By Paula Ely
Michael Dawson is a private dealer and appraiser specializing in rare books and fine art photography, including historical photographs of California and the Southwest. Michael has written widely on photography and has owned and operated his own gallery as well as the celebrated Dawson's Books Shop in Los Angeles–a business established by his grandfather in 1905. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, and the Association of International Photography Art Dealers.
We spoke on August 14, 2017 at Andante Coffee in Echo Park.
PE: Give me your 30-second bio.
MD: Well, my family has been in the rare book trade for over 100 years. My grandfather opened his store in downtown Los Angeles in 1905. He issued the first rare book catalogue in Los Angeles at 1907. He was a prominent antiquarian book dealer in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. My uncle and father took over the business in 1948 and ran it for more than 50 years. In the late 1990s I took it over from them. In the mid-1960s many small businesses were being pushed out of downtown Los Angeles. In 1967 we purchased land and built our own building on Larchmont Boulevard. In 2000 I remodeled the space to put in a medium-sized gallery space, and I curated photography shows there for about 10 years. In 2010, I decided I wanted to change my routine and my lifestyle a bit. I closed the shop and worked privately dealing with rare books as well as fine art and historical photography with a primary focus on work produced in California and the Southwest. I also do a lot of appraisal work as well and brokering collections.
PE: Was there a moment when you thought about taking a different path?
MD: Oh, yeah. I went to college at UC Berkeley in 1974 and I thought, “I'm going to be a literature major; I want to write about literature.” I think also that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do what my father and uncle had done. I got involved in photography at the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) Gallery where they offered photography classes. The photographers teaching and working there included Richard Misrach, Steve Fitch and Roger Minick. That’s the first work I saw, and at that time Misrach was doing the black and white Telegraph 3am work and I thought I would like to do this. I learned how to develop film and make prints. Photography really became my passion. I sort of lost my focus for being in school and left Berkeley after my first year. Soon after that I discovered an interesting program at UC Santa Cruz where I could practice and learn about photography but also pursue a liberal arts education. I earned arather esoteric Bachelor of Arts degree in Aesthetics Studies but I was able to practice photography with a small but very motivated group of fellow students. I really learned to think critically about photography as well as getting a great liberal arts education. I moved to San Francisco in the late 70s and got involved in a non-profit arts space called The Eye Gallery. We did some amazing things. We organized an early show of Carrie Mae Weems among other photographers. Being involved with The Eye Gallery give me valuable experience curating photography exhibitions as well as the work involved in running a gallery space. I did a lot of different jobs in photography and at some point I decided that I was willing to return to Los Angeles to see if I could fit into the family business and in turned out that I liked it.
PE: You talked about learning to think. Can you say more about that? What does that mean? How do you learn to think through photography?
MD: Well, I think doing it is really important. Understanding about the mechanics of photography --although the mechanics are completely different now than when I learned. Photography helped me establish my own ideas. It helped me conceptualize what it means to have an idea, to visualize that idea, and develop it as an image. What happens? Does it stay the same? Does it transform? Was it successful? Was it unsuccessful? The process motivates you to keep improving and pushes you to keep going. I think what happened to me in terms of photography was that I realized that I didn’t really have the drive to be an artist. I didn’t have that burning desire to create in that sense but I really was hooked on the concept of photography. So I decided that I could probably be more helpful and productive if I could create a forum through which photographers could get some support. It started for me by exploring the practice of photography and then really being able to understand the problems that [artists] face and being able to assist at least a few artists realize their vision in photography. I would meet people that were really on a mission to do something, and they had that drive and obsession to create that kind of waned with me. It’s important to leave it to people that are driven, because they are the ones who are going to create meaningful art. I also learned that it's not all about the creators. It’s about a lot of people. There’s a need to make the work available and bring it to other people’s attention, so I saw myself as an intermediary and found it to be a very creative process. I felt that I could understand a photographer’s motivation and I could articulate that to people.
PE: You’ve devoted a lot of time to looking at photography. It seems that part of what you're doing is trying to get other people interested and excited about it. Why do you think that photography is important in the world?
MD: Well, you can analyze that from the market perspective. It’s not as expensive as other art; it’s easier to display; it’s the language of our time. We live in a visual culture and we see images everywhere. It’s accessible. On another level, it’s very different what art photography or artistic expression is and for me, the most important thing is to not try to label it too much and not try to box it up too much, just try to be open to what I'm looking at.
Which brings me to why I love PAC (Photographic Arts Council, Los Angeles) so much. [ed: MD is a PAC board member]. What I like about the organization is that there are a lot of people without an agenda who have similar feelings about photography. It just speaks to them in a profound way and it moves them and they would like to move that dialogue forward or provide avenues for the people that are doing it or that are helping people to use photography in different ways.
I recently heard a story of a young woman who said, “you know, I used to never say anything, I was very interior and photography has been able to give me a voice”. Whatever she goes on to do in life, whether she becomes a photojournalist or an artist or a community activist or a lawyer or businessperson, whatever, she has got the skills that let her learn how to think. When I went to college, I learned about who I was. That was the playground that I had to figure out what motivated me, what contributions I could make. If photography can do that for other people, that’s huge.
PE: You’re a founder of the Classic Photographs fair. Can you say something about how that came to fruition and why you felt like that was necessary?
MD: Classic Photographs was started during a real tough time economically in general but also for the photography business. It was 2010 when we had our first show and it was pretty bleak, as bleak as I ever want it to get. Paul Hertzmann, a friend and colleague, called me up in the fall of 2009. In that year Photo LA hadn’t announced anything and we were wondering if it was going to happen, and so Paul said, “Could we do a show in your gallery, in your space?” He said, “You just agree and I’ll organize the people. I’ll get them all in there.” So Paul got all the people and I worked on that show with Amanda Doenitz . I would say Amanda did 80% of the heavy lifting, and it turned out to be a great event. Photo LA did happen but we did our own thing. The collectors showed up, a lot of people saw the work, and they realized that you just have to have the people that sold material and knew what they were doing and the collectors that knew what they wanted. It was a small intimate thing, and it sort of took off. People loved it. We got tons of positive comments from collectors, curators and photography dealers. So we just try to keep it going. We went to a bigger space and then we outgrew that and then we went to Bonham’s. We will be in Santa Monica in February, 2018. Classic Photographs started from a spontaneous need to do something different. The show continues to feel relevant, so we keep on doing it.
PE: But you call it Classic Photographs. I noticed that some of the dealers bring contemporary work. Do you feel like there is some kind of line there between contemporary and classic?
MD: We have consciously tried to represent the arc of the market as we know it but we want to let people know that it’s vetted. We want to identify the people that are doing it in the most professional manner with some kind of philosophy behind what they show. Generally, for vintage, modern and 20th century prints, it’s the people that have been around a long time and know the market, but we definitely want to try and be as broad as possible. We do have our own vision of what contemporary is, and there are people that understand that. A great example is Tarrah Von Lintel. She works with people that are contemporary artists but have some dialogue with photography, with the history of photography, the use of cyanotypes, the use of montage, the use of time-based process. Someone like Tarrah brings a lot of history about the medium in what she shows and I think that kind of work fits in. Paul Kopeikin is another dealer with a strong knowledge of traditional photography who focuses on contemporary work.
PE: Why should we be looking at fine art pictures from 50 years ago?
MD: Well, I’m interested in history. I think that if you look at the last 175 years of photography it’s really interesting to understand what that language was, what it said at the time, and whether it speaks to us today. I think in many instances it does. A great example for me is Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Optical Parable. That image is one of the most sophisticated statements about photography I have ever seen. Every time I look at that photograph I find something I didn’t notice before. I love the self-referential quality of the image when the photographer, through the composition of the photograph, is actually looking back at you. It is questioning your idea of looking. You also ask why the text of the shop sign is inverted? What’s the meaning of this and what changes? It’s just a great, strange and emotional photograph that really deals with aspects of photography that are very contemporary. When you see something like that, it bridges all this time. I am connecting with someone that I would never meet. That’s what I love. It goes back to that idea of just finding things that really speak to you. It’s not the case that the only thing that speaks to me is something made in my own time.
PE: Sure. Some ideas are timeless.
MD: Yes, exactly. And then the other questions about that that people need to figure out are the market-driven questions about the scarcity, the materials-- why this is going to be more expensive than that. It is a collecting question then. It’s really about what your resources are. You may never buy a vintage Robert Frank or an Edward Weston, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a profound experience looking at that stuff. It will inform you about what you like or, if you’re an artist, it may influence you.
PE: I have a lot more questions but let me ask you, what are you thinking about in terms of the field? It could be anything, it could be the market or collecting or aesthetics or—
MD: I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t think like that. I'm not trying to figure out what the next curve is going to be or the next phenomena. I really appreciate the experiences that I have today, what I'm involved in, what I'm doing. That’s the only way that I'm able to affect some change. That may be working with the client who has a dilemma about what to do with their collection--how do I help them value it, how do I help them place it, how do I help someone whose spouse or parent has passed away and they need to figure out how to organize things? I have so much activity right now in my field that I just let experiences come to me. I don’t have many preconceived ideas about what to expect the next day or even what I'm looking for but I'm happy with what I'm doing. I think it’s a privilege to be able to spend so much time doing what I love and interacting with people that are like-minded.
PE: Thank you Michael!
Visit dawsonbooks.com for more information.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.