Musée Presents: Alan Siegel, Collector

Musée Presents: Alan Siegel, Collector from Musée on Vimeo.


Siegel + Gale Founder and Chairman Alan Siegel became involved in the design business through his interest in photography after studying econometrics at Cornell University as well as law at NYU. While Siegel was enlisted in the army outside of Frankfurt, Germany he purchased a couple of Pentax cameras. During his time spent in Germany, he began to see the world through photography. Upon his arrival to the states Siegel spent several weeks interviewing with top photographers to gain insights into his work and his decision to pursue photography.


What was the first piece you ever collected?

Paul Strand. A friend of mine was a professor and he had a girlfriend who had spent some time in Mexico where she met Strand, she had his portfolio and pictures from his time there, as a gift she said I could take any photo of his and that was the first photo in my collection.

What was the influence of Brodovitch and Model on your collecting, your taste, and your eye?

When I got back to New York and started photography, I had three major influences. One was Richard Avedon, who was coincidentally my first interview. He encouraged me to pursue photography. He recommended I take Alexey Brodovitch’s course that was taught in his brownstone and also Lisette Model’s course at the New School. Brodovitch was teaching an intellectual course on the underlying concepts of how to take pictures, how to build themes and creativity. Lisette Model was more of a street photographer, black and white photography, and it was a wonderful suggestion that really set up my career. 

How do you think their courses influenced your taste in photography and selecting the photographs in your collection?

My whole career has been built around problem solving and concepts. Most photographers, when I first got involved in photography, were street photographers. There were other photographers who were doing commercial photography but there was very little pure, fine art photography. I fused all of these things together in a philosophy that was based around, “How do you communicate ideas?” I think Alexey Brodovitch was a huge influence on me because he was not about gimmicks, he was not about predictability, he was about illustrating ideas and that is my whole career. People come to me with a concept for a company or a product, and my job is to figure out how to portray that to people so that they understand it. Photography has been my way of looking at the world, and my way of solving problems, and a lot through Brodovitch.

Would you say the philosophy of your collecting is communicating ideas?

The underlying premise of my collection is things that I like. Things I like are photographs that have emotion, solve problems, convey complicated ideas, or are aesthetically pleasing…my collection is very eclectic. When I was asked to put my collection up at the Johnson Museum at Cornell for my 40th reunion, I had to figure out how it all fit together because I was always just buying things that were captivating to my spirit and what I believe in.  Putting that collection together was a wonderful experience that helped in the creation of my book.

Can you give me an example of a photograph that ‘solves problems’ in your collection?

When I was studying with Brodovitch he would come in from Harper’s Bazaar having worked there all day and blowing cigarette smoke all over the place and said, “I looked all day at how people were going to portray a raincoat that was waterproof and breathable.” Or, “I was looking all day at women’s shoes, how could you portray women’s shoes in an entirely new light, new way, new perspective?” That kind of problem solving comes from the world of commerce. In the world of fine art, I’ve seen all kinds of interesting ways in which people present products or scenes in novel ways that are totally memorable. When looking at portraits, you capture the personality of a person. Somebody like Irving Penn or Avedon, if you look at their portraits side by side you will see a remarkably different approach as to how they capture the persona of a person. How do you develop pictures of the body and movement in ways that are unique and not predictable? That’s what I mean by solving problems.

You say that your favorite photographer is Irving Penn?

Yes. I love his aesthetics, I love the simplicity and purity of his work, I love the range of his work. He has an openness to trying new ideas, and working all kinds of vehicles from portraits, fashion portraits, to still-life’s, to moving all around the world and photographing indigenous people. There’s something about his aesthetic that really appeals to me and I think he is the most powerful photographer in my collection.

How many photographs do you own?

I own 426 photos. Every photograph is framed. Most of my photographs are either hung in my apartment, my daughter’s house, my office, or my country house. I rotate my photographs all the time by changing the juxtaposition, taking things that are old favorites in my mind and putting them somewhere new so they’re not predictable when I see them. The photographs of my friends create the spirit of my house. I’m always looking at them, always thinking about them; they mean a lot to me.

With your interest in new and novel photography, how do you feel about the recent shift in the industry with new alternative modes of capturing images, using methods such as: iPhoneography, satellite imagery, drone imagery, X-ray etc.?

One of my favorite photographers is David Hume Kennerly who was President Ford’s personal photographer during office. As long as I’ve known him, every time when he wakes up in the morning, no matter where he is in the world, he takes a photo and puts it on his Facebook account. In the last couple of years every picture he takes is with his iPhone and they’re fantastic. I’ve gone out with him some mornings at 6 a.m. in Los Angeles or in New York and I will be standing next to him seeing the same thing he sees, and my picture will be completely ordinary and his, extraordinary. I’m not particularly interested in gimmicks or techniques over ideas but if the image is powerful, whether it’s taken by a drone or an X-ray or taken with a 360 camera, that doesn’t bother me. If people are taking the image creatively, or if the image is powerful, than that’s attractive to me.

How do you feel digital photography has changed image making?

Digital photography has thrown me off because I spent my formative years in photography with film and printing, going through this arduous task, so it took me a while to get into it. As a purist I sometimes get upset by it because if you were to go to a fashion set, the photographer on the set with his equipment hooked up to a computer, which in turn is hooked up to a client. Meanwhile the client is commenting on the picture and telling him how to do it differently, and that takes certain individuality and artfulness out of photography. I don’t like that part of it. I do like the fact that it reduces the burden of having to go through the whole dark room bit. I’m convinced that it all comes down to the eye of the photographer and that transcends digital or non-digital.

How important is the backstory of the image?

I think an image has to speak for itself. It’s interesting to know the backstory but one of the most fabulous pictures in my collection is on the cover of my book: “One Man’s Eye,” which was taken at the freak show with the Barnum and Bailey circus during the 1920’s. I bought it at a Southern Beach auction for $200 and I put it in my living room, and over the years I’ve gotten strange calls about it. After I bought that picture I found out who the photographer was and found his office around 47th Street, which is around the corner from one of my old offices. He had a banquet camera and took pictures of business conventions and on weekends went to Coney Island to take pictures of the freak shows. So, when I got interested in that picture, Keith Dillias, Miles and I went about the country talking to collectors of circus photos and we found out all about this man. He was a drunk who left his family and would give his negatives to the bar or to security for more drinks. We found out that his two sons were still alive, middle aged and married with families who are both collectors of circus photography. They purchased my book and still keep in touch.  That is one of the most interesting parts of my collection because I am constantly in touch with people.

What advice would you give a young collector?

Buy what you love and buy what attracts you. Don’t worry about buying things that you think you will make money on. That’s my main advice to everybody it’s like, what should you do for your career? Do something that you love. Buy something that you love.

What do you have planned for your collection?

I’m giving a portion of my collection to Cornell, which is my favorite place. I like the head of the museum, curators, and the staff’s professionalism. I’m going to have my daughter run the rest. She studied Fine Arts at Cornell and is very interested in photography so I’ve been working with her and will let her take control over the collection.

For the last question, you say that your photographs are connected to your life and experiences. Can you give an example of which photographs and what experiences?

The last time Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters if not the greatest hitter of all-time, was batting at Yankee stadium. I grew up across from Yankee Stadium and I was at the game with my father. We were sitting around third base and I can still see him in my head as he hit a home run in the upper deck in right field. I found a picture taken for the Evening Post of him hitting that home run, where the photographer was up on a ladder and was photographing him. I have a Spano picture which was taken in the subway with one of these motion cameras. He turned it vertically and you can see all the people in the subway car. It reminds me of my connection to the subway because not only did I grow up in New York utilizing the subway but also did the brand identity for the MTA. I have hundreds of stories like that.

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