Central Studios & Fred Hess, Inner City Beauties, Atlantic City 1935

Kelty, E.J., Hunt's 3 Ring Circus 1921

Central Studios & Fred Hess, Inner City Beauties, Atlantic City 1935

W.M. Hunt is renovating his Upper Westside apartment. We stroll through the rooms, perusing the collection of art that exists in two dimensions and in three. Everything appears to be as he describes a photography collection to be: "I like pictures that are incredibly orderly and incredibly chaotic." This effect is echoed in the renovations going on outside a humble room filled with gens. Flat photographs laid out, stacked, rolled, stored, safe and secure. The photographs represent Mr. Hunt's two collections: Blind Pirate and Dancing Bear.

From these collections, primarily the former, an exhibition will reveal itself, an exhibition like no other that opens Monday, July 7 at the Rencontres D’Arles in the South of France. Mr. Hunt returns to his old stomping grounds with “Foule: Hunt’s Three Ring Circus” which will run through September 21, 2014. “Foule” features more than 250 works dated from the late 19 century through 1950, in large banquet or panorama style, several of which are more than two meters in length.

Mr. Hunt reveals, "I collected pictures in which you cannot see the person's eyes. That first collection began forty years ago at an auction. It was a portrait of a veiled woman. It went for $325. I went and bought another one in a gallery. When it was pure instinct, I never made a mistake. Knowledge became the great stumbling block."

“It took awhile in my own collecting to have the confidence in my own ‘eye’ to be image driven as opposed to being caught up in the reputation of the artist.  A long time ago, I taught some classes about collecting. People seemed to burden themselves with knowledge. You ought to have some connoisseurship to collect but the best thing to bring to it is nerve.  A little knowledge goes far.  Educated decisions are not as instructive. The hardest thing is to get back to reacting to what’s immediate, to walk in and be present and have it hit you. Everyone is going to insist everything is great—but it ain’t. If you see a couple of really good photographs a year, celebrate that.  Dance around with it. Whatever the neurosis is about collecting, I worked my way through it. The picture that makes you fart lightning… Who knew your nipples could see?”

Something must, considering Mr. Hunt’s collection of photographs features portraits of subjects breaking eye contact in a delicious myriad of ways. In the preface to his book, The Unseen Eye: Photographs from the Unconscious (Thames & Hudson and Aperture, both 2011), Mr. Hunt explains, the photographs are “from a large collection gathered over many years, comprised of what I describe as magical, heart-stopping images of people in which the eyes are somehow obscured, veiled, hidden, blocked, averted or closed. I have never really sorted out why I was initially drawn to collection, to something so particular or what fueled and sustained this passion. However, I maintain that these are all portraits of me. They are all, in their unique way, manifestations of my unconscious.”

It is the unconscious “One Mind” that reveals itself in “Foule” as the individual becomes an archetype, repeated en masse, no one exactly like the other, no two completely alike. In the group photograph, the line of vision is not so much broken as it is blurred, with dozens upon dozens of sets of eyes looking directly at the photographer, yet no eyes are truly discernable. The scope is much too grand, far too concerned with the power of group and all that it bestows.

Mr. Hunt observes, "The photographs of groups began to show up 15-20 years ago. I would buy one because I thought it was a coll picture, and I literally stuffed them under the bed. I was never 'collecting' these photographs but they were somehow in the collections. It's a funny little eclectic mix of pictures them seemed to have spawned themselves under the bed.

“These photographs are exceptional. They were stuck in attics, rolled up in closets, overlooked in school gyms and Masonic Halls. These are people-scapes. Collecting these photographs became an act of keeping a rare and strange species from becoming extinct. The details are lost to us, as are the photographers and studios. These are unique American histories, part of a larger picture, if you will.”

The photographs in “Foule” are comprised of police, sailors, baseball teams, members of the Southern Pacific Railroad, ladies in sunsuits, theater actors in cast photos, students in lecture halls, and so many other gatherings in a former world. The Alison Nordrstrom essay in limited edition book accompanying the exhibition explains that 1900 was the apogee of the Gilded Age, where there was an overwhelming passion for memberships.

“Foule” will be installed in five rooms in Arles. Mr. Hunt observes, “It will be quite crowded by design. I like a little discomfort. When I previewed this show in Bologna at Foto Industria last fall, the Europeans were staggered by these pictures. They have no experience of them.  The audiences would gape.”

The exhibition includes a notorious group photograph of the Ku Klux Klan, taken in 1924 and titled “Hanover Klan—No. 1” Interestingly, where members did not wear their Klan hook and gown, they sit uncovered but for a dinner napkin draped over their head or tied across the their face. 

Mr. Hunt recounts, “I had my first exhibition with Collection Dancing Bear (no eyes) at Arles in 2005. It traveled to Lausanne and Amsterdam before finally coming to the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.  The more recent Collection Blind Pirate debuted in Houston as ‘Re:Groups: American Photographs Before 1960’ and it had 200 photographs. It looked like someone had taken acid and in a VFW Hall that then exploded. People understand that with me, its a carte blanche show. ‘He’ll put it up—just don’t ask.’ I truly like to fuck with people. You walk into my exhibition and I want to amaze, provoke, and challenge you. I put speed bumps in the room so you have to walk around. 

“’Foule” will be held at the Palais Archeveche (Archbishop’s Palace). It looks like the Pope’s mistress’ apartment. It’s five rooms with columns and chandeliers and if you imagined the furniture, it would be overstuffed. The big challenge was that I wanted a moose head, and you find out they barely have a word for ‘moose’ in French. Yet, every year the festival is branded after an animal or plant and this years it has been branded the festival of the moose.” Great minds think alike.

Mr. Hunt continues, “I want it to look like a smoky AA room with folding chairs. I like to put chairs in exhibitions because I like people to sit down. If you walk in and look at one picture—but you really look at it—that is great and completely satisfying.”

Photographs courtesy of W.M. Hunt
"Foule" at Arles Opens July 7, 2014
Curated by Miss Rosen

GROUPS Harris Co. Henry Flagler leaves Key West 1912

Unknown, Hanover KKK, 20th C

Horner, Men in costume with bowties, 1890'