I have to pinch myself whenever I’m referred to as a “collector.”
I think maybe they have the wrong person or have sent a message to the wrong email address. To my mind, a “collector” was someone born into enormous wealth, a JP Morgan, a Frick, a Mellon, a Huntingdon, or a Getty. My background was the complete opposite. I was born in a tenement in the East End of London and my parents both had to leave school at 13 years old to work. They were wonderful folks with deep hearts, but the word “culture” was a word not in their vocabulary. There were no books or anything visual in my surroundings. I sensed there was another world out there. I listened to the BBC radio, really to learn how to speak and use language. I then ventured out into the world by escaping to the cinema then the theater and then museums. There I found out about beauty and other lives being lived.
By some chance when I was 15 years old, I came across a book called, “A Vanished World” by a man called Roman Vishniac. An image within that book called “Sara, The Only Flowers of Her Youth,” was the first photograph that totally “possessed” me.
Flash forward three years. I manage to scrape enough money to buy a student ticket to New York. Back then there was something called the Yellow Pages. I look under the name “R Vishniac” and see a listing and pluck up the courage to dial the number. A man answers.
I fumble the words like “Mr. Vishniac, Your book made me cry. This is my first day in America. Can I come see you?”
He says, “I’m very busy but I can spare you 10 minutes tomorrow.”
I nervously go and end up spending five hours with him. I must have looked like I had not eaten in a week, because his wife kept feeding me food. He was such an amazing man and the first photographer I had ever met.
I began a career in film production and soon found myself tired of struggling to make films in England. I went to Los Angeles in 1979 and decided to stay. I had a net worth of $2000, five T-shirts, and two pairs of jeans. Somehow, I got invited to a commercial photographer’s house for dinner. He had a small collection of photographs on the wall which his wife told him to sell because he wanted to buy a vintage car — and he couldn’t have both!
There was one image on the wall which totally seduced me. Its name was “Premiere at Cathay Circle” by a photographer I had never heard of called Max Yavno. I sheepishly asked, “how much is it?”
The host said $400. Then I did the most irrational thing I said “I would like buy this, please” in my polite English accent. If I were anywhere near rational, I would have spent the $400 on putting decent brakes on my beat-up Ford Pinto, but something clicked in my brain. This one act changed my life, and I am forever grateful, because I would not be here now writing about collecting without it.
What have I learned about collecting over the last 40 years? Listen to no one — only listen to your heart and you won’t go wrong. I would love to own a Modigliani or a great Degas or a great Francis Bacon, but I don’t have a spare $100 million tucked under my bed. Photography is the most democratic medium in the art world. It is the only medium in which you can own the same piece as the Getty Museum, and if have a good eye and passion and energy, you can own something even better. There are photographs out there that can be purchased for relatively little money, $1000 and up. Some of the greatest photographs I have ever owned, and some that are even in The Power of Photography exhibition at the Bowers Museum, were first purchased for far less.
Enjoy the journey and the hunt as I do every day, even after 40 years. It only gets better.
Born in London, Peter Fetterman has been deeply involved in the medium of photography for over 40 years. Initially a filmmaker and collector, he set up his first gallery over 30 years ago in 1988. He was one of the pioneer tenants of Bergamot Station, the Santa Monica Center of the Arts when it first opened in 1994.
The Peter Fetterman Gallery has one of the largest inventories of classic 20th-century photography in the country particularly in humanist photography. Diverse holdings include work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Willy Ronis, André Kertesz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lillian Bassman, Pentti Sammallahti, Sarah Moon and Jeffrey Conley.
Fetterman and his colleagues are committed to promoting the awareness and appreciation of the most powerful of the mediums in an intimate, user-friendly salon environment.