He Captured Modern Art, and Now Is Letting It Go
Help yourself to D. James Dee’s luscious, sprawling photographic archive of the modern New York art scene. He has about 250,000 color transparencies and slides, ranging in size from 35 millimeter to 8 by 10 inches, documenting the work of almost every important artist of the last 40 years and installations at some of the most influential galleries. And, yes, he’s giving them away.
All you’ll need is a truck large enough to hold 65 cardboard file boxes. It would help if you represent a nonprofit organization, because Mr. Dee hopes to receive a tax deduction for donating his life’s work. But that’s not a deal breaker. You should, however, be conversant with modern American art history. Really conversant.
Almost none of the transparencies and slides are labeled.
Mr. Dee, 68, has retired after a 39-year career as the SoHo Photographer, documenting work for artists, galleries, exhibitions, books and portfolios. He is leasing his space at 12 Wooster Street, just north of Canal Street, and moving with his wife, Sarala, to Miami. The moving vans will arrive on July 24. The photo collection will not come with him.
“It has value to someone,” Mr. Dee said last week. “Not to me.” The absence of captions and a lack of storage space have discouraged several institutions from accepting the archive. The National Gallery of Art, Getty Images, and the Fales Library and Special Collections of New York University have declined his offer, Mr. Dee said.
With that, he illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of an unlabeled archive by pulling stacks of 4-inch-by-5-inch transparencies from a box marked “1984-85 Trans.” and dealing them like playing cards onto a light table, identifying each one as best he could:
“Basquiat. Julian Schnabel. Don’t know. There was an artist, Mierle Ukeles; this was an installation she had at the sanitation transfer station. Joel Shapiro. Basquiat. I remember doing this shoot, but I don’t remember the artist. This is a Frank Gehry. Joel Shapiro. Nam June Paik. This was for the Chase Bank; it’s 45 feet long. Oh, who’s the artist? Vincent Arcilesi. This, I have no idea. I like it, though. I like it. This is probably an installation; it’s subversive enough, it could be Ronald Feldman.”