Born in London, Peter Fetterman has been deeply involved in the medium of photography for over 30 years. Initially a filmmaker and collector, he set up his first gallery over 20 years ago. He was one of the pioneer tenants of Bergamot Station, the Santa Monica Center of the Arts when it first opened in 1994.
The 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, Stephen Wilkes and Jeffrey Conley.
Peter and his colleagues are committed to promote the awareness and appreciation of the most powerful of the mediums in an intimate, user-friendly salon environment.
We spoke on April 13, 2018 at the gallery in Santa Monica.
Paula: How did you come to this line of work?
Peter: Well, I was a struggling filmmaker when I came to Los Angeles in 1979. I ended up buying my first photograph by accident.
Paula: How do you buy a photograph by accident?
Peter: I was invited to a dinner party and the host was photographer. It turned out that he had a group of beautiful images on the wall, and he was selling them because he wanted to buy a vintage car. His wife said, "Well, you can't buy a vintage car unless you sell some of these photos."
I was just bowled over by the beauty of the prints in that intimate situation. There was one in particular that struck me, and I asked, "Well, how much is that photo?" He said, "It's $400." I had a total of $2,000 to my name but something very irrational happened and I said, "I'd like to buy that photograph." I was driving this old Pinto that didn’t really have any brakes, and if I was rational, I would have spent the money having brakes put on the car, but I bought this photo and that set me on a path of collecting.
Paula: What was the photo?
Peter: It was a Max Yavno of a movie premiere at Carthay Circle. To me it connected my aspirations as a filmmaker and what in my madness I thought Hollywood was. I bought it, and then I bought my second photograph about two months later in London. I was owed $5,000 by a film company, and the only way I could get it was to sit in this guy's office and refuse to move until he paid me. So I did that and then felt I was rich.
I was walking down Bond Street and saw a sign outside of Sotheby's that said, "Photo Preview Today." I walked in and I saw this other photograph. I didn't know anything about collecting or the history of photography, but it started me off, and I bought my second photograph for $600 because I was feeling so flush. It was a Heinrich Kuhn. Never knew anything about Heinrich Kuhn, but I became obsessed with this image and I bought it. So I had two photos.
Paula: Do you still have them?
Peter: Unfortunately, I had to sell them to start my gallery at Bergamot Station. Sometimes you have to do things to survive at what you're doing. They found great homes. I sold them to great people, so I feel okay about it.
So that's how I started out, by accident. Then I was really frustrated with working in the movie business. I produced a film for MGM, which was a nightmare. Maybe it was a sign from the gods that I had to change my life. The great thing about America is that you can reinvent yourself. Over the years I had collected a few photos. I had a box. A few of them. Maybe eight. And I said, "I'm going to become a photo dealer. I'm sick of the movie business.” I started out in my rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica with a box of photos and I was like the Tupperware lady. Maybe they felt sorry for me, but people invited me around for a Sunday afternoon and they'd bring friends, and I would show these photos. People would buy them and then I would take the money and buy more. It just became this total obsession and it escalated into a complete change of life. And here I am.
Paula: Have you always been here at Bergamot Station?
Peter: Yes. I got a call from this guy who said, "I've got these buildings from the city of Santa Monica and someone told me you have a good eye. Would you like to open a gallery here?" I said, "I've got no money, really. I don't know anything about running a gallery." And the guy said to me, "Well, you know, if you do it, it will change your life." And I thought, "Okay, well then, I'll do it." So I did it. I moved into a little space, and I became a gallerist. I really didn't know what I was doing at the beginning. I didn't know how to even stencil your name on the glass. That was 1993.
We were one of the pioneer tenants at Bergamot Station. I used to have a little place down the block, then later I moved into this bigger space. Then it really became madness, because when you have a bigger space, you fill it, especially if you have this kind of addictive personality. Suddenly I went from a 1200 square foot gallery to a 3600 square foot gallery. It was a big jump, and more responsibility and more opportunities and more stress.
Paula: How would you describe your program here?
Peter: It's basically an extension of my taste. It's images I want to see or want to be surrounded by or get inspired by, with the hope that somebody else might plug into my taste and might agree with me. So there's not a specific program. I come across people or images or image makers that I feel connected to. That's all it's about really. There's no kind of logic to it.
Paula: I don't agree with that, though. I see a very clear point of view here.
Peter: Well, it's my clear point of view.
Paula: It's very classic. Very elegant.
Peter: A bit romantic. Tasteful. Upbeat.
Peter: Handcrafted, beautiful prints. Okay, that's my aesthetic. Thank you.
Paula: What about the cutting edge?
Peter: I can't relate to it to be honest with you. I don't understand this word, "postmodern." I don't understand this word, "conceptual." In fact when people say that to me I run in the other direction, because I know it's not something I'm interested in. It’s not something that I can personally relate to and be enthusiastic about.
I'm sure it's interesting work, and I'm sure you can have a really interesting dialogue about it, but it's just not my cup of tea. It's not my taste. It's not a zone I feel comfortable with. I think my gallery is like a little oasis to protect myself from the outside ugly world. It's an insulation project for me, to surround myself with things that make me happy, or inspire me, or reveal beauty, or some kind of humanist truth. That's what I'm interested in.
I go and I look around and there's all that other kind of work around me, and I suppose I just feel like an alien. I don't get it, and don't particularly want to get it, really. I'm happy in my little niche of humanism and beauty and peace. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy. Maybe I'm being very dismissive. I don't mean to be. Everyone has their own voice and that's great, and they should express it. But when you do this eighteen hours a day seven days a week, you have to be around the images that inspire you to keep doing it.
It's not really a rational life, the life of a gallery owner. There's no logic or rationale to it. We all live on the edge. And the thing we all love the most is buying photos. Then you realize when you walk into your gallery that you've got ten thousand photos that you better figure out a way to sell them, because you have this addiction to buy more. This addiction to learn more through the images. It's a big hole that never really gets filled.
Paula: Do you ever come across any that you can't let go?
Peter: I used to be like that until I had children. Then you realize you have to pay for school fees and things and you can't be a hoarder. At least I try to stop myself being a total hundred percent hoarder. You have to let things go, because otherwise you don't have a gallery, and you don't have clients. I think clients are sophisticated and if they think you are holding back the best material for yourself then there's a conflict of interest. Smart collectors would realize that. So once I've lived with these images and I've learnt from them, in a Buddhist kind of way it's time to pass them on.
Paula: As you said before, if you feel like they're going to places where they are going to be loved, that's a good thing too.
Peter: It's a very good thing, and it creates a bond between you and the new owner, the new recipient of what you thought was great. If they appreciate it, and then you go visit them, and it's there and they're happy, then you know it's got a good home.
Paula: The Jeffrey Conley exhibition that you have up now creates a very Zen feeling.
Peter: I think it’s an original take on nature. It's very hard to have an original take on nature. Nature photography is dominated by people like Ansel Adams. Everybody wants to be Ansel Adams, but very few landscape photographers have their own particular voice. Jeffrey is one of those people. We’ve nurtured him for 15 years and just produced a second book for him. I believe he is one of the great landscape photographers who has an original point of view and the technique to express it. With a lot of landscape photographers…it's like a lot of nude photography. If I see another nude on a rock, I'm going to throw up. It's so beyond cliché.
Very few people have that original talent to do something traditional but with a fresh view. I suppose that's my job, to sift through all the wannabes to find the real deal. The Mozart. You're looking for Mozart or Beethoven in a world where everybody is a musician or a composer.
Paula: Can you say something about your relationship with artists? You had a long relationship with Cartier-Bresson, for example.
Peter: He was and is the reason I'm still doing this. The book "The Decisive Moment" really influenced me. I thought it was extraordinary. I mean, how can one man have been all over the world and captured these amazing images that are still so powerful? No matter how many times you look at them, you're moved by them. And then I ended up meeting him and working with him. For a poor boy like me to work with the likes of Rembrandt is an incredible honor and a destiny. Then he introduced me to Salgado, which has been another 30 year relationship. So it's about these intense relationships with people whose work you revere and who you want to be around because they inspire you and keep you going. When you've done your tenth art fair that year, and you're flat on your back and drained, then you see something or you're involved with something or someone that can keep you going. That's what it's about. Hard to find those kind of people.
There again, it's about unique talent. There are only a few great artists, in any media, in any generation. I think it's a law of nature. Why was there only one John Lennon, and 5000 wannabe John Lennons? Why is there only one David Bowie? Or one Picasso? So if you're doing this why not try and find the best people to work with?
Paula: Can you say something about that relationship? Was it easy-going? Did you have to push him to release prints?
Peter: In terms of Bresson, that's why he's a rare talent. He had the freedom to do that kind of work. He was the black sheep of a very wealthy French aristocratic family, so he didn't have to teach to earn a living. He had that freedom and he never needed material success. I was allowed access to images that he'd never printed before and that was a wonderful experience. He was amused that we were very successful for him. He'd never really ... no one had ever really sold photos in Europe. I think it was wonderful for him to get that kind of validation.
The same with Salgado, who is a very intense man. It’s been a wonderful relationship, very intense at times, because he has these incredible epic, global visions and these incredible expensive difficult ten-year projects to realize. He needs help to do that, and through the print sales, we've helped him do that.
Paula: He’s on a mission.
Peter: He's on a mission. He's not just a photographer. He has a bigger mission than most.
Paula: What's his mission?
Peter: His mission is to help the first world understand the third world, or help us all understand that we're part of a global situation that we can't isolate ourselves from. We’ve managed as a species to destroy 56% of the world's natural resources because we're stupid, and this is his wake up call to help us appreciate the 44% of the world that may be still primal and can be saved.
Because of his training as an economist, he doesn't think in terms of just images. He has a global reality-based understanding of how the world works, and how humanity works, and it's at times very inspiring and at times heartbreaking. The core of our problems today is that we're not connected enough and we live in our own little bubble.
Peter: That’s why I like Latin American photography, as you do. There’s a humanism to it. You can relate to every one of those images as a human being. As a sensitive person. I think a lot of people have lost that. Maybe not deliberately. But that's Salgado’s mission. He's not just a photographer. He's a great photographer. My God. Maybe one of the best. You have to admire the passion it takes to create that body of work and the tenacity to stick at it.
Paula: Should I ask you about fairs?
Peter: You can ask me anything.
Paula: When I go to an art fair, I'm exhausted within an hour of being there, and I see you gallerists standing on these hard floors with this horrible lighting…
Peter: Surrounded by terrible food.
Paula: Terrible, expensive food.
Peter: The worst $25.00 sandwich you could ever find in the world.
Paula: How do you do it?
Peter: You do it because you also are on some kind of mission. A lifeblood in any gallery is to have new collectors. And if Mohammad won’t go to the mountain, the mountain has to go to Mohammad. Doing these fairs is everything you say it is and worse, but you have to feel a bit like Billy Graham. You're an evangelist, and your job is to stand there for ten or twelve hours a day. We’ve been doing fairs that are 12 days long. It’s insane. And you have to say, "Well, this is my pulpit and I'm an evangelist for what I believe in, and I have to preach and I have to show and I have to talk about it. And maybe I'll meet one or two people who will become converts" and maybe not. If you are a preacher, you go to small communities and preach. It’s part of the process. If you want to have a gallery, and you believe in what you do, and you believe you have some kind of vocation, then you have to put yourself through that kind of ordeal.
Sometimes it can be pleasant and you meet great people. And sometimes it can be a complete waste of time and you lose your shirt. But to be a gallery owner you have to be a bit of a crazy optimist, and you think, "Well, maybe it's going to work out and maybe I'll meet someone nice who appreciates my taste. Maybe they will even support us so we can support the artists and I can support my staff so they can earn a living." That's what it's about.
I mean, I'm not sure Rod Stewart really wants to go on tour again at 74 years old, but he does it. He's a pro. Maybe he’s tired and he may have had a fight with his wife the night before, but he gets up on the stage and performs and we do the same. The show goes on. I may have a headache and my feet might be killing me, and I need to see a chiropractor, but I’ve got to get through the day and not snap at anybody, and not be grumpy toward anybody, and be positive.
It's not easy. It's incredibly expensive and I think there are too many fairs, like there's too much of everything now in our field. There are too many photographers. There are too many galleries. There are too many auctions. There are too many online platforms. And there are too many art fairs. I think there will come a point, and I think we've already reached it now, there has to be a contraction. The economics of doing these fairs are so insane, and often the rewards don't justify the expenses.
I've done fairs in cities where I've never sold a thing. That's an incredibly depressing feeling, that you've just put out all this energy and effort and nobody wants to hear you sing. Or they appreciate you being there, "Thank you." Oh yeah, "Beautiful Photos." But they don't support you, so you can't support the artists. That’s the difference now. And that's why I sound a little old fuddy-duddy. The photographers I really gravitate towards were creating work when there was zero market.
Now I think that there's a tendency where photographers and artists create the work for the market. There’s a big difference for me, and I smell it. I sense it. Also this idea that everything has to be bigger. The bigger the object the more expensive it can be. Sometimes I feel like the bigger the object, the smaller the idea. I don't know. I have issues with scale. Then I look at the little 4 x 5 contact print, like a little Bravo, and I think, "Oh my god." Or an 8 x 10 beautiful Paul Caponigro, and I think, "Well there, that's art."
Paula: What advice do you have for collectors?
Peter: The simple answers are, only buy what you love, only buy what you can afford, and only buy from someone you trust. Those are the three rules in my opinion.
Paula: The first photo I ever bought from a gallery was from you. It was George Tice’s Country Road.
Peter: Great, great picture.
Paula: I was so afraid of making a mistake. What if this isn't really good, or what if it's not a good choice? It's a lot of money. There's so much out there to see. How do you make a choice?
Peter: I say something that really upsets all my colleagues when I give talks about collecting. I say you should only buy from a dealer that stands behind what they sell to you. They should promise that they will buy it back from you if you change your mind for at least what you paid for it. I believe that, and it’s something we practice against a lot of outrage by my colleagues.
Paula: Does that happen? Do people return things?
Peter: Yes, sometimes. It doesn't happen often, but it can if somebody's lifestyle is changing or they're moving from a five bedroom house to a two bedroom apartment, and their kids are not really interested in collecting what they collected. I think dealers should be very reputable and honest and stand behind what they sell, and that seems to be pretty basic.
Your tastes may change as you evolve as a person. All of our tastes change. I think it's a natural aspect of collecting as one become more experienced or more demanding in the sense that you have limited space or resources. Maybe that image, like that George Tice photo that you bought from me 20 years ago, you'd like to replace. And I'm happy to have it back.
I think for a new collector it's very important that they have a relationship with a dealer, that they trust them and that the dealer stands behind what they sell. And if they're not willing to do that, then my advice is maybe walk away. I'll probably get into a lot of trouble when you publish this. I also get criticized for putting prices on the wall.
Paula: I wish everyone would put prices on the wall. Why don’t they?
Peter: It’s an arrogance of dealers. It's like, "You should have to ask us." There isn't transparency. It happens to me a lot, especially in New York, where I visit galleries and there's work on the wall. I can't see a price list anywhere, and I ask the receptionist for a list and the response is "Oh, you know, we don't have one." What do you mean you don't have one? “Well, I'd have to ask the director of the gallery to speak to you." You know, that's art world pretentious bullshit, and it turns people off. It’s part of the elitism of certain parts of the art world. They bug me. Why do you have to beg for information in this day and age? Information should be at your fingertips. Why should you have to audition to be allowed to buy a piece of art? That's snooty and pretentious, and not what I think the artist would want. That, to me, is the biggest turnoff. So when people come to my gallery everybody is friendly and we don't make judgments.
Peter: I'm a lucky guy. I don't really have a job. I've managed to turn a passion into some kind of lifestyle that keeps it going. Not without stress, but at least I'm a lucky guy. I feel fortunate. I feel blessed every day I walk in here.