Golden Eye

Michel Arnaud

With her assured albeit idiosyncratic taste, dealer Jill Quasha built a collection that spans the history of photography—69 images, one per artist.

Look at this,” exclaims Jill Quasha, as her gloved hands adjust a shadowy 1923 portrait by Paul Strand of his wife, Rebecca. “Of all the photographers I know, only Strand is strong at all four corners,” she says, pointing to the faint outlines of Rebecca’s fingers in the lower left and her thrusting shoulder opposite. Suddenly Quasha rotates the print so that it’s upside down, the shape of Rebecca’s head rhyming with the leaf in a nearby 1839 photogram by William Henry Fox Talbot.

“Her head is a leaf,” she cries. “They’re the same form.” Pausing to check whether I’ve followed her down this trail of aesthetic connections, she seems to decide it doesn’t matter. “This is what’s so much fun about photography,” she concludes. “I just saw something wonderful.”

I am standing with Quasha, a 30-year veteran private dealer, in the photography department at Sotheby’s in New York, where she is giving me a preview of the Quillan Collection, a group of 69 pictures that span nearly the entire history of photography and will be auctioned on April 7. Quasha handpicked each of the images between 1988 and 1990, working with a budget of roughly $2 million supplied by the Quillan Company, an investment group. Though the period coincided with an art market boom, prices for photographs then were far below what they are today. Sotheby’s estimates the sale will bring between $5 million and $7.5 million.

Whatever judgment the market ultimately makes, no one can dispute that the pictures reflect Quasha’s assured and idiosyncratic taste. This is not a collection selected by popular vote or after consulting a textbook.

“What distinguishes the Quillan Collection is Jill,” says Denise Bethel, Sotheby’s director of photographs. She compares Quasha with other celebrated, self-guided connoisseurs like the late Sam Wagstaff and Pierre Apraxine: “Jill has such a sophisticated eye. The pictures say a lot about the history of photography but don’t resort to clichés. They’re not obvious images for these artists.”

A stylish redhead with delicate features—even in high-heel boots she barely qualifies as petite—Quasha speaks about photographs without the usual cool cerebration or art world buzzwords. “I respond physically to photographs,” she says. Tapping her chest, she calls this the “boom-boom” effect. “When my body reacts, that’s when I know I have to do something.”

Quasha’s reputation for charm, even-handedness, and an attention to print quality (“Other dealers know I’m very demanding in that respect”) has earned her a list of distinguished clients as diverse as Madonna and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “Jill was one of the first people I met when I came to New York in the early eighties,” says Bethel. “Even though I was a nobody, she treated me with respect. Jill is a lady.”

Born in the Philippines and educated in the United States, Quasha never studied photography. She arrived in New York in 1974 and attended business school at NYU. At that time the market for photographs was in its infancy, as the concept of vintage and limited-edition prints was just taking hold. Quasha trained herself by visiting the pioneering—and now defunct—Light Gallery and Witkin Gallery. For her graduation thesis she made the case for photographs as fine-art collectibles.

After studying the market for several years, she took out a $200,000 loan in 1980 to set herself up as a private dealer. “You must put your money where your mouth is,” she tells me in her Upper East Side apartment, where she has her office. “As a private dealer you own significant inventory but no gallery space, and the risks are great. Anyway, I’m really passionate only about certain photographs, so I wouldn’t be a good gallery dealer.”

The Quillan Collection is no doubt fairly unique in its scope: Quasha tried to tell the history of photography through 69 pictures, using just one image per artist. She had been toying with the idea of such a collection in 1988, when she found herself seated on a plane next to a financial investor who also happened to be a photography collector. Asked how she would go about creating such a collection, Quasha told him she would begin with a László Moholy-Nagy photogram that was coming up for auction.

“He asked me the estimate,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Well, the catalogue lists $20,000 to $30,000, but it will go for over $50,000.’ ” By the end of the flight he was proposing a joint venture. “He said, ‘We’ll put up the money and you provide the expertise.’ ”

Quasha drafted a business plan and a list of photographers she felt belonged in her dream collection. When she got the Moholy-Nagy for the sum she had predicted—a record for his work at the time—they were off and running. Her idea was that one picture choice would lead to another, so in a sense “the collection built itself,” as she puts it. Only a certain sea-and-cloud study from the 1850s by Gustave Le Gray would do because it had to have, she says, “the same poetry and luminosity as the Moholy.”

A dealer who brought her two Man Rays, one of them the largest rayograph ever made, was stunned when Quasha chose the other, a portrait of Marcel Duchamp. “It was Duchamp being himself,” she argues. “The rayograph didn’t fit with the rest of the collection.”

This unorthodox approach, according to Bethel, gives the Quillan pictures their surprising freshness. The names may be familiar, but many of the images are not. “If you think of Ansel Adams, you don’t think of Boards and Thistles,” she says. “If you think of Edward Steichen, you don’t think of Charlie Chaplin.”

Quasha describes the collection, compiled in a hard-to-find 1991 catalogue, as a test of her own vision. “I had been told I had an eye,” she says. “Well, what does that mean? I set out to prove something to myself. I wanted to bring together a group of pictures that represented how I see.”

When I point out that she seems to favor romantic, dusky lushness in a print, she doesn’t deny it. “It’s become clear that darkness appeals to me,” she admits. “I tend toward grays, sepia tones. Once you get past the formal elements of photography, what makes it different from any other medium is the light. It’s always about that for me.”

There are no color photographs in the Quillan Collection—“People don’t realize how much variation there is in black-and-white,” Quasha notes—and she is disappointed that neither Eadweard Muybridge nor Frederick H. Evans was in-cluded. Both were on her wish list, but she never found the right print. The chronology terminates with images by Jan Groover (a tabletop still life from 1985) and Patrick Faigenbaum (a portrait of his mother, shot in the seventies but printed in 1990). “When Patrick made the print of his mother for me,” says Quasha, “I knew I was finished.”

Perusing some photographs by Faigenbaum and others that she keeps as inventory in her apartment, Quasha emphasizes that her aim wasn’t to build the greatest collection ever. “My purpose was not magisterial, and I didn’t want it to be an exercise that went on for the rest of my life,” she says. “I wanted to find out, Can we represent photography from the beginning to almost the present in a small group of pictures without subscribing to any theory, dogma, categories, or classifications? I wasn’t looking to state anything. I wanted only to suggest.”

It’s curious to note that Quasha’s original plan called for 70 pictures. In the end she stopped at precisely 69—a testament, surely, to her unfettered but exacting standards.

Jill Quasha is available by appointment only (212-472-3150). The Quillan Collection auction will be held April 7 at Sotheby’s, 1334 York Avenue, New York (212-606-7000; sothebys.com).