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One look and he's smitten

Stephen White is on to his second collection of 15,000 photographs. Each image exerts an irresistible pull on the collector: 'When I look at a photograph, I'm there.'

October 09, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

Stephen White once tried to kick the habit.

After a year of negotiations, he had finally sold his entire collection of 15,000 photographs to the Photographic Center of the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, and although he won't disclose the amount, he says it was perhaps the largest sum ever paid for a photography collection. It was not only vast, it was important: rare prints from the 19th century -- among them the world's largest collection of John Thomson photos -- as well as many by the luminaries of the 20th, such as Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Lotte Jacobi (2,000 by her alone).

In 1975, White opened one of Los Angeles' first galleries to specialize in photography, but to hear him tell it, it was mainly a way for him to fund his collecting addiction while supporting his family. With the whole accumulation gone, he was financially secure and free to do as he pleased. Instead, "I think I was kind of depressed," says White, sitting on a sofa in his living room in front of what his wife, Mus, calls her women's wall: all photos by or of women, from a famous Margaret Bourke-White shot of a dirigible to a full-length glamour shot of Audrey Hepburn in her dressing room.

"A month later he was the most miserable human being that ever lived," says Mus, who had run the Stephen White Gallery with him. "He was sitting around moping and I just threw up my hands and said, 'Do whatever you like!' Suddenly he was like a child in a candy store." And so he started again, and in a little more than 10 years he has amassed another 15,000 images.

The Whites live in a spacious Studio City split-level perched on the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley and surrounded by a progression of patios. Bookshelves in the living room hold a couple of hundred rare books reflecting White's many interests -- early medical history, aviation history -- along with books of photographs such as a turn-of-the-century volume of Shakespeare plays illustrated by photographs of famous stage actors in costume.

And everywhere, of course, are photographs, framed and unframed. In the guest room upstairs are 10 of the 350 portraits he owns from the Kansas City studio of Benjamin Strauss and Homer Peyton, who met around 1907 and produced some of the most glamorous photographs of their time: Fanny Brice in a satin gown, Al Jolson looking rakish in an oversized cap, a full-length shot of Ruth St. Denis, legendary pioneer of modern dance, striking a diagonal pose in a long head scarf.

"The mark of a true collector is that he has one more photo than he can hang on the wall," says White, quoting the late Sam Wagstaff, whose photography collection now forms a large part of the Getty's.

His office-library is an orderly abundance of shelves and vertical files filled with photos protected in acid-free boxes or between acid-free paper. Propped against file cabinets are a couple of dozen portraits by the great Joseph Karsh -- Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Arthur Rubinstein -- mostly taken in the 1960s for a magazine called Wisdom. They were part of a recently purchased lot of approximately 100 prints, with 40 by Karsh, an imminently collectible photographer. White plans to keep a few and sell the rest, although his dealing is now strictly among established or referred clients.

"I got interested in collecting long before I had any money for collecting," says White. In 1969 he had just graduated from UCLA, and during a walk he and his wife came upon an auction of rare books. "Here were all these first-edition books," he says. "I loved literature and made this connection in my brain that this is the copy of the book that was published in 1926 when 'The Sun Also Rises' first came out, and someone bought this hot off the press. I made that connection that that's what collecting is -- you're getting the thing. It has a relationship to the past ... when I open an old book, I'm there, when I look at a photograph, I'm there."

The next day he came back to bid. "Even though we were penniless, I bought eight books for $20 to $25," he says. "It was enough to get me going." Later he became interested in the history of optics and cinema, "so I kind of came in sideways to photography."

In the early 1970s he was working for a parole department and started to buy photographs. "I didn't know exactly what to look for," he admits, "but I became fascinated by old photographs, I saw them at swap meets and saw them at bookstores." He taught himself through reading -- and from looking. By the mid-'70s he was running a gallery devoted to photographs and old books.

The business, he says, was a struggle. White and his wife established a division of labor: To stock their inventory, he visited auctions, art and book stores, and collectors; she ran the gallery. Selling his collection in 1990 seemed the best way out -- although the Tokyo museum he sold them to has not yet constructed the photographic center to house them. The photos remain in storage in Tokyo, shown only occasionally.

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