Art Tim Jefferies Interview
“The way I choose to display photography is pretty much unique in the world I would say”. Thierry Somers meets Tim Jefferies, the owner of Hamiltons, the esteemed gallery in London that has exhibited the works of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe.
As we sit in his luxurious office and I ask Tim Jefferies if he considers himself as someone who has been instrumental in turning photography into a respected art form, he jolts upright from his sofa. “A 100%! Tell me who else in the world has done this for photography like the way I display at fairs or how I display the works in the gallery. It causes you to look, observe and absorb in a different way. For many years back in the 1980s and 1990s photography was just put on a wall and not properly lit or framed. If you want people to think of something in terms of value, make it look valuable. It is not rocket science”.
Jefferies displays the work of modern masters and contemporary photographers at his Mayfair gallery and at art fairs just as valuable, desirable and significant as his neighbour gallerists display paintings at their galleries and booths. One of the things Jefferies pioneered was to display photography in an environment in which people live. “Most of us don’t live in a concrete box with white walls”, he says. “Most of us have a sofa, a table and a lamp. I put things into context and help people understand how great things can look”.
For art fairs, Jefferies also puts things into context and has created elaborate and extravagant booths. For example, at Paris Photo in Los Angeles he turned his booth into a garage complete with motorcycles and roll up doors and with a homo erotic photograph by Herb Ritts of a bare chested hunk carrying two tyres.
Twenty years ago it was unheard of that photographs by Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall would be sold for millions of dollars at auctions. An important word in Jefferies’s dictionary is connoisseurship and he tells me that he is “in the business of helping people to understand why a Helmut Newton or a Richard Avedon photograph costs a million dollars”.
When you enter Hamiltons it feels like you’re entering a stylish lobby of a boutique hotel designed by Philippe Starck. The gallery has a front room and a backroom with daylight streaming from the ceiling and an appealing custom-made smell. The walls are painted dark to make the viewer focus on the photographs hanging on the wall. Behind the backroom is a door that leads you to Jefferies’s spectacular and grand office with high ceilings, large comfortable sofas and two impressive large photographs adorning the walls. During the interview Jefferies is looking at Richard Avedon’s famous Harper’s Bazaar picture ‘Dovima with Elephants’ and I am facing a nude picture of Henriette Allais, the cover girl of Helmut Newton’s oversized Taschen book, Sumo. In the corner stands what Jefferies calls his “Achilles heel” – a large wine fridge as he is a big wine lover.
With his gallery and office Jefferies has created a world that his clientele can relate to. At Private Views he doesn’t serve Asahi, the beer that has become popular amongst gallerists to serve at openings, but sparkling wine or the house brand wine of Berry Bros. Everything at Hamiltons is done with an impeccable taste.
Before we start to discuss Hamiltons exhibition program, I ask Jefferies how he developed his taste? “Taste is such a subjective thing isn’t it,” he answers. “I think I’ve got quite good taste but I don’t expect that everybody else should think I do. Taste is something that definitely evolves over a period of time. There are some people who have no taste. Never will. Didn’t. Won’t. Ever. They are for whatever reason blocked to absorbing detail, texture or anything. Then there are people who have a taste which is very predictable, uniform and then there are people who are tastemakers, very avant-garde, daring in how they put things together whether it would be objects and furniture, paintings or fashion. I’ve always been a very visual person. I absorb a tremendous amount of information every day. Everywhere I go I’m constantly looking. My personal taste is something that has evolved over 30, 40 years. There are a number of people whose taste I admire and who I sort of refer to in certain ways. I’m very pleased with the way everything looks and feels in my office, in my home and in my life.
200%: How do you put together the exhibition program of the gallery?
Tim Jefferies: There is no particular formula. It’s organic and very instinctive. The beauty of owning your own gallery is that you can do whatever you like in it. That’s basically what I’ve done. In 1984 I took over Hamiltons with my business partner, Andy Cowan, and for the last 20 years, since 1999, the gallery has been mine alone. I have the ‘luxury’ of saying I want to show this and showing it. Some years, the program is perhaps a little less thought-through than others years. It depends on whether the artist who I’m interested in has a body of work that is either ready [to show] or right for us at the gallery and for my collectors. Anything that happens in this gallery is something that I feel connected to, interested and excited about.
200%: I can imagine when Don McCullin, one of the artists that you represent, is having a major retrospective at Tate Britain that you will seize the moment and program a show of his work at your gallery as well.
Tim Jefferies: Of course. It would have been a foolish mistake to have missed the opportunity.
200%: The show was titled ‘Proximity’. How did you come up with the title?
Tim Jefferies: The word proximity played in several ways for our exhibition. First, in every picture it was evident how close Don himself got to the subject whether it was a corpse, an injured or a grieving person. You sensed that he was centimetres away from the subject. In some cases that is a very difficult thing to do when you’re in someone’s space, in someone’s crisis, in someone’s drama.
Proximity also plays for the viewer as they have to get close to the pictures because they are small. You then feel how close Don had to get to the subject. Proximity played the third time for the fact that the vintage prints were made very close to the time that the pictures were taken.
200%: You showed a very rare vintage print of Don’s most famous picture, the Shell-shocked US Marine.
Tim Jefferies: Yes, the marine was displayed on a wall of pictures from Vietnam and he was separated quite deliberately from the flow of the installation. He was on the right hand side isolated in his shell-shocked state. I think visitors came with additional excitement to see our show because we were showing very rare, vintage prints on a small scale. It would have been easy for me to exhibit the ‘smash hits’ by Don McCullin and show a series of large format, beautiful printed, pristine prints. Instead we showed prints that were bashed about and had Magnum stamps and news desk stamps on the backside. It was obvious to organise a show at the same time as the retrospective but I didn’t go super obvious in the selection. Our show was a perfect complement, I feel, to what Tate Britain did and it was a pretty successful exhibition.
200%: What makes an exhibition successful for you?
Tim Jefferies: I’m a commercial gallery and of course I need to make sales. One of the measures of success is selling pictures. Another is the happiness and the satisfaction of the person who took the pictures. Don was thrilled with the way we had treated the imagery, brought the images back to life and how we displayed them. It was a double win in that regard; successful in terms of sales, successful in terms of the artist being contented. I also think successful in the furthering of the understanding of Don’s practice and expanding his work to a different group of young people.
200%: Have you organised exhibitions where you didn’t sell a single picture, but you still regarded them as a success?
Tim Jefferies: Yes. Like I said, I’m a commercial business and I need to sell pictures to be able to stay here. But that is not the only measure of success. If it was that would be sad and I wouldn’t have the reputation that I have now.
200%: Going back to your program, can you think of other criteria that determine what you exhibit?
Tim Jefferies: I also program with the zeitgeist in mind. Women are being heavily featured in the press for a whole host of reasons. That informed one of my thoughts for the selection of pictures for Erwin Olaf’s show. I am familiar with his images going back to the 1980s and I think that Erwin’s pictures of women are better than his pictures of men. Erwin and I have discussed this and one of the reasons is that as a gay man he doesn’t feel the same attraction to women than he feels to men. He can be more objective with women. With this exhibition I wanted to show the prominence of women in our consciousness in a business context, in a sexual context or in a financial context. There is one common thread in my exhibition program. If we talk about Hamiltons under my sole stewardship there is one common single word: quality. I’m only interested in quality. There’s nothing compromised about the way I do anything in this gallery. Since I started this gallery, my idea was always that photography has a place in the world of art. It is not meant to just be exhibited in the bathroom or in a corridor [of a house]. It’s equal to painting, to sculpture or drawing or any other artistic medium.
200%: You have created holistic environments at your booths at art fairs. Other gallerists noticed them and started to create “immersive booths” as well.
Tim Jefferies: Yes, what I have done and the way I have done it has influenced others. Auction houses now display photography in a very different way to how they used to. I definitely feel my DNA has been extracted in some of these things.
200%: Must be flattering though?
Tim Jefferies: Absolutely. Whether people are able to admit where the influence or inspiration comes from or not, it is clear to see.
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Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Images: Paris Photo Los Angeles booth 2015; Women by Erwin Olaf, Hamiltons 2019; Paintings by Irving Penn, Hamiltons 2018; Shell Shocked Marine, Vietnam, Hue, 1968 © Don McCullin; Women by Erwin Olaf, Hamiltons 2019; Stephanie Seymour, tuxedo by Yves Saint Laurent, New York, April 1995 © The Richard Avedon Foundation
The upcoming exhibition at Hamiltons will be ‘Portfolios’ by Richard Avedon from 9 September until 13th of November 2019.