Reading

Art AND: Joseph Hyde

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Joe Hyde’s number has been stored in my phone with the company line description “Photographer, Wizard, Friend to All” since June 2015 when he saved me from the documentation disaster that was my MFA thesis show at MICA. Oddball lighting, work that spanned many textures and a gallery space where you could easily see other graduates’ solo shows poking around corners, left the first photographer I had hired completely lost in the sauce. I bought him a bottle of whiskey as payment for the unusable photos and emailed Joe.

Hyde arrived that summer night just when he said he would with his rig of lights and his photo equipment, wearing what at the time I thought was an odd outfit for the Baltimore heat but in our years of friendship since have realized is his year-round uniform—sturdy hiking boots, jeans, a quilted zip up vest with a dusty vaguely Western pattern worn layered over a long sleeve collared shirt of a thick material and, most improbably of all, a hat that looked like a cross between a cowboy and the style-less sun protection hats my friend’s dad wears on weekend hikes. On every, typically indoor, occasion I have seen Joe at since— dinners, a wedding, openings, many more photo shoots— he is in some variation of this outfit, looking ready at any moment to walk out the door and begin a hike without going home to change.

This is because Hyde would rather be outdoors. A devoted naturalist, his personal artwork is devoted to trees and the stories they hold, which he shares most frequently on his Instagram, @goodnaturedviews. His photography heroes are exactly the people you would expect— Ansel Adams and his school— and Hyde’s photos capture that same feeling. Timeless nature, without the compromise of any man made structures, is his most inspired subject.

 

Sometimes Everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you, color photograph

A middle brother of seven siblings born at Memorial Hospital, Hyde has been in Baltimore for the lion’s share of his six decades, leaving briefly to study photography as an undergraduate at Rochester Institute of Technology. In his lifetime, Hyde has witnessed the comings and goings of our art scene as few others have, all with the wry wit and patience of someone who often observes the seasons change in real time.

My thesis show was the first time Hyde would step in at the last minute and successfully photograph what others could not for me, but it hasn’t been the last. Around town, his contact information has passed from artist to artist, colleague to colleague since 1986 when he quit a staff position at MICA and started documenting art to pay his bills. He’s known for his crisp documentation of tricky-to-document surfaces and spaces—charcoal, highly reflective surfaces, and velvet are medias a few of his longest-term clients (and friends because to be Hyde’s client is to be his friend) work in.

Conversations with Joe are never brief. In fact, I have found myself on occasion, embarrassingly enough for a grown woman, needing to announce mid-Joe-story that I must excuse myself to use the restroom. The original transcription of this interview was 48 pages. Single spaced. And yet, we decided to run it as a conversation rather than the typical format of Art AND to capture the back and forth of two friends. Here is my condensed conversation with Joe Hyde: Photographer Wizard and Friend to All.

 

SUBJECT: Joseph Hyde
PLACE: Hampden Studio
SUBJECT AGE: 65
WEARING: “I like to wear whatever fits that day.”

 

Suzy Kopf: Joe, tell me about your reading habits.

 Joe Hyde: When I was in a relationship with MaryAnne [Hyde’s former partner of 28 years], she had a stack of professional journals and books, stuff I would never get. But one of the magazines she got was called Family Therapy Networker because she is a psychotherapist.

That’s a terrible name for a magazine.

It is. I would read biographies, but when I would, and I always would, run out, I would go through her stack. Which was all psychiatry and mental health. But the Family Therapy Networker was good because it’s written by therapists for therapists. It’s not meant for patients. It’s a trade journal. What’s fascinating is they have case histories in it. So they go, ‘Oh, I got this patient and he had this, this, and this. And he was presenting that, that and that. And, and we did this, this, and this,’ and they talk about their struggles with certain types of serious issues. That was fascinating reading for me, which is weird.

I realized recently you’re a devoted reader of memoirs. Have you always liked memoirs or is this a pandemic hobby for you?

Memoirs are a big deal for me because they showcase how people navigate the world. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but for me, it’s very difficult to navigate this world. Reading about what other people go through and how they go through it and noticing their general disposition to everything is helpful.

Do you mostly stick to contemporary writers, or do you read about George Washington? I mean, he didn’t write a memoir, but there’s plenty of biographies on him.

 I’m into the spectrum but it’s better if I know a little bit about them. One that I read recently is Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami. That’s a good book. Author Sonali Deraniyagala is a Sri Lankan national. She’s married to a British national, they have two teenage boys, they’re both academics and reasonably successful, this took place 20 years ago. They’re on vacation in Sri Lanka visiting her mother and father in a little town on the beach. It’s horrific but a tsunami wave comes in and kills everybody but her.

 That’s awful.

 And the breadth of the book talks about how she gets on with it in the face of a loss so huge that she can’t even talk about it because nobody would know what to say. So, she keeps it a secret. And she goes through drugs and alcohol and her grieving process is everything you would expect it to be. But the story itself is amazing. So that’s my amusement, sick as it is.

 Are you still a big reader?

 Yeah. It’s a mental health thing for me. I have always had depression from day one. I didn’t even have a vocabulary for it until I was 30, I don’t think I was even aware of it until I met MaryAnne. It was my brother who said, “Hey man, you’re not right.” And then of course when I went into therapy, it occurred to me that it’d always been that way. I was slowly realizing that people don’t all wake up sad. I thought everybody did. 

[In therapy they asked me] “What’s it like to wake up sad?” And I go, “Well, have you ever had something horrible happen to you? Like your dog gets run over by a car, or you lose a child in infancy, or you have a breakup, or your husband dies in the Iraq war? And they said, “Yeah, I can imagine that feeling.” “So, when you wake up, even though the night before was really lovely, you wake up like something horrific has happened.” But there isn’t anything horrific that’s happened. It took me until I was 30 to figure out that that’s not normal.

Memoirs help me, particularly if they’re intense, which most of them are or they wouldn’t sell. Books like Wave are perfect for me. It’s not soothing, but it’s interesting and, wow, that’s clearly worse than my whole life hopefully will ever be. I started to think, this has everything to do with my work in that I don’t think I’m looking at trees as botanical things. I’m looking at them as sentient beings with a life that’s written in their gestures, written in their environment, written in their visible story. It’s like they’re people in some ways. You probably don’t know the story of this tree, but you can get a bit of the story just by looking at the gesture or the circumstance.

 

As for me, I see both beauty and the dark side of the things_ the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as the well, color photograph
A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim, color photograph

I like that, you’re a recorder of tree memoirs. Natural subjects appeal to a lot of people, have you ever done commissions?

I have an amazing commission story.

Well, don’t you hold out on me.

And you’re right, it’s extremely rare for me to do one. In fact, I can only think of one commission that was so memorable and so catastrophic. I think it was 2000. At that time, Maryland Art Place was right across from Port Discovery in a huge space and they gave me a show […] Jack Rasmussen commissioned me to make massive prints of the renovation of his brokerage building. Things were a bit dire at the time finance wise for me, so I had to take it.

I’ve done a lot of real estate photo work. I’m in my forties at that point, I’m at the top of my craft and I can make big prints. And so I go in there and [the workers are] hanging metal studs and running electrical and it’s dark. I don’t know how those guys work in this darkness. All of my exposures are 20 minutes. And of course, the workmen are all moving, and the ladders are moving. So it’s compelling imagery of an obviously an industrial space and then there’s these vague blurs that are going through it. And some of the prints, you could see what these workmen are doing.

 I made a dozen large darkroom prints, which means they were silver gelatin prints. It’s expensive and difficult to pull off in that 40 by 60 size. I send all the prints to the framer and they frame them and Jack hangs them and he’s thrilled with them. He thinks they’re just the cat’s pajamas. I’m indifferent to them—I’m glad to just take my money and run. But there’s the opening to go to and oh boy, it’s the grand opening of the space, so who do you think comes to this thing? Everybody. The town shows up and it is packed wall, you could barely walk through the space much less see the work. Every artist and their family are there.

And there’s my work, handsomely hung in this beautiful space, and I’m doing my best. I’m holding it together. Then the worst thing in the world happens. I’ve been trying to get my landscape work into a certain art gallery forever and they’ve been ignoring me, ignoring me, ignoring me, ignoring me. But now my work is in this huge venue and all of the work is already sold because Jack’s developer, David Cordish, bought ’em all. In the midst of this mayhem of an opening, here comes the gallery director. He goes, “you and I need to talk, bring some work to me.” And I said, “okay.” And I thought about it when I got home that night and I thought, I’m not bringing this work to him. I’m not going to put my name on this any longer than I have to because it isn’t me. And the last thing I’m going to do is succeed with something that is just not me.

Unfortunately for me, that commission never ended. They eventually went through all my outtakes and ordered huge prints from those. I made a ton of money.

Would you say it’s your biggest financial success?

At the time, yeah. I had other dealers that were making me smaller commissions, but they were my work. I was very interested in developing my career. Jack had taken me down a road I would’ve never gone by myself. I mean, he dragged me with a check down this road and then it blew up. It became hugely popular. I started to see these prints all over the town because the developer who had essentially commissioned them owned and improved a million office buildings downtown and every one of them just made my heart sink. Eventually they ran out of outtakes but I was still getting calls from this guy going, “Hey, what else you got?” And I go, “Now you get my real work.”

 

I get it now. I didn't get it then. That life is about losing and about doing it as gracefully as possible... and enjoying everything in between, color photograph
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out, color photograph

I sent him a bunch of landscapes, which at that time had no manmade anything in it. And they go, “Oh, these are nice. What else have you got?” I started going through the outtakes of all that stuff, which included images like this barn image, piers and stuff that was man-made, but it was still landscaping. And they ate that up. I became super depressed because I began to see that on the East coast, we are just used to looking at man-made objects and an image that has nothing but natural objects is unfamiliar and uninteresting. There’s a distinct prejudice against purely organic subject matter, particularly if it’s in black and white. I was really starting to get bumped in my own field, like a fish out of water, like a person out of time. I started to feel like Van Gogh, making all this work and getting no traction.

Oh gosh, that’s never good—you don’t want to feel like Van Gogh.

I kept thinking to myself, “Why wasn’t I born on the West Coast? Why wasn’t I born where my imagery comes to me naturally and not have to look all over the place to find my subjects.” That’s always been a big struggle for me. And it hasn’t changed a bit. Everything is pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago.

So what eventually happened with the gallery? Did they show your landscapes?

They never took an interest in the landscape work. I attributed it to the East Coast syndrome. It’s just something that I must accept: that it’s just a bastard child of the art world. But I have had some good things happen. I eventually got representation in the nineties. I was ambitious about trying to get good representation and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get it in Baltimore. There just wasn’t a gallery that showed anything that vaguely resembled what I was doing at the time. 

I started looking in New York because it’s a bigger marketplace. And I started sending slides in those days and because I can make my own slides, I sent a shitload of them out. The nineties were so hard. The first person who called was from a well-known gallery that is still in Chelsea. The director-owner calls me up and she says, “Hey, got your slides, love your work. I’m having a summer show and the theme we have in summer is ‘all the people we’d like to represent, but we just don’t have space.’

She said that was the theme of the show? She didn’t say it was “small works” or a nature theme or something? She just said, we’re not going to represent you, ever, but you could be in this group show?

She explained they do this show every summer and it’s a salon style hang. Which is a generous idea. She was very pleasant and I said I’d be happy to. I deliver the work. It’s a very beautiful space. And I show up dutifully to this show and it’s mobbed. Imagine a salon-style show of largely small works just floor to ceiling every wall in a very large Chelsea gallery. Some of the work is way up high, some of it’s practically on the floor and there’s everything in between. They’ve hung my work absolutely at eye level, all three pieces. And I was like, Wow, I’m okay with this. The show is all summer long, I go to collect my work and they said, “Joe, we had your work sold, this Italian family came in and loved it but we lost their contact information and they were from Italy so we’ll never see them again, we’re sorry.” I thought, I didn’t have to get on 95 to get this kind of representation.

So that was my first New York experience. I thought, good luck, bad luck. A year later I get a call from a gallery in SoHo on Broome Street. The guy says, “We’re having a show and we want to make sure this piece of yours is available because we’d love to have it in a group show.” And I said, “Okay, What’s the title?” He gives me the title. I go, “Wow, that piece is seven years old.” And they go, “Yeah, we’ve had your slides for a while and we knew we were gonna do something with you, but today’s the day. So we need this piece because we’ve already put it on the card and printed it.” And I said, “Oh, I’d be happy to bring that piece for you. I’d like to bring something a little bit newer as well.” And they go, “Yeah, yeah. Fine.” So I take the two pieces up there and they’ve got me in a separate room with another artist who I know Marilyn Bridges, she’s an aerial photographer. She does this beautiful work from an airplane looking straight down on the earth in black and white.

[There’s a] very successful opening and they sell one of my pieces—the new one I gave them—I was thrilled. They were happy. They were in a really good mood and it felt like a beginning. I thought, Whoa, that’s about as good as you can get. They’re representing a friend of mine, it’s a multimedia gallery, but they’ve got me in their group and put me on their website.

I’m waiting for the shoe to drop, Joe.

Oh, it’s coming.

I’ve heard enough of your stories to know it’s coming.

Everybody’s happy and jolly, I go home and a week later I get a call from Houston, Texas and they said, “Hey, that piece that you sent us for this charity auction? We sold it.” And I said, “Well that’s good.” And she goes, “Well yeah, it’s good, but we oversold it.” And I go, “Does that mean you sold it for too much?” And she goes, “No, we actually sold it three times and we only have one but we know it’s part of an edition, so we were wondering if you could just send us two more of that image.” So I say sure. 

It turns out that image was the one they sold in New York from the same edition. I was pretty chuffed by this arrangement. This is good news, I wanted to share it. So I call up the gallery and I go, “You won’t believe it. That piece that you sold in New York, we just sold three of them in Texas from the same edition. We’re getting some traction.” She goes, “Oh, well we get half of that, right?” I go, “No, no, no, no. This was a charity thing. It’s 50/50 charity and the artist, and it was arranged before I signed anything with you.” And they said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s half ours.” She goes, “Read your contract, Joe. During the show and for six months after the show we have world rights to those images.”

I’m sorry, what? Is that when your exclusivity radius is the circumference of the globe?

Apparently. And so I said, “I had no idea that’s what I signed.” She goes, “Obviously you didn’t read it. We’re going to let it go this time, but it will not happen again.” And I said, “Agreed.” A week later, I’m telling this story to another artist and he asks if they’ve got my work on their website. So I go to the website and it’s not there. I call her, I get her on the phone—in those days you actually did get people on the phone. And I go, “I just noticed that my work is no longer on the website.” She goes, “Yeah, we’re not going to be able to work with you. You need to come get your work.”

I’m bummed again but I decided I don’t want to be in a multimedia gallery, I want a fully dedicated photography gallery that shows work like mine. So I go looking for that. I sent an email to a NY-based gallery asking about the protocol for new submissions. A letter comes back from the director. And I send the JPEGs and within an hour he writes back, “Can I call you?” And I say, Sure. Phone rings, “We like your JPEGs, is the work here in New York?” And I said, “Well, it’s not in New York. I’m in Baltimore, but I’ll bring it to you.” He goes, “Is tomorrow at 11 okay?”

So I take the Acela up there to Soho. I go, well, this is pretty sweet. It’s a tiny little gallery, the walls are chocolate, it’s handsomely lit. And I’m looking at the walls of the group show and its masterworks from all my freaking heroes. All of them! I can name the artist and the title of almost everything hanging in the space. I say, “This work is very familiar to me.” He goes, “Well your work blends in here but let’s look at your portfolio.” 

I had a tiny portfolio, a 14 by 10 box of prints. We walk to a table in the back and his assistants have their white gloves on already like they’re waiting for me. What a joke. They go through the prints, they’re handed them to each other, and they’re looking at the resume and the price list and the statement and the whatever. He goes to his first assistant, “What do you think?”

The assistants are in their twenties, a guy and a gal, and I’m 43 at the time. The male assistant says, “We could probably move some of these.” And the gal says, “The prices are the cheapest that we have.”

You’re the bargain!

So he turns to me and says, “I’m not offering you a show. I’m not offering to represent you. I just want to hold on this on consignment long enough to show a handful of my clients.” And I said, “okay.” He says “Let’s sign the paperwork.” He’s very professional, there’s a blue blood quality to him.

He’s refined, he’s got two assistants with white gloves.

I leave the portfolio at the gallery and that night, MaryAnne goes, “How’d it go?” And I tell her, “I don’t think it could have gone better. They have all of my heroes represented there. They’re nice people. It’s a real live photo gallery—all they show is photography.” In a week, there’s a check in the mail. We sold this piece. I thought, wow, that’s pretty fast. Next month, we sold this piece. Here’s the check. Next month, we sold this piece. Here’s the check. 

At that point, I call him, and say it’s “Joe Hyde in Baltimore. I wanted to congratulate you on selling some of my work, and I was wondering if I could just send you three new prints to put back in the box?” And he said, “Hold on to that. We’re renegotiating our lease right now. We’ll get back to you.” And I said, okay and I hung up and I think, what does that have to do with me? That doesn’t make sense to me.

Two days later, there’s my portfolio on the front porch with a nice letter saying, Thanks for all of your time and effort, we’ve decided to close. My portfolio is in perfect condition. It’s beautifully, carefully, packed by the white gloved assistants, no doubt.

That’s hard because you felt like you were getting somewhere.

I keep thinking I’m getting some traction. And this world, man, is just too weird. I was devastated. I was thinking, I did everything right and everything went wrong. After that, I lost interest in the whole idea of having good representation.

 

I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life- a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savoured, color photograph
First, consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used, color photograph
There were a million things running through his mind as an ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital after the deadly rampage, color photograph
I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better, color photograph

Is the solution selling art to clients directly from the studio as a web shop or on social media?

Well, the same pieces that I was selling in the early nineties for $400, I was selling them out of this studio for $400, 20 years later. There was pushback on the pricing. People come to my studio from New York looking to buy cheap art and I was getting pushback on prices that were 20 years old. That was, in my opinion, all about the digital revolution. Prior to the internet, imagery was not so pervasive. There was less of it. 

When the internet happens, along with digital photography, along with iPhones, along with social media, we have been hit with a tsunami of images, which has lowered the value of everything except for the very top shelf. Those prices have indeed increased but everything else is either stagnated at a price point or devalued. I watched my own work go down in value consistently over the course of those 20 years, between 1990 and 2010.

Even though you became a better photographer in that time and are probably using better materials than when you first started out.

Oh, absolutely. And my expenses have gone up while the value of my product has gone down. There’s nothing less sustainable than that equation. As we get older, it becomes ridiculous. That’s the point at which I just said, I’m just going to work with social media, I’m not going to make an object. I’m just going to make my work, put it online and share it. And if something sells that way, fine. If it doesn’t, I’m okay because the expenses are now commensurate with the return.

Have you found that the chances of selling something go up exponentially as soon as it’s a friend or acquaintance who is interested in it?

Yes, they almost lay on top of each other. I was warned about that in 1984, when I read in a book by Ansel Adams, and he said, I don’t collect art, but what I’ve noticed is I tend to collect the work of artists I know personally. I just thought, well, that’s pretty sad. If I know and like somebody, the chances of me acquiring their work in my personal collection, the work is more valuable because the image is connected to the personality. I heard that and I thought, that’s a human condition. You’re not really selling art because of the work itself. It’s your personality, it’s your likability, it’s your familiarity. That’s what’s being sold.

This phenomenon happens with really successful artists as well. As you move up the economic ladder, your friends become about as successful as you are. And if you suddenly have a lot of disposable income, your friends do too. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out that some of the biggest sellers in the top are selling to people they know on a personal basis. People they have lunch with, they party with, the people they go on vacations with, the people they travel with.

My students always want to know; how do I meet collectors? How do I network? I tell them honestly, I will help you and give you tips and send you readings to do but you must keep in mind, life is a networking opportunity. Nobody taught me how to network; did anybody teach you how to network?

I’ve read a lot about artists, obviously. One of the things that I read was from the Daybooks of Edward Weston, which was a journal written in the thirties of a very well-known West Coast photographer. In the day books, he’s talking about selling work, and he said, at a very young age, I came to see everyone as either a potential client: either I could make a portrait of them, or they could buy a piece of work, or they would become a go-between for another one, they’d bring a client to me. He goes, I saw everybody that way. And he went to a lot of parties, and he cultivated just enough collectors to get him through the week. He never really wanted anything more than enough. He was ambitious to that point only and he never really escaped professional portraiture commissions.

Edward in the 1930s was at the top of his game, but he was selling prints for $10. When he was almost 60, he got a show at the MoMA from the curator for a brand-new department of photography at MoMA, Beaumont Newhall. Beaumont loved Edwards’ work and brought it in for a one person show. Edwards already had the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease; he did not have a lot of time left. And he comes in with his $10 prints and hangs him up. The East Coast photo establishment shows up and they’re shocked. They’re telling him, you cannot be selling this work for $10, this is outrageous. It’s way too low. Under pressure, he said, all right, I’ll raise it to $25. 

The show is an enormous success. It’s hugely, positively reviewed. He sells a boat load of work, and he puts a generous check into his checking account for the first time in his life, but his career is over. He’s sick, he’s getting progressively worse. He lived another 10 years, getting progressively worse. He stopped making photographs two years after that show, and he was just in decline. His sons would print his work to pay for nurses and things like that. It was pretty sad. That was where I learned about marketing and the nature of the art market and all the gymnastics Weston went through to sell work.

What a grim story Joe! Am I correct in assuming that your solution to the market has been your business of photographing other artists’ work?

Yes, because that’s much more consistent. Sometimes I look at the hard drive of all of the names. It’s an incredible list of names; it’s remarkable that it has grown in the way that I wished my personal work would have grown, completely by word of mouth. I honestly believe that electronics destroyed the novelty of an original piece of work simply by making images available to us everywhere. We don’t have to own it, we can just rent it, so to speak.

The most extreme recent example is Tony Shore. He brought a bunch of work in last year, we photographed it, and the very next day it was shipped to LA for his solo show. He texts me, “I just wanted to send you a little note saying thank you for selling all of my work.” And I replied, “Well, I think it was probably the paintings themselves that sold your work.” And he goes, “No, it was your images, because they were all sold before the work was hung. I was just showing them people on my iPad and my phone, and they saw the images that you made and that sold the work.” I said, “That is crazy.” And he goes, “I thought so too.”

Earlier you mentioned that there is a desire on the East Coast for nature photos to contain man-made elements that you’ve noticed isn’t present on the West coast. Is that just people wanting a focal point and deciding the focal point must be intervention into nature?

I think it has largely to do with what your marketplace is looking at or what it’s forced to look at. As things become unfamiliar, then they become less desirable. I think part of what made Ansel Adams relatively successful, and I use the word relatively because he struggled like everybody else, was that his imagery was intimately connected to California where he lived. His audience had seen snow-capped mountains and had admired him. And part of the reason they’re in California is because they admire the natural world. 

I think if you’d have taken Ansel at a young age and dragged him over to the East coast and watched him do landscape work here, I think he would’ve been completely unknown. […] The West coast can appreciate wild nature and the East coast is much committed to cultivation of nature. That’s just my opinion.

For twenty-six years I’ve been photographing nature. It’s what I prefer to photograph and it’s what I prefer to preserve. It’s the thing that excites my creativity, it’s germane to who I am. It is me. […] America’s becoming more and more strange to me. I mean, it was always strange, but it gets stranger every year. I do consider moving to Canada.­

 

I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them, color photograph

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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