Reflections of a Golden Eye

Eminence grise behind the storied Gilman collection, Pierre Apraxine opens up about a visionary career that quietly helped refocus art history.

Only philistines now deny that photography is as much an art form as painting or sculpture. Yet just a generation ago this quintessentially modern medium was the art world's neglected stepchild. Yes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York legitimized photography as early as 1928, when it accepted a gift of influential images from Alfred Stieglitz. The following year the new Museum of Modern Art decreed photography central to its revolutionary redefinition of the visual canon. But for decades afterward, photography remained ghettoized in museums' lesser galleries, never attaining the prestige—or commanding the prices—of "high" art.

In the mid-seventies, an epochal shift occurred. A handful of pathbreaking scholars, enterprising dealers, prescient collectors, and sympathetic curators achieved a kind of critical mass and, in the most audacious development in modern connoisseurship, began to elevate photography to top-tier art-historical status. They rediscovered the medium's long-forgotten roots and forced establishment institutions and the market to acknowledge its enduring significance.

Among that band of tastemakers, none is more esteemed by his peers or, somewhat paradoxically, less known to the public than Pierre Apraxine, the self-effacing mastermind behind the Gilman Paper Company Collection in New York. Amassed over two decades with financing from the late collector Howard Gilman, the group of 8,500 images from the 19th to mid-20th century is deemed by most experts to be unequaled in scope and quality. This past March the Met, which had a long relationship with Gilman, finalized a deal to acquire the entire trove in yet another of its world-class coups. A knockout exhibition of highlights is on view until September 6, and a series of smaller shows drawing from the collection will continue through the spring.

"This is the finest comprehensive private collection of photography ever to be assembled or that ever will be assembled," asserts New York collector John Waddell, whose own superb holdings of modern pictures went to the museum in 1987. "The vision was all Pierre's, apart from the funding by Howard Gilman."

When the Met showcased the Gilman collection in its 1993 exhibition "The Waking Dream" (organized by Apraxine and the museum's then-curator of photography, Maria Morris Hambourg), it wowed specialists and the public alike. Displayed in lofty galleries usually reserved for master paintings, these brilliant European and American examples from the medium's first days to World War II stood up to the grand setting and more or less put the old question, But is it art? to rest for good.

In the wake of that watershed, many assumed the Met had a done deal on its hands—especially after the museum unveiled the Howard Gilman Gallery, its first permanent space devoted to photography, in 1997. But Gilman, the collection's mercurial Maecenas and third-generation chairman of his family's privately owned paper manufacturing firm, never signed on the dotted line. Instead, he played a tantalizing waiting game that remained unresolved when he died in 1998 at age 73.

To the Met's chagrin, the ultimate bequest that Holdout Howard had hinted at never materialized either. Thus, when the museum announced that the elusive prize had been won at last, the press treated it like yesterday's news. The New York Times reported that Gilman's foundation suffered financially after his death, but the sum it received for the part gift, part purchase remains a secret, as the terms were not disclosed. New York dealer Hans Kraus told the Times he believes the collection's market value could exceed $100 million. The long list of donors who stepped up to nail the sale confirms its magnitude. Few who view the Gilman highlights will dispute that it was worth whatever the price and however protracted the wait.

So unforgettable are many of the images—like the ghostly Botanical Specimen captured around 1835 by the inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, or Onésipe Aguado's circa 1862 faceless portrait Woman Seen from the Back—that they affirm photography was a full-fledged art form from the get-go. The crucial role the medium played in encouraging 19th-century Americans to appreciate their stupendous terrain, to recognize their aboriginal, enslaved, and immigrant countrymen, and to confront the fratricidal Civil War that tore the nation apart comes across with stunning power. What's truly surprising is how this visual patrimony could have been overlooked for so long.

The 70-year-old Apraxine, who came to photography in midcareer, knows the answers—though until now he has kept his own counsel. This shy, Belgian-raised scion of émigré Russian aristocrats has never been one to seek the spotlight. That reticent nature has been useful in masking his shrewd professional strategies and in preventing him from outshining his egotistical, enigmatic boss.

"Pierre was always very quiet," says trailblazing collector Paul Walter, who was turned on to photography by his friend Sam Wagstaff. "Only later would you find out what he was up to. Sam and I operated on instinct and were always hitting the dealers, but Pierre had a scholarly bent and spent more time in the bibliothèque than anyone."

Though Apraxine is an art historian, his response to photography is no less visceral than Wagstaff's or Walter's. "Pierre's exceedingly refined sensibility gave him the courage to collect what others weren't buying," John Waddell says. "He had not only an instinctive eye but also a profound passion."

After receiving his master's degree in 1965 at the University of Louvain, where he specialized in early Flemish painting, Apraxine yearned for an invigorating change. "I wanted to do something more involved with life, not dusty papers," he says. As personal curator for Baron Léon Lambert, the Brussels financier and avant-garde arts patron, he felt liberated by "becoming the eyes, ears, and legs for someone else."

With contemporary art, Apraxine continues, "you must exercise judgment without any supporting material. A new artist may someday be seen as a master, or be left on the wayside by history. The gamble is a handicap, but it's also the excitement."

Apraxine first came to New York on a Fulbright fellowship in 1969. He worked as an assistant curator at MoMA until his leadership in a bitter staff strike ended his prospects there. He then went on to the Marlborough Gallery, which soon became the only major art dealership representing photographers, including Berenice Abbott, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn. In 1976, when the Gilman Paper Company decided to form a collection, Apraxine jumped at the offer to be its curator, convincing the firm to break the conventional corporate-art mold. Crucially, he earned the trust and respect of Howard Gilman, whom he describes as difficult but "always interested in the new, the untried, the adventurous."

After initially focusing on minimalist and conceptual art, Apraxine soon began acquiring visionary architectural drawings and modern photographs. He expanded his search to include 19th-century photographs after a trip to Paris, where he came across an Edouard Baldus from 1857, Group at the Château de la Faloise. "Certainly I recognized a masterpiece," he says of his epiphany. "I told Howard this was the direction we must move in and he agreed immediately."

Soon Apraxine was a formidable presence in the still-nascent marketplace for period photographs, swooping in on choice morsels like an elegant bird of prey. "I remember an auction with a piece I was prepared to break the bank on," Waddell says. "Though I sat through the whole sale, Pierre strolled in at the last minute, outbid me, and walked right out. I said to myself, That was a bold statement by Gilman."

Apraxine's cool confidence could be deceiving, however. "Contrary to people thinking I had all the financing I wanted," he reveals, "there were certain things that escaped because Howard wasn't interested. What was spent on the collection was peanuts compared to what he spent on his other projects, which gave him a way to live several lives through other people. It was excitement by proxy, and you had to compete for his attention."

The collection's principal rival was Gilman's beloved White Oak Conservation Center, a 7,500-acre nature preserve in northeastern Florida dedicated to breeding endangered species in captivity. "If it was a choice between acquiring a white rhino and a great [Gustave] Le Gray landscape, the rhino would win," Apraxine remarks. "Howard was obsessed with getting an okapi. To help him find one, he put a tribe of Pygmies on his payroll. They wore T-shirts with the Gilman logo—on the Pygmies they looked like long dresses."

This month Apraxine's career comes full circle. Just as the Met opens the loan exhibition "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult," which features some of his last Gilman purchases, he officially ends his three-decade tenure as curator of the collection. Even if he'd consider another advisory role, Apraxine would not easily find another dream patron like Gilman—who, he says, was "more like a relative or a friend than an employer." Apraxine's guidance would certainly guarantee some newly minted tycoon preeminence among photography collectors.

Despite his reputation as a curator's curator, Apraxine doesn't flaunt his pivotal role in reshaping the visual taste of our time. His uncommon combination of natural talent and dogged work ethic are concealed by a hard-won illusion of effortlessness. He tries to account for his success by passing it off as some insuperable dependency, observing that, after all, "Photography is an addiction, isn't it?"

MARTIN FILLER WROTE ABOUT HALF BOTTLES OF WINE IN THE MARCH/APRIL ISSUE.