In 1998, Rik Suermondt interviewed Harry Pennings on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Galerie Pennings. The text gives a good idea of what Harry intended. A beautiful characteristic of the time. Hence a ‘reprise’.
The interview was published in De Fotograaf (no. 4) 1998, pp. 19-21.
Galerie Pennings: A close eye on photography for 20 years
Galerie Pennings, located in Eindhoven, is the oldest existing photo gallery in the Netherlands, and today more than ever on the move. Under the inspiring leadership of Harry Pennings, a conscientious exhibition policy has been pursued since 1979, which is almost entirely focused on autonomous photography. A conversation with a committed photo enthusiast.
Ten years ago Galerie Pennings was displayed in an art magazine as "an exhibition space that is part of an interior care store where about ten exhibitions are organized each year on contemporary photography by mainly Dutch photographers." When I submit this description to Harry Pennings, he responds somewhat surprised.
“No, I was certainly not only concerned with Dutch photographers. One of my first exhibitors was Ralph Gibson. Another early participant was Keiichi Tahara, whose wonderful series ‘Fenêtres’ is still fresh in my memory. But Christian Boltanski, Jochen Gertz, John Hilliard, Mario Giacomelli and Werner Mantz also exhibited in that early period. So I certainly didn't just want Dutch photographers. But maintaining contacts outside the Netherlands was not always easy to combine with the work for my design store.”
“If I was really interested in a foreign artist or photographer, I still took the time to visit him or her. Before the arrival of the Euro market, this sometimes caused problems. For example, when I went to Paris around Christmas 1982, with my wife and children to pick up photos at Christian Boltanski, and the French customs authorities made all kinds of VAT problems after inspection. At the John Hilliard exhibition I remember that far too high amounts were requested for the transport, and then I finally drove myself up and down to England to deliver the photos again. ”
“I started in 1979 with photo gallery Pennings. Then there were two other galleries in the Netherlands: Ger Fiolet and Canon Photo Gallery, both in Amsterdam. In the meantime they have both ceased to exist. So I am now the oldest photo gallery in the Netherlands. Then I explicitly called it ‘photo gallery’. Now I find that a too restrictive name, because in recent years I have also shown photography in relation with sculpture and other disciplines; as a form of mixed media."
“When I was young I bought a box camera like so many. That was the beginning of my fascination for photography, which was reinforced by the first experiments in the dark room. However, I was very critical, and in the end I thought I was not talented enough. After starting the gallery, I was also confronted with so much good photography that I decided to put the camera away.”
“In the beginning, my aims were certainly not commercial, but idealistic. I saw the gallery as an extension of my furniture store, which cost me more money than it yielded, but which also gave the store extra cachet. Art photography was also difficult to make commercial in the early days. I sold very little. In 1994 I sold my design store and bought this beautiful space, so that I can now put all the time and energy in the gallery. I am now very active and even aggressive in broadening the market for potential buyers. But it remains a huge fight, although there has indeed been a rising trend in the last year."
“For example, I participated for the first time at the KunstRAI in Amsterdam and I am at the ‘Paris Photo’, a specialized fair in photography where photography is traded in a very emancipated and honest manner. A difference with the past is that on such occasions I now make more conscious choices in what I offer. Some photography simply works well as an object, as a single work that can be hung decoratively in a room. Serial and documentary photography are less suitable for this, and are therefore more difficult to sell."
“Now photography looks very different than in 1979. At the time documentary photography was much more emphatically in focus. In the early days, for example, I showed work by Willy Ronis and Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, French photographers who worked in a humanistic tradition in the 1950s and 1960s, and who poetically captured the ‘petit bonheur’ of daily life. Martien Coppens, Dolf Kruger, Johan van der Keuken and Peter Martens exhibited from the Netherlands. Nowadays I would not make that choice. A funny detail is that when I used to organize an exhibition, I received it from the photographer by mail completely in one photo paper box of 30 x 40 cm; just as press photographers delivered their photos to the editors of newspapers and magazines. Very cheap and very easy. Nowadays the work is often much larger, and framed photos must be shipped in crates from New York to Eindhoven. That means a lot of transport costs."
When I look at what you had in the gallery this spring, autonomous work by two young, rather unknown Dutch photographers: Elspeth Diederix and Viviane Sassen. Is there a kind of preference?
"No, I alternate exhibitions of young talents with presentations of mature colleagues. But the share of young photographers has increased. Partly because that is necessary. Now, I would not consider asking Jochen Gertz. It costs too much. Often such photographers are now represented by large foreign galleries. You have to remember that in my early days the photographic field was ‘virgin’. I could ask anyone, and they were all happy to come. Now the big photographers have their preconditions. Paris and New York, okay, if they really have to. Not to mention Eindhoven."
How do you get exhibitors? By visiting academies? Photo festivals? Or do photographers visit you to present their portfolio?
"Also via information from magazines. I have subscriptions to the important international photo publications. Moreover, I have contacts with foreign curators; a very good source, because then you get to see the work of talented photographers that nobody in the Netherlands has heard of yet. I have many contacts in France, my wife is French, I am also a regular visitor to the festivals of Arles, Houston, Paris and Toulouse. Final exam exhibitions are of course very interesting, and the KunstRAl has also been an important meeting place, especially since start stipendia are on show there."
How do you decide who does and who doesn't exhibit? Are there certain 'objective' criteria? Or is it purely emotional?
"It is intuitive. All other answers would be false. I am currently writing a profile of my gallery, based on what I do intuitively. And this rational accountability must of course cover my emotional choices. In the profile, for example, I say that I only exceptionally show documentary photography, even though I think it's wonderful. But saying this, it could well be that entirely new forms of documentary photography will emerge in the coming years. And then I might choose it again. For the time being, however, I concentrate on autonomous, directed photography.”
“In those twenty years I have always tried to link my own ideal goal to commerce. And from my background as a furniture seller I naturally strive for a perfect design of the exhibitions. This year, for the first time, there will be exhibitions by artists who work on new media such as video and the internet. This interest is partly due to the articles that I have read from the philosopher Vilém Flusser, who describes how photography as a technical image is undergoing a logical development towards TV, video and the internet. I want to continue to follow this development through my gallery."
Next week: part 2 of the interview by Rik Suermondt