CEO and Founder of the Michael Hoppen Gallery
Photography: Investing in a Memory
Febraury 2, 2021 | 40:51
|0:46||Host Hugo Scott-Gall is joined today by Michael Hoppen and Simon Fennell.|
|1:28||How do you think about the art market and motivations for buying?|
|3:55||Have the nature of buyers and the reasons behind their purchases changed over time?|
|7:57||There is a geographic basis to photography.|
|9:28||In 1978, young Michael spent $44 on a photograph—for a particular reason.|
|11:00||Would you more likely see a painting or a photo in an English home?|
|11:53||Michael appreciates the contributions of Dorothea Lange.|
|12:50||Today, there is not yet an image encompassing what we are going through.|
|14:05||The group considers collections and types of photos.|
|15:51||What is Michael looking for to capture the spirit of the time now?|
|19:27||A backstory is often the thing to clinch a photo for Michael and his colleagues.|
|21:18||There will be photographers working to document this day.|
|22:45||We choose different artists because we look at the world differently.|
|23:03||What is the impact of new technology on the photography sphere?|
|25:02||Michael sometimes parts company with the obsession with digital photography.|
|26:59||Remember, photography and technology are beautifully purposed toward each other.|
|28:43||There is value in walking to a physical gallery.|
|29:56||The group considers the role of nostalgia and a desire to return to elemental experiences.|
|33:01||Hopefully there is an appreciation for a slowing down of life.|
|33:30||Michael explored the option of sharing photos from home—with favorable results.|
|35:12||He works with both digital and physical photography.|
|36:41||Photography snakes its way into almost anything, including science.|
|37:57||Hugo offers thanks and comments on parallels between the realms of photography and investing.|
Hugo Scott-Gall: Today I am delighted to have with me Michael Hoppen. Michael is the founder and owner of the eponymous Michael Hoppen Gallery, which is known for nurturing the careers of new and interesting artists and exhibiting them alongside 19th, 20th, and 21st century photographic masters. The gallery, which opened in 1992, is located in Chelsea, London. Michael, welcome, and thanks for being here.
Michael Hoppen: Very nice to see you, Hugo. Thank you for inviting me.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Also with me is Renaissance man and portfolio manager at William Blair, Simon Fennel. Simon, welcome.
Simon Fennell: Thank you very much, Hugo. And Michael, great to see you.
Michael Hoppen: Great to see you as well, Simon.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Excellent. Well, let’s get going. So, Michael, high level question for you. How do you think about the art market? Is it one market? Is it a series of smaller markets? And then adding on to that, how do you think about the motivations for buying? What’s different from our market, probably market equities, and your market, specifically photographs, but art?
Michael Hoppen: I think you talk about markets, and I’ve never really looked at what I do as a market. I’ve looked on it as something that interests me. I think markets, obviously there’s a trade inherent to what we do, but the initial reason why I started what I did and I started collecting many years before I opened the gallery was that something piques one’s interests. And any collector whether they’re talking about photographs, I know people that collect ink pens, and there are people who collect old master drawings, you see something of yourself, and once that begins to happen, you’re fed.
And it’s about, there’s a spiritual engagement. I know it sounds strange, but there’s actually an engagement you have when you walk down the street, and some people get it from wine, some people get it from cars. I think it’s totally, totally cross-discipline. There are many different areas that you can explore. But the market itself is really, the aspect of paying for it, finding it, and trading it, but underneath, what pins all of that underneath everything, for me, is that engagement one has. And as soon as you’re engaged with something, then you want to gain more knowledge. One particular picture will lead you to something else.
We’ll talk about this later, but we have many different types of collectors. Some people are specifically interested in trains that ran between London and Scotland in the late 19th century. Are they collectors of photography? Are they collectors of history? Are they collectors of their past memories, maybe something their father spoke about? So, I’ve been lucky enough, just as I’ve met Simon through photography, to meet extraordinary different roads. And yes, there is a marketplace there, but that’s not what has driven me personally. It’s that engagement with history, document, spirituality, sentiment, a love of a particular place.
In a sense, you join in with that other person or that other group in being able to join that journey. So, I’ve learned more from my clients than I think they’ve probably learned from me, because I’m directed into other worlds. And photography has that enviable ability to take you to a place. And of course, it’s only 180 years old, so it’s relatively new.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And has that changed over time? The nature of the buyers and the reasons for buyers? Has art become seen as something of an asset class, and it’s probably attracted in the same way that lots of asset markets have attracted inflows of money in an era of very low interest rates? Has the sort of who the marginal buyer is and why they’re buying, has that changed versus 20, 30, or 40 years ago?
Michael Hoppen: Yes, up to a point. Photography specifically is very democratic, because there’s obviously quite often more than one copy. Like sculpture, an edition can be made, or various casts being made, like cars, like watches, there are more than one individual object, although, in many cases, photographs can be unique, but we need to sort of go back to the ‘70s when the Getty museum in California, one of the great museums in America, took a decision to build a photography collection. That first purchase was 44,000 prints, which they bought from one particular person, and that really catalyzed, certainly, the big institutions in America collecting.
Because up until then, it had been slightly like football cards, if that makes any sense. It was being swapped, exchanged, bought, and sold, table talk between people who had, as I said, very specific interests. And the market was relatively small. Colnaghi’s in the 19th century in London were dealing in photographs in the 1880’s. Julia Margaret Cameron was, in fact, an extremely successful 40-year-old woman making pictures of her friends, and Colnaghi’s is, one of the great art galleries in the West End in Saint James that’s still going today, saw the potential, because people gravitated towards it. We have a show up at the moment, which again, the market has caught up with that interest.
So, I think yes, there has been a definite change in the ability for people to be able see the work, because it’s on display in many, many museums now, whereas before, you had to go and rummage around in bookshops. Photographs, whenever I travel, for example, and I do a lot of it normally, I would always go to where coins, and stamps, and books are traded, because that is where the photographic community tended to collect. It was a rather bookish activity. What’s happened since, via technology and through consequence of the museum’s display, people have thought ah, maybe I should hang a photograph in my home rather than, for example, a drawing or painting.
That mirror of contemporary society that photography provides has, in a sense, I always remember going to see American films in the ‘80s, and I’d see everyone’s walls was covered in black-and-white photography. You saw a film in England, and it was covered in drawings, paintings, antiques. So, there was this huge difference between what people wanted to look at on their walls and what people had collected.
And as I said, the rather bookish style of collecting and the—I met somebody, in fact, two nights ago that started collecting photography in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, and that was incredibly—and I was in his house yesterday around the corner, and I was amazed to see some of the pictures that he’d bought in the ‘60s when they were relatively inexpensive, but obviously, considered highly important to the originator and to him. And it’s true that that sort of collegial collecting, I think that photography has been able to make itself, and more and more so in Europe, because, of course, America was very much in the forefront.
Chicago Art Institute, for example, was one of the very, very first places to display photography, and Moholy-Nagy came from the Bauhaus in Germany, moved to Chicago at the beginning of the war, was a huge influence on what the museums, and what collectors, and what aficionados wanted to look at. So, it’s about knowledge. Yes, taste comes into it, but that, in a sense, displacement of painting and drawing is still in process here, in England I’m talking about. In America, you always feel amongst friends when you talk about photography.
Simon Fennell: That geographic basis, from the Getty or even from Chicago, has focused initially on American artists, photographers? Or what element does the international artist play in terms of the collecting? Is it a globalized market? And how do you think about almost a country of origin, as it were?
Michael Hoppen: I think because photography has a democratic nature, that you can have a copy sitting in Warsaw in Poland, but that artist can also make another copy and send that to America, it’s allowed a very broad spread of photographic originators to congregate into museums and collections from all over the world. So, very rarely do you go to one of the great American museums, Houston, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, to name only a few, because of course, virtually every city in America has collections, and it’s very rare that you go into these and just see work from one nation, from one discipline.
So, most of these museums will collect historical photography, so they will have early pictures of the American Civil War, for example, which are historically important documents that may have actually transferred from a library to a pictorial museum, which I find interesting. That transfer of what it, in fact, actually is to collecting practitioners who were brought together by some of the forward-thinking dealers in America, Witkin being one of them. I remember going to shows. The first photograph I ever bought was in probably 1978. I spent $44.00 on a Harry Callahan. He’d just interviewed me at RISDE.
He was the head of department of Rhode Island College of Design, and I was at a place called 20th Century American Posters, and I said to my mother, could I borrow $44.00, when $44.00 was a reasonable sum of money for an 18-year-old to think about spending on a picture. And I’m happy to say I still have the picture. I cannot for the life of me what made me think why would I buy it, but again, a little bit like the beginning of the conversation, was that recognition. I’d been brought up in South Africa. It was a picture of the coastline, and I saw something that he had seen.
And I’ll never forget, when Instagram first reared its head, I remember thinking, I’m sure we all did when we were traveling without iPhones, just over 11 or 12 years ago, I wish somebody could see what I’m seeing now. And that’s what Ansel Adams was able to, that’s what Frith in Crimea was able to do. He wanted people in London or in New York to see what he had seen, and that interpretation created an agenda. I know we’re getting slightly off track here, but for me, it’s a very important reason why photography became so prevalent in the American museums.
They enjoyed looking at paintings, and drawings, and sculptures, and grand calls, but photography joined that journey quite early on in America. And up to point, we are still on that journey here in England. It’s still, I don’t know how many homes you walk into to see photography; probably fewer than you would walk into and see a painting on the wall. Would you not agree with that, Simon?
Simon Fennell: I would. It seems that actually maybe the nature of that journalism or photojournalism, if you go back to the Crimea, or with, as the U.S. into the 20th century, the Dorothea Lange, and the Walker Evans, that that sort of, as you say, you’re really contributing journalistically to begin with, not necessarily artistically. I think, especially for Lange, her role was not really as an artist, although it became one, and she was really taking photographs in government in terms of the role, but it sort of moved into art having been something else, either photojournalism or government, prior to that. So, yeah, I think you’re right in terms of the way that photography has sometimes jumped disciplines, as it were.
Michael Hoppen: That’s very interesting. You bring up Dorothea Lange, who I’m a great admirer of. In fact, one of the great things about photography is that women have made huge inroads into the discipline, more so than painting. They’re great recognized masters of photography, and without the place of women in that canon, we would be far poorer without them. But I am intrigued as to why a portrait of a migrant mother with two desperately hungry children has become such an iconographic photograph that somebody would hang in their living room, for example, and people would pay substantial amounts of money for. A great vintage print of that image would maybe sell for around $US400,000.00 or $US450,000.00.
It is very much the composition; it’s the triangle, it’s the classic Madonna and Child composition. There are obviously references to paintings as to why it works, as all photography and all art needs to survive within that rigor, but I do find it interesting that today there has not been an image, for example, that has encompassed what we’re all going through globally today. You will probably remember that desperately sad photograph of a child drowning off the coast of England, or Italy, or Spain a few years ago, which woke the world up to the plight of people traveling across the Middle East and Africa trying to find a home in Europe.
There hasn’t been a definitive photograph, and I think there’s many reasons for that, that somehow encapsulates what’s happening to us at the moment.
So, I think photography has huge power, and it does change people’s minds, and I think great journalists, whether you’re Dorothea Lange, or whether you’re one of the, Don McCallum, we were talking about him this morning with somebody, those photographs have helped change the course of history, and I think there are many different levels that a photograph can survive, and if you pick one particular picture that has not only changed the way, she was working for the Farm Securities Administration, as were many other photographers during the Depression, but what made that one photograph say what it did.
And I think that’s a testament to the ability of the photograph to transcend its initial purpose, because obviously it was a photograph for, I think it appeared in Life magazine to start with, that picture. What’s interesting for me, though, is how collecting a picture like that can be collected alongside other types of photography, and I’ve sat in auctions for 20 to 25 years and watched the buying habits of collectors. Collecting fashion photography, that’s been an extraordinary thing to watch.
These were pictures of dresses, and suits, and shoes, and glasses, and practitioners like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, and many others who have followed, have turned a commercial exercise into an art form, which has, again, gone on to fetch huge sums of money at auction. And I think collecting fashion photography is a very unusual thing, and I love it. I’m a big fan of it, but I do find it strange that one is collecting to commercially that not often happened with painting, for example. Photography does forge pathways into collecting that very few other mediums have. I think there are other mediums, there are people who collect pottery, Mayan pottery, that was used for cooking.
There’s something beautiful about the way these things were made. There’s a utility to them that I think people enjoy exploring. And I think maybe that’s where some of the collecting of industrial photography, fashion photography, huge collections have been built around the world, substantial, many, many millions of dollars spent on these documents.
I think that is part of the attraction of photography, is the reexamination of something you take for granted.
Maybe things that you’ve seen and pass by, and somebody else has photographed it and made you reassess its value to you visually, or commercially, or however else you want to look at it.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, what are you looking for, Michael, to capture the spirit of the time we’re in now, an awful lot has happened, and maybe, perhaps an awful lot, could change. You never want to overestimate change in the moment, but there’s certainly a number of big things going on in the world, not least pandemic caused by COVID. So, what are you looking for when you think about photographers’ work you would like to have in your gallery that will somehow capture the moment we’re in and endure?
How would you—that’s a real skill to have, and we think about that as investors, so has this changed the revenue opportunity for Company A versus Company B? Has it created a whole new pool of revenue? Has it destroyed a whole pool of revenue? So, however you think about that, thinking forwards about kind of what’s going to endure and what will stick, what won’t stick?
Michael Hoppen: I think there are several answers. That’s a very good question, but I think there are several answers, but one is that photography has an ability to preserve memory, and I think one of the things we probably all think about most days is, wouldn’t it be nice to get back to the way things were? And I mean that in the sense that there was a quality of life we had, which continues to change. I think COVID has sped up a lot of things.
There were lots of things happening, but what I do when I when I look at a show we have up at the moment by Emerson of the Norfolk Broads in the 19th century, there’s a quality and a way of life that I think the reason we put the show on is because I think that people are looking at the way things were. So, photography preserves memory, and so we are investing heavily in old photography. As you said in the beginning, I’ve also been a great champion of new young talent, and nothing stands still, so I’m always investing in what’s going to happen tomorrow, next year, and years to come. Sometimes you get that right, but not always, but I always like to think about what I want to look at tomorrow.
So, I’m always out there looking. One of the problems I’ve found is although photography is perfectly suited to the internet, delivery via iPhone or tablet or screen, there’s nothing like the physical object. So, I’m always looking for object quality. I’m also looking for timelessness, so whether we’re looking at a portrait of the migrant mother by Dorothea Lange, or we’re looking at a picture made yesterday, I would like to think, and this is one of our absolutely key, key reference points, is if you look at that picture in a hundred years’ time, will it still have a resonance? You may not know where it’s taken. You may not know anything about the artist.
All that information helps, but does the physical object move you? And so, I have a rule, in a way, that I like to take on artists where I see them building consistency and interest where they’re not plowing the same furrow all the time. And every now and again, like yesterday, I bought a picture by somebody, and it’s the only picture I can see that they’ve taken that I absolutely love. But I’ve learned to trust the little guy in my stomach. He tells me sometimes just don’t dismiss this, because there’s something in there. So, we’re looking all over the world at photography, because it’s something that everyone does, and that’s one of the beauties of it.
Everyone has the ability with an iPhone, I suppose, to take a picture, but the iPhone is only one piece of that technology. But at least we know that cameras in phones are being used all over the world, and that we get to see what is happening everywhere, and I do find, though, that I’m challenged by looking at everything on screen. I do like the object quality. That’s very important. It’s not simply a flat piece of paper. It’s got texture, it has a message, and there’s a story behind it.
And the story, the back story, is quite often the thing that’ll clinch it for us, so the artist or the photographer themselves, what they’re looking at, why they’re looking at it, what happened because of what they did to that photograph. Obviously, a photograph is an interpretation as well as a rendition of what happened in front of you. If we go back, we were talking about the Crimea just now, I’m very interested in 19th century photography at the moment. I think it’s an area which is vastly undervalued and underlooked at, but if you look at the great picture, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a picture called ‘The Valley of Death.’ It was the day after The Charge of the Light Brigade.
It was quite a manipulated photograph, but you’ve got a very, very, very empty, deserted corner between two hills in the Crimea, and all you see are cannonballs just simply lying on the road. And you know what happened the day before. And in a sense, that interpretation is very chilling. It’s not a photograph of the charge itself. So, I’m looking at historical documents, which I think are very important. I’m looking at, because of what’s happening, because I think people’s tastes are changing, I think smaller works are becoming very, very interesting.
There was a time where everyone was going after big, contemporary works, huge great Gurskys, wonderful pictures, wonderful big Struths, fantastic pieces of work, and I’m looking at them now thinking, you know what? We’ve almost, I don’t want to say ignored vintage photography, we’ve set it to one side in the search for what is new. But I would like to spend some time catching up and looking back at the way the world was, and I think that gives people some comfort. I don’t think that there is anyone out there at the moment that has captured the essence of what we’re all going through. I think we’re still in the middle of it. But inevitably, there will be photographers.
There’s a chap called Paolo Pellegrin that we work with who documents war. He’s an extraordinary photographer. You will see many of his pictures that relate to Syria, Afghanistan. The Middle East has been an area that he’s trodden the path for the last 20 years, and during the lockdown, he decided to photograph his children in Switzerland. He’s about the talent. He lives just outside Geneva, and what’s been fantastic is seeing with the way Paolo has reinterpreted his own emotional engagement with his environment. If you’re photographing people starving, people being dispossessed of their homes, people losing relatives, cities being destroyed, you have to position yourself in a very, very objective way.
If you get too involved in those lives, you will not be able to document what’s happening. What’s interesting, removing himself from all of that anguish and all of the terrible things going on in the world, he’s able to see a wonderful positivity in the way his children are growing up, but it’s that same examination of his environment, and the activity, and it shows his talent. And that’s where I think photography starts to get into its own, is that adaptability, whether you’re dealing with a picture of a flower, or a picture of a desperately gruesome scene in a war, or a fashion photograph. They’re three very different paths, three very different photographs.
They all comment on the way we look at the world, and I think great art, as I said in the beginning, is about a reflection of our particular way of seeing things, which is why everyone chooses different artists. That’s what’s wonderful. We don’t all follow one particular route. There are so many different ways you can look at photography, and I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about, is the various layers and the various routes it allows you to engage in.
Simon Fennell: Michael, we spend a lot of time thinking about technology and its impact on the investing landscape of individual companies. From a photography perspective, how do you think about technology, both within the element of the picture itself, the nature of the capture of that image, but also some of the elements of technology that have an effect on your business, as it were?
Michael Hoppen: Well, it’s clear that COVID sped up something we were doing anyway. Two or three years ago, I’ve been where I’m sitting now since 1991, when we opened the gallery, and we were very much here. People would walk in and that’s how they would see what we were doing, what we were exhibiting. The internet and the iPhone came along, and suddenly, people were able to look and see what we were doing here, but I resisted for years and years in putting our exhibitions online. And we started three or four years ago to recognize there was no way that what was happening would stop or go back to where we’d been, and so I invested quite heavily in people who understood that activity, because I don’t.
I don’t pretend to, but I recognize its potential. The delivery of a photograph onto a screen, they’re sort of made for each other, but I absolutely believe in the haptic experience and the object quality of a photograph, so I was very reluctant to close the gallery, and I still am. We’re still hanging shows. Even during lockdowns, I can video those shows or video photographs, which is what we do for people, but I still try to get people to come and physically experience it themselves. You, of all people, know how wonderful it is to be surrounded by the physical photograph itself.
The books are wonderful, and it’s a great asset that photography has, is the people, well, artists have certainly produced incredible books of their work, but the delivery of photographs via the internet has been fantastic for us. There’s no doubt about it. Where I sometimes part company with is the obsession with digital photography. The camera, whether it’s a digital camera, or a 10X8 camera, or a 35mm camera, is a tool. It’s no more, no less.
If I was to give a 10X8 camera and the darkroom that Ansel Adams used to you, and put you in front of, what’s that fantastic mountain, El Capitan, put you in front of El Capitan with his camera, which he made the most fantastic picture, I guarantee your picture would look different to his. If, on the other hand, you stood in the same spot, and Ansel Adams, if he was alive and owned an iPhone, handed you his iPhone, the chance are your picture would be marginally different, but not dissimilar. So, what I try and pick apart with technology is the bits that are useful, and the bits that I think get in the way of you producing something unique to you.
So, whilst the digital system is a very good and convenient and robust system, it doesn’t really pollute the world, which is very important, the analog and traditional system of making photographs is still where my heart lies, because that is where the magic happens. Most photographers don’t know how to use the insides of a computer. They’re unable to adapt the technology they’ve bought, and it’s not cheap technology, to their own particular use. Some people have, but very, very few. A lot of photographers are moving back towards analog systems today, because they recognize they can create a signature for themselves that is unique to them.
And one of the things that I think any art buyer would agree on, whether they’re buying drawings, but even people who love to read books, or people who buy photographs, is there are particular interests there that stimulate, that catalyze their interest in spending time looking at something, and I believe that is the magic of that internal technology, and it’s important to realize that, of course, photography and technology are beautifully purposed towards each other. Art, science, and technology is photography. So, every time technology is moved forward, or every time photography is moved forward, guess who’s joined them. The internet, email, the iPhones, all these things were brilliant for photography.
The delivery speeds, of course, is driven by the volume of information that a photograph or a piece of film contains, the whole streaming thing we’re looking at today, I’m fascinated by what’s happening with music. Eighteen years ago, was invited by Mark Getty to come and work with Getty images to help build, and I underscore that help, because it was a big group of people involved, in building one of the greatest archives of photography that is now in use in newspaper and magazine you read.
You often see ‘Getty Images’ as the strapline to many images, and I remember Mark Getty standing in front of all of us one day saying photography and images are the new oil of information. That is what people will be buying and trading in once oil will have gone. I think it was a little out on when it was gone, but it’s happening. We can see that happening, and he’s built a phenomenal business by leasing, renting, selling images to people. It’s happening with music now. They paid $300 million or Bob Dylan’s backtrack log. I think that’s relatively cheap when you consider what they’re getting.
The fees that people are paying every time a piece of music is played on the radio or streamed is fascinating, and I know that that is also happening with photography, but there’s something about sitting in a room with Bob Dylan playing to you, and I hope many people remember their first Bob Dylan concert, and it’s the same as me walking into a gallery, which I did 1990.
I went to see The Waking Dream, one of the great collections of photography, which was built by the Gilman Pappard Collection and was donated to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and it came to Edinburgh, and I took the train up there, and wandered around that gallery for three days speechless, and I came back home and I said to my dear wife, I said, I’m giving up being a photographer, because that’s what I’d been for 15 years, and she said, well, we’ve got three children. What do you mean you’re going to give up being a photographer? That’s how we live. And I said, I can’t make pictures as good as this.
And that was that moment when I really, really understood what making great pictures were about. I could never have done that by looking through a book, or looking on a screen. So, again, back again to that point of the object quality that a photograph has, for me, is fundamental despite the opportunity that technology allows us to certainly introduce us to the object, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the physical contact with that object is, for me, important, but I would hate for the internet, I would hate for email to go away, because I’d have to get on planes again.
Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s super-interesting. Do you think, then, there is a sort of nostalgia, or a desire to go back to more elemental experiences? There was a Daft Punk song called ‘Touch,’ which was kind of about this, sort of giving life back to music, as in everything is compressed and ordered, but increasingly homogenized, and actually the importance, you said haptics, the importance of being close to physical objects to fully experience them, and that just can’t be done digitally. So, do you think there is a growing—two questions, really.
There’s a growing realization that we’ve become detached from physical experience because of technology, and secondarily, the second part of the question is that’s been accelerated and amplified by lockdown, where we’ve been forced to detach from physical experience, or certainly reduce the amount of physical experience we have. So, do you think the first sort of trend, we saw it in the sales of vinyl and things like that, have now been amplified and accelerated by the enforced lockdown, and that’s made us think again about what it is we’re really, missing and things we’re really missing, part of that is physical experience, touch and texture.
Michael Hoppen: I think it depends what age group you’re looking to. What I find intriguing about what’s happening is that people who’ve grown up with technology, people, my children have grown up, well, they’ve grown up with both, but I think a lot of children, a lot of young adults, have grown up in a digital, in a technological world. They’re taught at school via technology. That’s become the norm to them, so in fact, discovering the older haptic object experience is ironically the new. So, my new young clients find the exercise of looking at these objects and realizing that this particular picture is only that big; it’s a few inches wide.
Because on their screens, of course, everything appears at one size and everything appears quickly because they can cut to new things. Watching children look through Instagram, that flick of the thumb, is something they control. The whole nature of going and standing in front of something is very different. So, I think there are new discoveries being made by new generations that have never seen these collections before, whereas I think my generation, in a sense, is missing the slowness of some of the pace.
I think we, certainly I was swept up for the last 10 or 15 years in a travel frenzy, traveling from museum, to art fair, to show, to meeting, and I go—Simon knows I’ve traveled to Japan for three or four days to go to—I can’t do it online; I simply am not able to do what I was doing in Japan online. It’s impossible. But what is interesting is to slow this whole thing down.
That’s actually been a very, very rewarding experience, because it’s allowed me to look at things in a different way and not have to—I mean we’re still busy, and we’re still racing, and emails are still dragging me every day to answer, and trying to find things within the systems, but I think there is, I’m hoping, I don’t think, I hope, there is an appreciation for a slowing down of life up to a point, because I think we can be more productive from a work perspective, but I also think from our audience’s perspective, we’ve started using video.
That’s one of the things, as I said earlier, I’ve hired two people who have been absolutely instrumental in changing the nature of how we do what we do, and one of the things that they had said to me was, I’d like you to start talking about photographs on Instagram to people. So, during lockdown, we came up with this idea called ‘Viewing Photographs from my Home.’ So, I’d sit there with my terrible haircut, because I hadn’t had a haircut for about two or three months, and I’d talk about the photographs, and suddenly we were engaging with people we’d never met before.
They were sending comments below the Instagram, and in turn, over the last three or four months, people have started buying through that. But I never thought I’d see it happen, but what has been doing that is that engagement as we’re talking now to each other about the photograph. It’s not simply a photograph with some text. So, actually, in a sense, fill that photograph, or hoping, I hope every time I talk, have filled that photograph with some energy, and some information, and some backstory. And the last one we did was something very—it was a photograph of football.
And I don’t sell a lot of sports photographs, but what I tried to do was to explain why that image from 1963 had an interesting backstory, and it actually connected to the assassination of Kennedy. So, this very strange sequence of events ends up with a misty football picture from Tottenham Hotspurs on a miserable November afternoon in 1963. And somebody called up having seen that film. He’s never bought a photograph before, and bought the picture. So, would they have walked into the gallery? How would they have found out about it? Through traditional press? Maybe.
But that whole relationship that we have with the audience looking at pictures with the press, with the internet, had to be completely rejigged, and I’m sort of sold on it, but I still harp back to that slow old place of life, and that’s what we try and bring it back to. So, I think, for me, I’m still fighting it, if that makes sense, but I recognize and I engage with it, but I don’t want to move completely online. I wouldn’t want to become just an online gallery. I think that would be a real shame, because I like meeting people. I like watching people’s reaction. I said something the other day: Unless and I can see the whites of their eyes, it’s not as much fun. And it needs to be fun. It needs to be interesting.
It needs to get you up in the morning, and I’m sure with what you do as well, you’re also looking for things that make your day interesting, that make your clients look at what you’re doing in a new way and say, well—Simon and I sometimes talk about, I don’t invest in anything but art, but I’m intrigued to see what other people are investing. Of course, it tells me what else is happening in the world, and if people are investing in huge billions of dollars being spent on sending people into space, space is interesting to people. I’m interested in space photography.
I’m interested in the technology that’s allowed the Hubble spacecraft to go and photo, or the Hubble telescope, to go and photograph extraordinary things. And I love the fact, well, I don’t love it, but I was intrigued by the fact that when it went up, somebody had forgotten that the gravitational pull would bend the mirror in a different way, and it was all out of focus. That technological problem was pure optics. It wasn’t the computers; it was simply a mirror that had been turned into concave rather than convex, and everything dropped out of focus.
That’s a fundamental part of photography, so it interested me, and I like the way photography snakes its way into almost everything. When you’re looking at investing in a particular company, I’m just wondering how photography plays a role. If it’s to do with science, there will be information that can be visually very, very interesting to a scientist. Somebody may have to explain to you why that particular virus or bacteria—I love scientific photography. It’s an area that I collect very heavily. Crime, we collect crime photography.
In a sense, we collect evidential photography, photography that provides you with empirical evidence that something either happened, somebody has looked at in a particular way. I love empirical evidence that is disproven later as the science moves forward, and I like those moments that photography catalogs, in a sense. So, you go to the Welcome Trust here, for example, their archive is the most phenomenal archive to do with medicine and science and technology, and I’m convinced that in 100 years’ time, there will be tours of school children going to have a look at the science that was being procured during COVID, and what ultimately cured us, and what allowed the world to get back to life.
And that would be documented through many different mediums. Photography will be one of them.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Michael, I think we are unfortunately up against a time limit, so I want to say thank you very, very much. That was super, super interesting, and I always look for parallels between our guests and what they do and what we do, and I see quite a few here. We call ourselves growth investors. We’re super-interested in where growth is going to happen, why it happens, what are the drivers of growth, and I think there’s quite a lot of overlap between how you think about what’s coming next, how technology can change what’s produced, how it’s produced, and I think it’s exactly the same for us.
Similarly, I think that changes in societal attitudes, views, beliefs, can be reflected in art, and they can be certainly reflected in what products people want or they like, and how entrepreneurs think about problems that need solving. So, I see a lot of similarities, and that’s one of the reasons why this has been so interesting. So, I want to thank you for giving me so much time. For us, it was a bit different, but super-rewarding. So, thank you again.
Michael Hoppen: Thank you very much.
For more conversations on The Active Share, subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or TuneIn.
Questions, Comments, Podcast Ideas?
Our active ownership culture creates long-term client relationships by aligning with your interests and helping you achieve successful investment outcomes. Contact us to learn how we can partner with you.