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.