Stephen Bulger is perhaps Toronto’s most successful purveyor of photography. Since opening his eponymous gallery in 1995, Bulger has curated 110 exhibitions and represented more than 50 photographers, traveling regularly to promote their work here and abroad. In 1997 he co-founded Contact, now the largest photography festival of its kind in North America, during which seemingly every gallery and spare wall in the city is given over to photographs. As a collector whose principle interest is the documentary image, Bulger occupies a unique corner of the photography scene, one that has sustained the growth of his gallery while raising the profile of both contemporary and forgotten photographers.
He is also not shy about the image trade. Photographic prints are becoming more valuable than ever before. As the price of art gets more outrageous, its poor cousin—photography—is becoming, according to Bulger, increasingly coveted by a new wave of collectors, blurring the traditional but controversial line between art and photography.
Torontoist spoke with Bulger about trends in the photo market, the new interface between the camera and art, and why historical photographs matter.
Torontoist: What do you look for in the photographers whose work you choose to represent?
Stephen Bulger: I guess what I could boil it down to is a unique and consistent vision. I’m interested in a new viewpoint of the world using photography. It’s not so much that they can take one picture that I think is really great, but that they have put together a body of work I find interesting.
You have a strong interest in the history of photography. Why is history so important to you as a curator and dealer?
In anything, I think history is important. I started as a hobbyist and then started to look at other people’s work. I would like the odd picture, but I was spending time with my own photographs, and when I started to study the history of it I found that there were certain periods that previously I hadn’t given much attention. But when I understood the context in which they were made, and the contribution they ended up having, I thought it was quite significant. It’s important to know what preceded what you’re looking at right now.
In terms of things I was fairly dismissive of initially, there was pictorialism. I was interested much more in documentary. A lot of dealers would make a specialty of pictorialism—you know, fuzzy, romantic-looking pictures that I thought looked pretty stupid, and so I would never give them much time. Then when I started to study the history of photography and concentrate more on Canadian photography, I saw that the pictorialist tradition in this country lasted until well after the First World War. So it’s a significant amount of what Canadians had been doing photographically. And then you get some people like a Sidney Carter or John Vanderpant, who were significantly great photographers in their day. You start to see a really great pictorialist photograph and you have more appreciation for it. But before I got into it, I never would have thought about making a study of pictorialism.
Is it true you collect old family photograph albums?
I’ve always collected a lot of different things. With photography, whether it be family albums or family snapshots—my wife and I collect wedding pictures—we’re interested in commonly made photographs that transcend their beginning. Now, when you can view it with a sophisticated eye, it seems to have much more significance. So it’s not just a casual snapshot for me. It’s something that is charged with meaning, and can describe the place at which it was made and the time in which it was made. And in terms of actual information about the people in the pictures, most of that is probably just completely my imagination. It’s hard to know what was actually going on when this family portrait was taken—it might be charged with meaning that you might be completely misunderstanding, but you can feel empathetic with the people in the picture. For me, photographs are very much these little trigger mechanisms that get my mind going.
What has made you so successful?
I work inside a relatively small niche in terms of what my interests are and what we do at the gallery. Like a lot of businesses that are niche-oriented, it gives you a chance to become something of an expert, even though it’s in something very small. But then you become something that people go to; I think that’s the case in a lot of areas. Long gone are the days of the department store, where you expected one place to give you everything. People are very careful with their money and the way that they spend it. They need expert opinions for everything else, and that includes artwork. So if they were interested in documentary photographs, they would come to me before they would go to another gallery. That’s helped the reputation of the gallery.
Since you opened your gallery, how has the photography market changed?
One thing is people’s appreciation of photography. You really don’t have the arguments about whether photography can be considered an art or not. What some people are still grappling with is that sometimes photography was not intended to be art, and yet we’re left with these photographs maybe a hundred years after they were made, and they’re bought and sold as art, or at least they’re bought and sold as something that’s collectible. That might be something people have a hard time understanding, that something might not have been made as an art object, but it is still collectible. And so that’s changed quite a bit. People collect press photographs, anonymous photographs, family snapshots—and in some cases for a considerable amount of money because it’s known to be a rare example, a fine example of something. There’s a much more active market in photographs, so if something truly great comes up for sale there are so many more people interested in acquiring it than there used to be. People are realizing that photographs are worth a lot more than they ever imagined, so all the way down the road the prices are starting to go up. So in terms of collecting, it’s making it more expensive as a pastime.
Who buys from you? What are your markets, in Canada and internationally?
It’s pretty much all over the place. I would say our international market is more sophisticated than someone walking in off the street, because if they’re using our website to look at materials to buy, they’re probably already a collector. Locally we go anywhere from people who are buying their very first piece of art to individuals and corporations that buy on a more frequent basis. We also deal with very serious collectors, and I would include in there institutions that we deal with. We get curators who are devoting their lives to the study of photography, and they have patrons and groups of people who help with their finances to make their collections possible. So they’re very serious collectors. In terms of international, it’s changing a bit with the web, but generally if we’re dealing with someone in the UK they’re already a fairly experienced collector, whereas in terms of the local audience it might be someone just walking around and coming in and seeing a show that we have. We find more first-timers when we do a particular theme-based show. When we did the Antarctica show, we sold historical and contemporary photographs from Antarctica. There are a lot of people interested in artifacts of expeditions, so in that exhibition we were meeting people who’d never been to a gallery before, but they’d heard there was an exhibition about Antarctica, and the fact that they could buy an original Frank Hurley photograph was something they felt was remarkable. They’d been reading about this person all their lives, and here’s their opportunity to actually buy a real print. And we’ll probably never see them again. But it was terrific being able to give them that little piece of history that means something to them.
What trends to you see emerging in documentary photography?
There have been two ‘side’ influences that I think have affected the type of work you see now. One is that people who were collecting art are now collecting photography, and they were introduced to photography through artists who decided to pick up a camera and use that as their delivery mechanism for whatever ideas they were trying to get across. When you had painters using cameras, that changed a lot of the content of the type of work you’d see out there.
In addition to that there’s been a lot of technical advances with colour and with printers that makes it much, much easier to show big, beautiful colourful photographs. So you have those two things working at the same time. And you’ve got the fact that a lot of people who consider themselves to be traditional photographers, who never really looked outside of photography for inspiration, might still be doing that, but some of the photography they’re looking at was made by people who never considered themselves to be photographers. Someone like Jeff Wall does not consider himself to be a photographer, and yet there are photographers that are using his work as inspiration for the work that they do. So across the board photographers are getting more involved with contemporary art than they ever have before, because that’s where the influence comes from.
Have you noticed anything that’s unique to the local scene, to photography in Toronto?
A lot of people say that there’s more landscape work being done in Canada than in a lot of other countries. I think that’s certainly true. At different stages there was this sexual, political thing going on in a lot of work about 15 years ago—I don’t see as much of it now, but a lot of self-identity issues were coming up. But that’s gone away. You see more industrial photography, or at least industrial scenes, than you used to. And again, I think people are more comfortable with it because previously they were trying to react against the impression that, well, anyone can take a photograph, or what’s the difference between commercial photography and art photography. People wouldn’t want to take anything that looked like a chemical company paid you to take a picture. You wouldn’t expect to see that in a gallery, you’d want to see something that looked more beautiful or more like art. Whereas now those notions are all gone. Really anything is fair game, and it’s connected to what people’s concerns are. There’s a lot of work about the environment right now, because people are interested in that. There’s also this resurgence of work that some people call the Antiquarian avant-garde, this reemergence of antique processes that people are using, the rudimentary methods of making a photograph in modern-day society which is a reaction away from digital.
Yes, you can see that in the cost and popularity of toy cameras.
Exactly. So that’s a big part of it. Then you’ve got the whole digital thing. We’ve only had Photoshop for about 15 years, and that’s revolutionized image-making and printing, whether you’re using it for burning and dodging or you’re dramatically altering the look of the content of the picture. Photoshop is huge.
Why did you choose not to become a photographer yourself?
I just got onto a different track. When I was researching the gallery I was still imagining that I would be a photographer. As I was meeting other gallery owners, I found there was about a third of them that started as photographers and had stopped, and I thought that was absurd because it was a big desire of mine to take great pictures. While I was doing research, especially down in New York, I was photographing, and although I thought I was taking really good pictures, my results were horrible, probably the worst pictures I had taken for a couple of years. I realized it was because my mind wasn’t completely on the task of taking photographs. I was thinking about meetings I’d just had, thinking about meetings I was going to have. So much of my mind was taken up with trying to open a gallery. I was trying to squeeze the photography in at the same time.
At that point I wanted to pursue the idea of the gallery, and it looked like I would be able to figure it out somehow, so I thought, “I just won’t photograph for about three years.” On the third anniversary of the gallery, if it’s open that long, I’ll have to figure out how to work it back into my schedule. But it was about four and a half years before I thought to ask myself whether I missed photography. I’m surrounded by it on a daily basis. The activity that I do now is similar to being a photographer. I boil it down to selection and editing. As a photographer you’re selecting things to photograph, and then you edit it down until you have this little cohesive body of work. The same as a curator: you’re selecting photographers to work with, and then you edit down their output to make it gel into something that’s communicated to your public. Because of that I don’t find I miss it. And now that I Iook at it, I know I wouldn’t have been good enough to have a show in my own gallery. So it’s not a loss.
Has Contact put Toronto on the map as a centre of photography?
I don’t think you could point to anything but Contact getting Toronto known within the photographic community around the world. We’ve had a really impressive lineup of visiting artists that have participated in the public installations. All of them think that Contact is a first-rate festival, and then they go back and report to their friends. So in terms of creating a buzz, it’s definitely done that. I think much the same as Mois de la Photo has done likewise with Montreal, and the one in Paris, as well.
Do you think the popularity of photography in Toronto is related to our love affair with films?
I think it’s visual. Toronto is a very sophisticated audience, by and large. Especially in North America, [we] would eclipse a lot of other similarly-sized cities with the quality of programming that we get across the board, whether it’s performing arts or visual arts or music. Toronto has really high expectations of how good something has to be to get much attention at all, and because of that, anything that goes on in Toronto that’s at all successful has to be working at a pretty high level.
At Leisure, a group exhibition featuring the work of Jaret Belliveau, Marco Bohr and Scott Conarroe, runs until September 1 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery.>
Photo of Stephen Bulger by Omer Yukseker. All other images courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery.