Listed among the top 25 photo collectors in the world by ARTnews, husband and wife Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg began acquiring photographs in the 1980s. “At that time,” says Hochberg, “photography was a growing and affordable area.” Currently, (as of January 25), 40 early Ansel Adams pictures from the Scarsdale couple’s private stock are on display at The Hyde Collection Art Museum & Historic House in Glens Falls, New York.
While, according to Hochberg, the best-known aspect of Adams’ legacy is technical—his Zone System for printing—she says, “Ironically, this is of minor importance to us as collectors, although we certainly appreciate the sheer beauty and quality of the resulting prints. Adams’ artistic legacy is simply his gorgeous compositions.”
Describing their acquisition process, she says, “Thinking in terms of exhibitions has helped us to focus and shape our collection. If we were to buy a new Ansel Adams photograph, for example, we’d ask ourselves whether it was good enough to be in the show, and what it would add to the existing photographs.”
Ansel Adams, American (1902-1984), Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome, 1927, vintage silver gelatin print, framed: 18 x 14 inches, Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Ansel Adams, American (1902-1984), Roaring River Falls, ca. 1925, vintage silver gelatin print, framed: 18 x 14 inches, Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Ansel Adams, American (1902-1984), Trees and Snow, 1933, vintage silver gelatin print, framed: 20 x 16 inches, Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, ©2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Ten years ago, Forbes reported that the couple’s entire photographic collection was worth more than $20 million, a number Hochberg declined to confirm. But given the prices photographs can go for nowadays—a 1999 Andreas Gursky photograph of the Rhine River was sold at Christie’s in 2011 for more than $4.3 million—it’s not surprising that collecting and buying photographs is also an area ripe for scandal.
When the late photography scholar Walter Rosenblum sold as many as 500 Lewis Hine pictures into the art market on photographic Agfa paper that did not exist when Hine died in 1940, Mattis reportedly engaged specialists in brightening agents, as well as forensic paper analysis, to examine the fiber of the paper. As a result, Rosenblum was forced to establish a $1 million escrow account to reimburse dissatisfied Hine buyers.
On stopping the string of art forgeries, Hochberg says, “It was very satisfying, yet, at the same time, quite sad. I suppose it was inevitable that the increasing value of photography would attract fraud.”
As for how Mattis, a former Los Alamos physicist, and Hochberg, an adjunct instructor of modern languages at Fordham University (who met when they were both doctoral students at Stanford University), developed their mutual passion for photography, the linguistics professor credits her in-laws with inspiring her and her husband. “Michael’s parents are serious painting collectors,” she says, “so it was a natural for us to think of collecting art when we first got married.”
The Hyde exhibit runs through April 20, 2014.