By Anita Malhotra
Photographic art dealer, curator and appraiser Stephen Bulger opened his photo gallery in 1995 at a time when Toronto’s photography scene was relatively quiet. Since then, the Stephen Bulger Gallery has played a leading role in cultivating Toronto’s now-flourishing photo scene by hosting more than 150 photography exhibits, representing over 50 Canadian and international photographers, and building an inventory of approximately 50,000 prints and negatives that includes the work of Vivian Maier, the prolific street photographer who became famous after her death in 2009.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Stephen Bulger at his gallery at 1026 Queen St. West on February 27, 2015 during his group exhibit “Subway.”
AM: Where did your love of photography come from?
SB: It started in childhood, probably when I was seven or eight years old. It became a bit of a hobby to take snapshots. My mom used a camera to take pictures that she would later make paintings from, so she had an active use of photography that intrigued me. So I think from a young age I started recognizing photography as being something more than just snapping pictures.
AM: What kinds of subjects did you photograph?
SB: Initially it started just with friends and family and events, and by the time I got into high school it became more abstraction or “fine art” photography.
AM: And then you studied photography formally after that?
SB: About four years after graduating from high school, I enrolled at Ryerson in their four-year B.A. program and studied still photography. And then that’s when I started to curate exhibitions.
AM: What led you to open the Stephen Bulger Gallery?
SB: When I was at Ryerson I used to help with the Ryerson Gallery and I enjoyed the activity of having an art gallery. I started to notice that there were a lot of things that Toronto lacked in terms of photography. I would look at cities like New York and Chicago and they would have very active photo scenes and I didn’t understand why Toronto didn’t. Because of my love of curation, and having left the Ryerson Gallery, there was a bit of a hole. There was an activity that I really enjoyed doing that I wasn’t doing anymore, so I started to work on an idea to open up my own gallery.
AM: What is it that you enjoy about curating?
SB: I like playing with photographs. I rely on photographs to tell me about the world I live in, and weaving the photos together is a way for me to tell others what I think about the world.
AM: So you’re like an artist with other people’s photos?
SB: I’m not a maker and I wish I were in many cases, and I never would have been good enough to have a show in my own gallery, but I do notice that the similarity comes down to selection and editing. And when I was photographing I used to select things to photograph and edit it down into something I thought was cohesive. Now, I do that with other people’s photographs.
AM: Tell me about the photos in your gallery’s collection.
SB: Well, what we do is two things – we operate in the primary and the secondary market. The primary market is working with living photographers. We have a group of photographers that we’ve pulled together one at a time over years, each of which exemplifies a certain aspect of photography that I find interesting. And I look for people that are working in that genre to a really excellent degree and represent them. I also work in the secondary market, which is when you’re buying photographs in the hopes that you might be able to resell them.
AM: Do you feature any particular genres of photography?
SB: No, I’ve got pretty eclectic tastes, so anything excellent I’m willing to show.
AM: You mention that the artists you represent are some of the best in their genres. Can you give me a couple of examples?
SB: Let’s say someone like Sarah Anne Johnson. She works in a number of different media – mostly photography or photo-based. I think she’s a very clever and fearless artist. She realized that she could take photographs that were able to show what something looked like but weren’t good representations of what she felt about something. And so, by adding things to a photograph’s surface, she finds that she can enhance it and make it a more truthful document. And I find that quite fascinating.
And then Gábor Kerekes is someone we just had an exhibition of about a month ago. Unfortunately he recently passed away, but in Hungary he was considered something of a father figure to the generations of photographers that came after him. I find his approach very interesting because each photographic print seems like a whole new exploration of something sort of fantastic.
AM: How do you choose the artists that you feature in your solo shows?
SB: Most of the people I represent will have a solo show, but not all the people I give solo shows to I’m actually the key representative of. Sometimes I do an exhibition in collaboration with another gallery. At least once a year I exhibit the work of someone who is famous in the history of photography that hasn’t had much exposure in Toronto. Because the exhibitions we do are really the public face of the gallery, it’s not really where we tend to make most of our money. So I program more with ideas that museums do versus what most commercial galleries do.
AM: Are all the photos in your inventory prints, or are some negatives?
SB: We’ve got about 16,000 photographic prints here – and it’s funny that you asked about negatives because not so long ago I purchased almost 18,000 negatives by one photographer, Vivian Maier, and we have negatives by Dave Heath as well, although we’re not printing from them. With the Maier ones we’re hoping to print from them.
AM: You also seem to have many photos by early twentieth century photographers in your collection.
SB: Yes, especially Canadian. It’s more in the last 10 years that with early photography I’ve tried to concentrate really exclusively on Canadian. And we represent André Kertész, who was photographing throughout the twentieth century.
AM: How did you come across the Vivian Maier negatives and why did you buy them?
SB: I’m fascinated with her work and made a couple of exhibitions of her photographs from what used to be the collection of Jeffrey Goldstein. He had amassed a collection of almost 18,000 black-and-white negatives.
The question of copyright came front and centre in the Vivian Maier story, and it’s hard to say how long it’s going to take to resolve that, but it certainly troubled Jeffrey Goldstein. He was worried about the safety of the collection, he was worried about ruining his life for the next five or ten years, and wanted to get his life back. And really, it was his idea to sell them to me. He likes me and loves Toronto, likes the whole photo scene that’s been building here, so there’s a number of reasons why he thought that I would be a good person to buy these from him. So he asked, and I said yes.
AM: What kind of photos are in that collection?
SB: It’s the full gamut of her career – photographs from around the world as well as New York and Chicago, where she lived for most of her life. Self-portraits and street photography and abstraction, still lifes, basically the whole gamut of black-and-white photography. It’s fascinating.
AM: In addition to founding your gallery, you were also one of the founders of CONTACT, which has become the world’s largest photography festival. How did that come about?
SB: I had gone to photo festivals in other cities like Paris and Montreal and I thought that they were these great events. For a photo geek like me to go to a city that is overwhelmed by a photography festival is fun.And soon after I opened the gallery I realized how much education people needed about photography because people were asking me very basic questions, and they were almost suspicious in terms of me having the audacity to have a gallery that was devoted to photography. So I started to see that I was faced with a fairly large challenge and thought that some sort of mass education was required. A photo festival seemed to be a good, easy way to do it. Luckily Judith Tatar and her business partner Darren Alexander agreed, and after we brought Linda Book on board, CONTACT never looked back.
AM: What other activities are you involved in?
SB: In terms of my business we also appraise photographs for insurance purposes or donation purpose, so I enjoy that because that requires a lot of research. We also sell books on photography. When we took over this side of building, we inherited this great movie theatre. And we use it for artist talks and what-have-you. On a weekly basis – Saturdays at three o’clock – we show films free to the public that we program because they relate to whatever exhibition is that we have.
And I do a fair amount of volunteerism. I sit on the advisory board of the Ryerson Image Centre and I helped them found that facility, which I’m proud of. I also sit on the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board – that’s a government tribunal that determines what objects being donated to institutions in Canada could be considered cultural property. And I’m past president of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers that has about 130 members located around the world that are experts in different aspects of photography.
AM: How has the development of digital photography affected your work?
SB: There’s an amazing proliferation of photography now. People from all walks of life are very conscious of photographs. I do think, though, that with digital it’s a different mindset in terms of the fact that most people aren’t really paying attention to what they’re doing – they’re just snapping pictures. And now the technology is so good that even a complete idiot is going to get a half-decent picture. So in many ways the great photographs are becoming rarer because whereas a great photograph may have been one in a thousand, now it’s one in ten million.
And then I think the big negative is that a lot of people aren’t aware that you actually have to manage these digital files in order to save them. Before, you could just throw negatives into a closet and you could take them out a hundred years later and they’re going to be fine if it was in good storage conditions. With digital storage if you did the same thing that information is going to be gone in 10 to 15 years.
AM: What makes a great photo for you?
SB: Well, it’s funny – it’s much easier for me to describe why I don’t like a photograph than why I do because when I like one I just absolutely fall head-over-heels for it. It’s a ridiculous reaction to have to something that’s this two-dimensional object that for other people is this static piece of paper. But I get these amazing physical, emotional and intellectual charges from these things photographs from time to time. In some there’s this perfect marrying of a great eye with a keen intellect that just informs me of something that I hadn’t thought about or causes me to think about something in a different way. It affects me at a base level. Those are the photographs that really knock me dead and I get reactions like the hair in the back of my neck goes up.
AM: What are you planning for your upcoming exhibit on the 20th anniversary of your gallery?
SB: I thought it would be a good idea to look backwards and to do an exhibition where we’d have one photograph by each person that’s had a solo show over the last 20 years. So I think in the end that was 74 or 75 people. I think it will be a lot of fun. We’re doing it 20 years to the day – we opened on Thursday, March 23 in 1995 and so this celebration is on Monday, March 23,, 2015.
The exhibit “20th Anniversary: A Group Exhibition” opened on Monday, March 23, 2015 and runs until April 25 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen St. West. The next edition of CONTACT will take place in Toronto throughout May 2015. For more information about Stephen Bulger, please visit bulgergallery.com.