Issue #248  2/23/2019
Charles Schwartz: A Personal Remembrance

By Alan Klotz

I first met Charles in 1979 when he signed up for one of my Collector's Seminars, which I taught to try to encourage new collectors through education. The seminars answered the question of what makes for value in photography. Charles was more interested in that question than in art history. He was a buyer and a businessman, and he wanted to acquire work using criteria other than pure instinct. He wasn’t a novice exactly, as he had been collecting daguerreotypes and other mostly "cased" imagery as far back as college. In fact, Charles was a founding member of the Daguerreian Society. He also opened one of the first galleries in the then new SoHo art district, before anyone had even heard of Chelsea.

His day job was running Elmhurst Dairy, a family-owned business he inherited from his father. It was a large operation that supplied New York with about 25% of its milk. It was a highly competitive business, with lots of moving parts that brought milk from the cows spread all around the New York area to your grocer's refrigerator cases, and all the way to your morning coffee. He was steady, and shrewd, fielding an ocean of details, and that's how he treated collecting: understanding the details without losing touch with the fun.

Charles used his milk money to support his photography collecting, but felt his time being taken by two demanding masters; so, in 1987, Charles sold the dairy and concentrated on photography, his first love. He did the buying circuit as we all did: the auctions here and abroad, trade shows, and early morning raids at Brimfield carried out by flashlight in the dark at 6 am.

Charles had developed his own areas of interest: a nostalgic group of dairy related imagery; photographers photographing; people reading; early images of New York, for example Victor Prevost's pictures of the building of Central Park; these were exemplary, but somewhat prosaic. His more exciting addictions were often the result of good old-fashioned digging in unfurrowed fields. One of my favorite patented Schwartz collections is what Charles called his "Double Vintage" collection, wherein vintage images would share a frame with the very object being pictured. One of the most eerie was a daguerreotype of a very young girl in a gingham dress. The dress was included in the frame, next to the daguerreotype of it. Then there was his Japanese ambrotype collection, whose delicate images on glass were contained in beautiful handcrafted Kiriwood cases.

Charles’ devotion to early photography led him to build a huge room-size Camera Obscura on the roof of his elegant triplex penthouse overlooking the Cooper-Hewitt museum gardens and Central Park beyond. The Camera Obscura, of course, was where photography began. Its name comes from the Latin for "dark room", which is exactly what it was, and what Charles built. Instead of the usual small aperture in one of the walls, which allowed for light reflecting off an object outside of the room to be projected upside down on the opposite wall, he used the later improvement of a lens. The custom fabricated lens was able to gather and focus the light for a cleaner and sharper effect. The specially designed lens was a periscope-like device that protruded through the roof and threw its image onto a perfectly flat 42" round table, which Charles then photographed.

Charles’ Camera Obscura work, produced in partnership with Bill Westheimer, used the oldest image-gathering device to produce contemporary work bearing little similarity to the device’s original spawn. That is to say, they did not look like rehashed new old things: they were completely of today with perhaps only a nod given to their predecessors.

Around the same time as the construction of his Camera Obscura, Charles was contacted by Shawn Wilson, a filmmaker from Greenville, MS, about an entire archive of a local photographer named Henry Clay Anderson. He was the general practitioner photographer of Greenville’s African-American community. For decades he documented their daily lives, their families, their relationship with their church, and to each other. Rather than showing the oppressive aspects of life under legal segregation, he showed their middleclass aspirations, their progress, their joys and sorrows. In short, lives of normalcy and connection.

Charles and Shawn conserved the prints and negatives and produced a critically acclaimed book on Anderson’s work, Separate but Equal. The entire Anderson archive now resides at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, thus saving them from oblivion.

The final collection to note was what he called his "Light Reclaimed" collection. Charles explained: "For over 35 years I have collected daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. In collecting these images I usually looked for a perfect, flawless piece, but over time, especially at flea markets, I found myself drawn to boxes containing the undesirable: broken, scratched, partially destroyed images where the imperfections--rather than ruining the object--seemed to impart a greater beauty. I kept these flawed treasures in a box and called them "my orphans." Eventually he started to scan his "orphans", emphasizing their new scale and their new stress derived meaning, without altering time's hand on the object. They are really artist-less art. Fortunately, in Charles, they found a curator!

Charles is a hard man to pin down. He was a dealer with a very refined taste, a curator of collections both for his clients and those amassed solely for himself. Once something hooked him, he made sure a good deal of research was done to back it up historically and critically. This was made more difficult by the fact that Charles was dyslexic and was forced to routinely employ an elaborate system of workarounds to keep things on track. Fortunately, with Jennie Hirschfeld, he had an amanuensis who was a great researcher and writer. They were devoted to each other. Charles’ label descriptions always made for interesting reading.

Finally, there were his artistic endeavors. Could you have a fabulously functioning high-tech Camera Obscura and not use it? Certainly not, and not only did he make lyrical and imaginative pictures with it, but he lived in it. His desk, his flat files, his fireproof safe, the etched glass doors to the room showing Nadar in a gondola of a hot air balloon (no accident that), were all inside the Camera itself. This was only appropriate, as Charles was certainly a total immersion kind of guy.