The first lady of photography

David Livingstone April 26 1982

The first lady of photography

David Livingstone April 26 1982

The first lady of photography


David Livingstone

To enter the civilized world of the Jane Corkin Gallery is to lose touch with the daily grind. Everything about the place, starting with a laid-back six-floor ride on what must be Toronto’s slowest elevator, disposes one to quiet recreation. In a room full of fine photographs and perfect light streaming through a wall of windows and discreetly shining from chic modern Italian fixtures, how easy to forget that art, so pretty a pastime, is also a business.

In fact, since the mid-1970s, when it first became popularly known as art, photography has been big and rambunctious business.

And in her office beyond the gallery proper, past floor-toceiling sliding panels designed by architect Barton Myers, just to the left of a calm Irving Penn portrait of a woman in a sumptuous swallow-tailed evening gown, Jane Corkin keeps up the pace of an executive hummingbird. Even standing in one spot, she is aflutter

with affairs. Telephone expertly cradled between shoulder and chin, she is using one hand to stir a cup of coffee with a chewedup pen, the other to jot down figures with a sharp pencil.

Just three years af ter setting up shop in a former shoe factory not

far from Union Station, Jane Corkin has established herself as the most successful photography dealer in the country and one of the important ones on the continent. Trading in both historical and contemporary work, she has exposed Canadian gallery-goers to internationally known artists Richard Avedon, Harry Callahan and Irving Penn. At the same time, she has promoted such Canadian photographers as Stephen Livick, Carol Marino and Robert Bourdeau. She has also made money,

every year so far. And with the opening of the André Kertész retrospective at the Canadian Centre of Photography in Toronto next week, she will enjoy the prestige of having curated a major exhibition of one of photography’s living masters.

That the 87-year-old Kertész, acknowledged as an influence by such lu-

minaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Gyula Halasz Brassaï and called “great” by eminent French intellectual Roland Barthes, has granted Corkin responsibility for the show suggests that her talents transcend the merely commercial. In New York, where the Hungarian-born photographer has lived since 1936, there are museums that, as Corkin puts it, “would die to have that show.” As a sign of personal affection and trust, Kertész left it to her to organize and oversee the selection of the

200 images in the exhibition, which will travel across North America until 1985 and serve as the definitive statement of his life’s work.

The relationship between Kertész, grand old artist, and Corkin, admiring young dealer, seems almost storybookish, given that, in general, the photography marketplace might be described as cutthroat and arriviste. But nothing about Corkin is hard or gauche. Only 32 years old, slender, stylish, with a complexion that turns to freckles in the sun and a daffy laugh that often serves as a vent for irrepressible enthusiasm, Corkin does not conform to any standard image of the smart operator. She does not bristle with savvy. Rather, she bubbles and says things like, “I have no sense of how to go slowly. I have a sense you should do everything at once, when you feel like doing it, right?”

Just because Jane Corkin is effervescent does not mean, however, that she is unwise in the ways of the world. Recognized as an authority by institutions such as the National Archives, which seek her opinions, and as powerful by the 20 to 40 artists who submit their portfolios to her every month, she undoubtedly knows her Jstuff. Her ability to ïplay hardball with the big boys was evident in her successful negotiations to represent Richard Avedon— known to be no pushover—exclusively in Canada. Explaining why they decided to show at the Corkin Gallery, Norma Stevens, Avedon’s business representative says: “Jane has lots of energy and lots of drive. Her spirit seemed right for us.”

That energy—remarked by everyone who has ever drifted into Corkin’s orbit—can make her appear flighty, but, when she has to, she gets things done. It is late afternoon, the day before the

opening of the Avedon show in February. The gallery, normally so serene, is chaos. Some prints are up on the wall, more are down on the floor, and many are not yet back from the framers. A collector bursts in for an advance peek at the show. Corkin is saying goodbye to a bank official who has been in to go over the books. As he leaves, he catches sight of a photograph of poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover and wonders why the two men don’t have any clothes on. For once, Corkin is speechless. Luckily, Avedon’s famous picture of actress Nastassia Kinski, covered by nothing

but a snake and a bracelet, still hasn’t arrived.

Ordinarily, Avedon installs his own shows, but Corkin has insisted on doing it herself. “I told him that we would be much better friends in the end if he did his job by making the pictures and I did my job by hanging them.” The phone rings, and it is Avedon, saying that he would like to do a television interview when he arrives the next day. Unflapped, Corkin goes for The Journal. She doesn’t know who to talk to at the CBC, but she finds out from someone who does. The next day a

Journal crew is on the scene.

“Being able to find out where people are is part of my job,” says Corkin, characteristically open and assertive. Her lack of reticence suggests her American roots. She was born in Boston. Her father, who died when she was 12, was a successful land developer. At 17, when she graduated from a small Boston private girls’ school, she was “a bit of a rebel looking to do something different.” An older brother, Charles Corkin II, a lawyer who had studied at McGill, suggested university in Canada, and she was game. Always a strange mix of rapturous idealism and practical purpose, she settled on Queen’s because she “fell in love” with Kingston, Ont., and because that university offered an open-stack library.

As a child, Corkin recalls, she was “the one at all family gatherings going around taking pictures of people putting food into their mouths.” At Queen’s, she learned how to use a darkroom. Debbie Gibson, a friend whom Corkin hired to help organize a student co-op store, remembers: “Jane was always coming up with bright ideas, when most of the other students could hardly handle getting an essay in on time. She’s always believed that things can be done.” An art history major, she learned to appreciate that photographs could be more than snapshots. In 1973, she got a job with Toronto’s David Mirvish Gallery. Corkin’s assignments: taking photographs of paintings and sculpture for invitations and catalogues. It was her interest in the medium that alerted Mirvish to the market potential of photography. The first photography show at the Mirvish Gallery, in 1975, featured a Corkin favorite, André Kertész. Acting as the director of Mirvish’s photography department from 1975 to 1978 gave her an ideal entrée into the booming field of photography. Gratefully, Corkin says, “I was able to go anywhere and ask to see collections, talk to the curators, talk to the artists.”

In turn, she spread the word about photography. The boom in the number of collectors in the past decade was due in part to her efforts. She has a gift for talking things up, and it has paid to listen. Toronto lawyer Steve Smart and his wife, Lynn, started collecting after hearing Corkin deliver a lecture at a fashionable women’s club five years ago. Citing a $1,200 Kertész print that he bought from Corkin for $250 in 1978, he says: “Her advice is good. The things that my wife and I have bought from her have done very nicely.” Speaking of the Kertész exhibition and accompanying coffee-table book as the sort of event that could “put Canada on the map,” Jim Borcoman, curator of photographs at the National Gallery in Otta-

wa, likewise praises Corkin’s discernment: “I don’t find her promoting work that has no value.

And that can happen. Dealers have been known to very unabashedly promote junk. She has developed a good eye. I trust it.”

Back in the days when Corkin was looking for a $10,000 loan to open her gallery, however, the banks were not so impressed. Incredulous, they would ask,

“So you’re going to make a living selling photographs?” Corkin recalls: “The

first banker looked at me and asked, ‘What happens if you get married and have kids?’ I was really astounded. I said, ‘Where have you been for the last 10 years? This is 1979!’ ’’And she walked out. A year later, Corkin did get married to lawyer Brian Scully, who is proud and encouraging, sometimes working till all hours at the gallery hanging pictures, or, if need be, telling bankers what a good risk she is. As for children, she says: “It’s a possibility. Brian would makç a great father, but I don’t seem to have a lot of time.”

In some respects, the artists she represents are like a family. Photographs dominate the decor of her apartment, and Corkin, showing off the latest work by Stephen Livick or Volker Seding, can be like a proud parent pulling baby pictures from her wallet. Although she seems motivated as much by personal pleasure as by profit, some members of

the photographic community, prone to be defensive and scrappy anyway, charge that Corkin is chiefly interested in making money by dealing in bluechip winners. She responds to such allegations with aplomb: “If I were more business-wise, I could probably have sold the Kertész exhibition to an American museum and made a lot of money.”

Although she intends to keep her American citizenship, Corkin has a strong nationalistic feeling about Canada. “I left the United States at 17. It was the ’60s and the Vietnam War, and I was very antagonistic to the politics. To me, Canada was someplace else. Someplace clean. Someplace big.” One of the frustrations that Corkin has encountered repeatedly is the attitude of the New York art world that Canada is not worth bothering about. “When I was negotiating with Avedon, one of the things I had to do was convince him that Canada was not just another city like Detroit or Chicago.”

But she mentions obstacles only in passing. Sour complaints are not her style. Not surprisingly, a series of Kertész photographs taken in 1979 portrays her standing on her head and turning cartwheels in her still unfinished gallery. Such perception has made Kertész famous. Such exuberance is doing the same for Jane Corkin. ;£>