensitive material by simply taking off the lens cap. When he was in there, he had no way of knowing what he was getting, but he was able to let go, work intuitively, and accept the unpredictable results.

The resulting images…they’re ephemeral, they’re liquid, they’re painterly, they’re perfect. Some of them feel like abstract paintings, where you’re not really sure what you’re looking at. It could be a cloud, a swamp, a water tower…objects from the surrounding area, but precision isn’t the point.

Personally, I’m not the biggest landscape curator, but these landscapes go way beyond what we think of as landscapes. To me, they really feel like memories. They’re so dreamlike, and their colors are just extraordinary. I just love his eye, the way he sees things. As people say about Eggleston and Christenberry, he is able to make the ordinary into something magical.

In the end, it’s all about process. John really likes to work in one place, even a small radius of space, for long periods of time. For example, he was working in Mississippi for three years. To make just one photograph, it usually takes him a full day, and even then, the results are so uncertain. But when he’s working, he becomes so wrapped up in it, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t click-and-done work. I like that. I think it’s even more important these days.

LC: It sounds like you and Chiara share many opinions about the importance of deliberateness in both creating art and appreciating it!

Thomas Jackson. Glow Sticks No. 1, Greenport, New York, 2012. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta

Stepping back, how do you characterize the philosophy of Jackson Fine Art as a gallery? The roster is amazing—practically the whole history of 20th century photography, from Kertesz and Walker Evans to contemporary practitioners.

AWS: Yes, we are very thoughtful about representing both the classic and contemporary worlds of photography. I enjoy showing the masters—Harry Callahan, Helen Levitt, Ray Metzker, Sally Mann, Lartigue, Elliott Erwitt—and then pairing them with less-established artists. I think it’s so important to understand the roots of where photography began.

To this end, we typically have two solo exhibitions in our space during each period. When possible, we like to show a classic artist alongside a contemporary one. This is part of our goal to educate the public.

LC: That’s so important. It happens frequently that I’m looking at the work of a “hot” contemporary photographer and I think they are the most original artist in the world! After a little research, I discover some very direct visual references from 50 years ago, 100 years ago. We all could stand to know more about the history of the medium, I think…

AWS: I agree—but it’s probably one of the harder things. Frequently, someone will show me their work and say “Isn’t this great?” And I might say, “Yes, but it’s also derivative of x, y, and z…”

To be fair, I think almost everyone is inspired by or working in the footsteps of past artists. It’s impossible not to. But the photographers that I find and choose to represent are ones who draw from a wide number of artists. What they accomplish is to synthesize these different strands into something fresh yet subtly their own.

Sally Mann. Untitled from the “At Twelve” series (Amanda and the Sunray), 1983-1985. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta

Now, I recognize that it’s hard to be wholly innovative in this business. Photography is the only visual medium in the art world that every single person in the world practices. Right now, every person in this building takes photographs. They are not all painters or sculptors or conceptual artists, but they are all photographers. What does that mean? We’re figuring that out.

LC: Given the number of photographers out in the world, what do you say to prospective artists who are hoping to catch your eye?

AWS: It’s important to realize that we are generally representing more established artists. I don’t necessarily seek young photographers who I will guide throughout their career. Rather, my goal is to introduce great work to our collector base and help my clients fill their collections with distinctive pieces.

So for young artists, what I say most often is that everything takes time. You have to be patient, work hard and allow yourself to be open to what might come. You have to be persistent, but not annoyingly so. It will happen, your time will come, but you cannot rush it.

On my end, I keep a watch on a number of artists that I think may or may not work for the gallery. As times change and styles and demands shift, sometimes there is a match and other times, there isn’t a good fit. I’m very mindful to be selective before making any kind of commitments because the responsibilities shared between an artist and a gallery are serious ones.

To help make this more clear, I’ll take a recent example of a new artist we’re really excited about. His name is Erik Madigan Heck. He’s a fashion photographer, but he has begun to spill over more and more towards fine art. He’s an interesting example because he doesn’t have the angst of someone who wanted to be a fashion photographer and couldn’t make it. Rather, he’s a successful, financially stable photography professional who is now interested in producing fine art works on the side. We’ll be debuting his first show at Jackson Fine Art in January.

Erik Madigan Heck. The Absorbed Tradition. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta

One last thing to note: I discovered Heck through another gallery, Weinstein Gallery, which is based in Minneapolis. This is also where Heck was born and grew up. That’s why patience is key. Perhaps you begin with your local gallery and then things build from there…

LC: Where else do you discover work? Do you jury awards frequently? What are you looking for when serving on a jury?

AWS: In terms of what I’m looking for, what advice I can offer, it’s difficult. When I’m looking at work, I don’t have a specific, conscious mindset. Rather, it’s an intuitive act. It’s like making art. I go through the entries and I figure out what jumps out, what marks me, what feels different. There is no intellectual checklist to deciding if I like the work. Rather, it’s visual, intuitive—and almost always immediate.

—Anna Walker Skillman, interviewed by Alexander Strecker

The Little Furs: Mary Jane Russell in a cape-jacket by Ritter Brothers at the Essex House, New York. Harper. Copyright of the artist and courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta

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