Issue #246  12/17/2018
Tom Halsted: A Personal Perspective

By Peter MacGill, Pace-MacGill Gallery

Cole Weston and Tom Halsted pulling on their beards with Peter MacGill looking on innocently.
Cole Weston and Tom Halsted pulling on their beards with Peter MacGill looking on innocently.

It is heartening to read everyone's fond memories of Tom Halsted--the pioneer, the character, the nervous photography dealer who always managed to make things work and lead the way.

In June 1974, I was in desperate need of a job, as I had just graduated from undergraduate school and earning a living painting the interiors of faculty homes was no longer an option. I had been an intern at LIGHT Gallery in 1973 and wanted nothing more than to continue to work for photographers and work with their photographs.

Back then there were, essentially, three galleries in the United States: LIGHT, Witkin and Tom Halsted's 831 Gallery. I pursued Tom determinately with the hope of employment and was met with some skepticism and a bit of interest on his part, and eventually landed a job which paid me (after taxes) $98 a week. Man, was I excited and, man, I did not know what I was in for.

Tom had a fantastic, comprehensive inventory and tremendous knowledge, which he was very happy to share with interested clients, museum curators and directors, and, in fact, anyone who would listen. I was one of the beneficiaries of his knowledge and of the great inventory he had collected from around the world and could be found in the gallery's drawers.

In the course of selling a beautiful, signed, mounted Frederick Evans photograph surrounded by a watercolor wash, Tom let it be known that Frederick Evans gave up photography when his beloved platinum paper was no longer commercially available. In Tom's words, Evans, at that point, commenced cutting pianola rolls by hand and scraped his negatives clean so that he could use the glass in his greenhouse. If this is true or not, I don't care to speculate, but the person on the receiving end of this news bought the picture and is the true, true winner for he holds one of the great Frederick Evans pictures that Tom brought back to the United States well ahead of the collecting rush.

Tom and Gunther Sander, August Sander's son, were very close. I remember Tom arriving at the gallery after one of his many visits to Germany during which he had picked up August Sander prints from Gunther. In his Samsonite suitcase, along with his personal belongings, were a stack of green August Sander portfolios that Sander's wife had made by hand to house his original, mounted, signed photographs. Each portfolio housed a treasure trove of remarkably beautiful, vintage Sander photographs.

At one point, David Travis came to the Halsted Gallery to assemble an exhibition of Sander's work for the Art Institute of Chicago. If I remember correctly, most of the exhibition, if not the entire exhibition, was assembled using the extraordinary inventory Tom had gathered. No small feat then and an invariable impossibility now.

I must be honest in sharing that it wasn't always easy to work for Tom. He remained anxious that he would not meet his payroll or his overhead nut. This anxiety lived minute-to-minute, second-to-second, and I share this because it was not easy for Tom or anyone in the business back then, or for that matter, now.

Around Christmas-time in 1974, Tom summoned me into his office and said, "Mac, how much money do you need to live on?" I was taken aback, but came in the next day with a figure to share with him. The $98 a week wasn't really covering my expenses, so I shared with Tom that an increase to $8,500 a year would set me up just fine. Tom responded with a "Thanks, Mac" and let me know that my salary would increase to $12,000 a year. Quite frankly, I had never had anything like that happen to me in my life. His embrace delivered us, in a sense, into a kind of partnership which I will never, ever forget. How kind. How generous. How none of us should ever forget this kind of generosity.

As I mentioned, Tom was very nervous about earning a living with the 831 Gallery, but if it were to have any success, he always shared it. His extraordinary generosity in the face of constant worry floored me, and I will never, ever forget his largess. I loved Tom deeply, and I think he knew it. This anxious, hilarious, knowledgeable, generous man was an early pioneer in our field and, for me, he was a great mentor, who deserves any acknowledgement that I, or we, can share with each other, as we mourn his loss.

Tom was probably one of the central gathering places for photographic facts, history and trivia. He combined them masterfully, to educate anyone he spoke to, and, ultimately, to leave a very rich legacy for our field.