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Special Issue: Art Intermediation in the United States since 1945: Concepts, Scope, Spaces Edited by Monica Manolescu and Christine Zumello

Conversing and Pondering with Robert Mann

Christine Zumello

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1In the following conversation with Christine Zumello in the spring of 2023, Robert Mann discusses his role as an important art intermediary in the US and worldwide.

2Robert Mann is a major American gallerist who specializes in photography. He has run a world-renowned gallery in New York City since 1985 ( He has, over almost forty years, exhibited the work of many renowned American photographers, iconic artists such as Ansel Adams, William Eggleston and Aaron Siskind, among others. But his work has also reached into new photographic territory with, for example, Susan Rankaitis or Julie Blackmon. He has also been instrumental in the re-discovery of the work of Elisabeth Hase.

3Christine Zumello. How did you encounter photography? How did you come across photography?
Robert Mann. I was born in the late 1950s so my formative years were in the 60s and early 70s. Both my parents were from Germany but they tried to assimilate and raise me, which they did, as an American. I grew up with picture magazines being a big presence in my young life. My parents were huge readers and subscribed to Life Magazine, Look Magazine, National Geographic and others. These magazines were very image-centric and were always in my home. There were articles but my interest was about the photographs which were a mixture of everything, people, landscapes, photojournalism and nature photography, and many of the contributing photographers were very significant photographers. I would always be flipping through those magazines to look at the pictures and I think in a subtle way that created some introduction and a basis for me to become very photocentric. That was part of what launched me perhaps.

4And also, my father was an amateur photographer, we had an attic above the house and I had stumbled upon an enlarger that my father had from when he was making pictures probably from the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was a strange-looking device but it inspired me to learn how to set it up and use this equipment and build a darkroom in the house. I learned how to develop film, how to make prints and I stuck to it for a while.

5I had no serious ambition as an artist but I loved the whole tactile quality of going out, taking a picture, and then making a print on my own. And I even went so far as to teach it briefly in summer camp. But I never became all that proficient, quite honestly, I didn’t have the patience to become somebody who could devote so much time to finesse the outcome as many great photographers do.

6That all led to some sort of innate passion that I didn’t even know I had for photography.

7I went to college. I was studying to become a scientist, a marine geologist and I went into a very intensive two-year program in the sciences and I got completely disenchanted and decided that it was not my calling at all. So, I left school, my family was supportive, but I was financially on my own. I took on several different occupations to support myself, and one of them was to be a picture framer. And I worked as picture framer for a number of months, and I learned the skills necessary but I thought I wasn’t being well compensated for my efforts by that employer so I looked around for a better paying position. I found a classified advertisement in the Washington Post -- I was living in Washington, DC at the time -- from an art gallery looking for someone to do framing and other responsibilities. They called that position a preparator (framing, hanging the shows, packing and shipping, the hands-on work of a gallery). I interviewed and got the job. It was for Harry Lunn of the Lunn gallery which was one of the great pioneering galleries (in the 1970s) for photography. They were one of the first galleries to have a full-time program for promoting contemporary and classical photography. I had no idea what I had stumbled into. It was serendipitous. I am suddenly being exposed to photographers such Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, all these amazing artists whom I knew of from looking through the magazines as I was growing up. I knew I had suddenly arrived at the mecca of photography and the rest is history.

8I stayed with Lunn and rose through the ranks and ultimately became the gallery director and then I was offered a position to come to New York and direct the LIGHT Gallery, which I did for two years. And that was an interesting, although a stressful experience. I learned a lot. And then I set off to start my own business and that was in 1985, and here I am.

9CZ: This is so interesting to see how your liking photography, even loving photography, almost naturally led you to work in a gallery and then open your own gallery.
RM: It all fell together. My exposure at the Lunn gallery was extraordinary, not only being able to see and hold these great works of art but I got to meet the artists who made them. I was literally sitting and talking with people such as Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, William Eggleston, all these amazing talents. I didn’t realize in some ways, because I was still somewhat naïve, the privileged position I was in at the time. I feel it was almost like a fantasy coming true without my being fully aware of it.

10CZ: In your position as a gallerist for Lunn and then having your own gallery, so being a curator, a gallery owner, a discoverer, for almost forty years now, we can see, if we look at your archives, that you have shown both landmarks of the history of photography such as Aaron Siskind, Leslie Gill, Gene Smith, Ellen Auerbach amongst many others, but you have also devoted shows to younger artists such as Susan Rankaitis, Wijnanda Deroo. I was wondering how you balance the two: history and discovery? Is it your own imprint?
RM. Yes, first I have to relate to the artwork... if I don’t have a passion for it, then I am doing a disservice to the artist, misrepresenting them. There has to be a connection with the art and it also helps if I can get along with the artist. And then ideally there needs to be a connection with the existing program or artists and Estates that I already work with.

11I always felt, especially once I had my own gallery, and once it had expanded and became quite large, that having a balanced program where you alternate back and forth between the classics and the contemporary was a clever agenda where artists contextualize one another; I always felt that is a very important dialogue to have, not only for my clientele and the people coming to visit the shows but also for my own benefit, and my staff because it’s nice to have that dialogue, it’s nice to have your brain engaged even if it’s not always an obvious dialogue. For example, you can make a connection between let’s say an Ansel Adams photograph taken in the 1940s of a classical and beautiful American landscape scene with a 1980s Richard Misrach landscape that depicts a harsh reality in the American landscape. They are both landscapes but one is perhaps whitewashing how the American landscape can be a glorious and uplifting visual experience while the other is very blatantly pointing out that the American landscape has been desecrated largely due to military and political intervention. I love having that kind of a dialogue and I think it’s what keeps things interesting and even if it’s a sort of subtext in the gallery that is not necessarily made evident to the people who are looking at our shows, I like that it’s there. For the people who do understand that that’s what our program is about, I feel it’s important, that it gives us more significance in the way that we are not simply throwing things on the walls with no thought.

  • 1 Robert Mann Gallery. “Hot Summer Cool Jazz.” 2013,
  • 2 Robert Mann Gallery. “The Embroidered Image.” 2014
  • 3 Robert Mann Gallery. “Birds of a Feather.” 2017,

12CZ. Since the opening of your gallery, you have organized solo shows, but you have also staged several thematic exhibitions, or group shows, such as, for example, “Hot Summer Cool Jazz” in 20131, The Embroidered in 20142, Birds of a Feather in 2017.3
RM: Group exhibitions or theme shows have become more prevalent in my program over the years probably because I have much more material to draw from. As I accumulate more inventory I recognize more connections between the art and artists which often inspires these group exhibitions. These group or thematic shows are wonderful ways to introduce new artists or show artists who are less prolific in a different context other than a solo exhibition. It offers an opportunity to present work in dialogue with others. The shows can be fun and lighthearted or they can be serious and deep investigations into specific topics.

13CZ. Let me pick up on that, you point out that some artists are more or less productive. Do you ask for particular works? Do you happen to commission works?
RM. No, I’ve always felt it’s very awkward to push a photographer, to push any artist, to make work, I don’t think that goes well, I think the work will reflect that, will look forced. The work has to come organically from the artist and I just basically wait to see what my artists do. And there have been times when bodies of work are presented that I don’t feel work for me and I choose not to exhibit them, and sometimes that doesn’t go over well with the artist.

14But you have to be a curator besides being a gallery owner. I wear many hats. You have to be careful with the way you want to present your artist and your operation. There are some artists who are very prolific, they create so much material that you can’t possibly show it all, so you have to also act as an editor there. And there are artists who produce so little material and it’s frustrating that only once every so often I get an opportunity to show them and celebrate their accomplishments. But that’s just the way they work.

15CZ. Do you visit the studio of the artists you show? Do you go out and visit their place?
RM. It depends. The world has changed so much and my operations have changed in the last three years. I used to do more studio visits but that was when I was looking at a work for the first time. Unlike painting and sculpture, photography lends itself to coming to you. You don’t always have to go to it and artists would typically bring their portfolios to the gallery. Now everything comes through the computer.

16CZ. It's interesting that you often use the term “my” artist. You, indeed, seem to have weaved a strong connection with several artists, can you tell us more about the nature of that bond? I can see that, for example, you have devoted several shows to Michael Kenna.
RM. Yes, Michael is a dear friend and I feel proprietary towards him and all my artists even when artists, like Michael, I have to share with dozens of other galleries around the world. But that’s what photography lends itself to, unlike other mediums.
We’ve been exhibiting Michael for 30 years or so and have had many shows of his work and I’m very well aware of how much exposure he gets internationally. It doesn’t detract from the relationship that he and I have both professionally and personally because I have my own audience for his work. And all my artists, whether we represent them exclusively or in partnership with other galleries, feel like family.

17CZ. During the Fall of 2022, he donated his entire body of work to France, that was announced by the French Minister of Culture during Paris Photo 2022.
RM. Yes, Michael was bestowed with the great honor of the Officier des Arts et Lettres in October 2022, and there was a ceremony commemorating this at
Paris Photo 2022. I attended the ceremony, it was spectacular. It was a very generous gesture of Michael and it’s going to just the right place because he is in the company of other great photographers. The French really cherish these gifts and do well by them. They appreciate and take good care of these collections which is something that artists should be concerned about, their legacy.

18CZ. I was also wondering if you think that there is a particular style of photography that you show? When one peruses the impressive list of your exhibitions, I think that you tend to show a lot of black & white photography, and there seems to also be a trend towards abstraction? Even some of the work of figurative photographers such as Aaron Siskind, Michael Kenna, Jeff Brouws or Chip Hooper which you have shown many times has an abstract undertone.
RM. Most classical or early 20th
century photography is black and white, it’s just the nature of the medium, color didn’t become such a strong component in photography until the 1960s and later. The contemporary artists that I represent such as Cig Harvey or Julie Blackmon, they all work in color. The black and white contemporary artists I represent such as Michael Kenna and Chip Hooper, I was drawn to their work not because it was black and white per se but because it was beautifully done and to this day (although Hooper has passed away) they’re the last artists that I have whose work is still analog or chemical wet prints. They haven’t gone fully digital and in black and white that’s been somewhat important for me because technically digital technology in printing hasn’t been able to perfectly replicate black & white print tonality, at least in my opinion. In color it’s seamlessly identical. But you know I’ve always been drawn to just what I like. I don’t have the most mixed program but I have some variety and certainly abstraction is well represented in my holdings by Aaron Siskind, whom I’ve represented for many years when he was alive and I continued to represent his estate thereafter. He was a dear friend, a wonderful, funny brilliant guy who I enjoyed tremendously. There’s never been any one like him in photography, he was the quintessential abstract expressionist who worked in photography alongside his colleagues Barnett Newman, Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning who were working in painting and drawing. He was the one artist who chose to express his talents in abstraction through photography and I love having that representation in my program. And there’s a wonderful connection, as you mentioned, between him and Susan Rankaitis who has taken abstraction in photography to extraordinary lengths. She’s a brilliant artist. I don’t even consider her a photographer per se, she’s almost like a mad scientist, an alchemist. For many years she’s worked in a dark room that’s much more like a laboratory. She’s used various chemicals to chemically manipulate photographic paper, to create all sorts of extraordinary colors. They are not necessarily the colors of a color photograph, they are the tones and hues created by causing the silver in the paper to chemically change, it can look like it’s rusting or oxidizing. And then Susan exposes her paper to negatives, x-rays, and a multitude of various techniques she has experimented with and perfected over many years. It’s so complicated, but on the surface, it’s a beautiful contemporary abstract painting. I love how this work pairs with the abstractions of Aaron Siskind but of course the two have extremely different approaches in creating their work and both are dealing with very different underlying subtexts.

19CZ. I also would like you to tell us more about Michiko Kon who works with a technique of assemblage, constructing her subject with a variety of materials. I was looking at her “Zebra with Japanese Socks” (2010), it’s incredible. It’s a sculpted, assembled photography, a three-D object in a two-D photography. You have shown her work a few times.
RM. Yes, I’ve shown Michiko a few times. There’s something akin to surrealist artists like Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray in Michiko’s work. She’s this shy, retiring woman who goes to the food market to source her fish and her meat and they must think that she’s some gourmet chef and that she’s about to prepare some extraordinary meal. If the shop owners had any idea about the fantastic sculptures she’s creating with these foods it would probably blow their mind.

20CZ. That’s intermediation, right on, the artist as the intermediator: it’s a zebra, but totally, obviously, something else.
RM. Yes, that would probably describe the surrealist movement of the 1930’s which she seems to have been influenced by. Her sculptures are commentaries on consumer culture in modern Japan as well on the expected role of women in Japanese society.

21CZ. In many, if not all, of the artists that you show, there are several layers not just as seen in the final photography but also in the preparatory work that goes on before they take the picture: building, constructing a scene, a very manual, crafted, constructed aspect. Susan Rankaitis and Michiko Kon, of course, but even Michael Kenna. If one looks at his “Venice” series—I happen to know Venice very very well—but in some of his pictures he manages to sculpt the scene although there’s no intervention.
RM. Yes, what you’re saying is interesting, because even the artists that don’t have the hands-on approach behind the camera so to speak, they may not be creating a physical piece to photograph like Kon or manipulating the photographic print like Rankaitis. But artists such as Michael Kenna do something in the natural landscape that is akin to manipulation in the sense that he has a special connection to the environment he’s working in. He has a sixth sense with the atmospheric properties. And it’s not simply going out at dusk or dawn and taking pictures when it’s quiet and no one else is out. It's something about the split moment of quality of air and light and how they react to the specific objects he’s isolating in the landscape and the way all that comes together in one moment that he's capturing. So, in a sense and in this case, Michael is sculpting the scene outside the camera using the elements of nature that he is so in tune with.

  • 4 Robert Mann Gallery. “Elisabeth Hase. An Independent Vision.” 2016,

22CZ. You played a significant role in the discovery of the work of Elisabeth Hase. Could you tell us how you brought her work to light4?
RM. You know, every art dealer hopes to discover something extraordinary, whether it’s discovering that collection of Man Ray’s that no one knew existed, or a new artist that is doing fabulous work, or an artist that has, unfortunately, gone unnoticed, has passed away but left a body of work that deserves recognition. Hase is an example of such an artist that came to me. It’s a curious story. I was working many years ago with Ellen Auerbach of
ringl+pit, a German women duo, two of the most avant-garde photographers, but they were more than photographers, they were designers too. I had worked with Ellen while she was alive and I continue to represent her estate. She was a wonderful woman, we connected because of my German roots, my father came from Mainz, she came from Karlsruhe which is close. But we connected on many levels, philosophical, political views, and she was sharp and funny, a great sense of humor which I loved! And even up to her nineties when she passed away, she was so witty and such an energetic woman. And because I had represented her, out of the blue, the daughter of Elisabeth Hase reached out to me and said, I’ve heard about you, I know of your gallery, I understand you represent Auerbach, I think my mother Elisabeth Hase might be of interest to you. This was a correspondence that I received, about 15 years ago, and this woman sent a letter with photocopies of pictures and she asked if I would be interested in this work. And the images were phenomenal, and I had never heard of Hase.

23I did a little research and no one had really known of her. I think she had a few pictures once or twice exhibited at the Folkwang Museum, there were a couple of pictures in the Gropius collection in Berlin because Gropius had been aware of her work and somehow a couple of her works ended up in his holdings. But there was hardly any record of her anywhere. Then ten years went by and I got another message from Hase’s daughter saying, I’m now ready to show you the work. I had completely forgotten about the previous correspondence. I guess the reason was that it took ten years for this woman to organize her mother’s collection. In a typical German way, she wanted me to see the work when it was well organized. I travelled to Germany and was able to view the actual collection which was even more extraordinary in person and much more in-depth than I could have imagined. I would describe it as a psychological photographic profile of Germany spanning nearly 50 years. And then we were able to acquire the collection and bring it the United States. Now I’m happy to say that great examples of her work are in so many major museum collections, like the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA and her work has been exhibited extensively. It’s been published, so that was a wonderful connection that came about because I already was known for having represented Ellen Auerbach.

24CZ. How would you describe your links with museums? You’ve shown Robert Frank, Ansel Adams whom we can now admire in many museums around the world. Do you have a working relationship with museums? How do you exchange on photography?
RM. I am fortunate to have had wonderful relationships with museums and their photography curators. Many of the curators I consider friends and I’ve known some of them for forty years. Over the years I’ve worked closely with some museums and their curators to organize exhibitions or to provide information when I have it. Most of the curators I have worked with over the years are happy to share their knowledge and they are equally curious when a dealer is able to provide some new information into the conversation.

25CZ. Photography, as a medium, can be very versatile. It is a both a visual archive, a memory, a work of art, it’s transformative. Maybe we could even say that it encompasses more dimensions than a painting, to a certain extent, but it can be replicated. And you store several piles of boxes in your office in your gallery. The materiality of the pictures, the number of prints circulating, how does that affect your selling practice?
RM. Photography lends itself to multiples which other art mediums, with the exception of lithographs and prints, don’t. Some may think of that as a disadvantage because you can have many copies that devalues them, versus a painting where there’s only one. But I see it as a benefit to propagate, to spread the good word, the good image. There’s only one painting, so when that painting goes to a museum or a private collection, that’s it. Who’s going to see it except for the people lucky enough to know the owner of the painting, or the people lucky enough to go to the museum that shows it.

26But an original photograph, by, say, Ansel Adams or Aaron Siskind, or Richard Misrach, there’re many copies. Usually, there’s some restraint, a limited amount, but there’re multiples, so they can be disseminated around the world. And I think that’s an important experience that photography can give that other arts can’t. A photograph can convey ideas, feelings, information as any work of art can and it can go anywhere. So a Michael Kenna photograph taken in Venice can be shown in Tokyo, in New York, in Brazil and that’s something that photography can do. So, when someone challenges me, or one of my colleagues, saying, well, photography, you can make many copies of it, why is there any value to that? My response is, yes, you can make copies, but that’s a benefit, not a deficit, it’s something that allows the artist’s expression to transcend and be received globally.

27CZ. You also go to Art Fairs, Photo shows, do you think reactions are very different, depending on where you are in the world, to the pictures? If you show Robert Frank or Susan Rankaitis in Paris, or in London or somewhere else in the US, do you feel you get similar reactions? As a gallerist, you are also witness to what happens with viewers and visitors.
RM. That’s not an easy question because I feel that we’re in the midst of a shift right now, the whole world is upside down, and the art world is not immune to that. The way people look at and respond to pictures is different. It’s changed, mostly because of the internet. I think people’s attention span has changed a lot due to that and because of the way we are glued to our electronic devices but art fairs remain an interesting arena. For us, we do participate in at least two art fairs a year, sometimes more.
Paris Photo, I feel is one of the best photography fairs in the world in terms of the mix of participation, the mix of work that comes in, and it’s well vetted with regard to the influx of participants. Each year the fair is attended by collectors and curators from all over the world. It’s an opportunity to connect to a larger audience, perhaps a newer audience, to showcase a cross sampling perhaps of who we represent, whether it’s the classical or contemporary work. It’s difficult, in a small lot, to show a sample of your program but sometimes you feel that if you want to engage with new people, you need to spread out your inventory, so you have a little of everything so you see who is going to respond to what and sometimes we do a more specific installation. We have an exhibition coming up next month at the AIPAD Photo show in New York, which is an art fair we have participated in since the beginning. This year we’re choosing to do a solo exhibition, a one artist show, for Cig Harvey. She has a new body of work and she has a tremendous following.

28We can never anticipate how we are going to do at an art fair. There are many variables beyond what we choose to exhibit that can influence the outcome. That is the risk of putting yourself out there in such a venue for a limited time and for a limited amount of exposure.

29But, in general, these art fairs are a great opportunity for us to connect to a broader audience, a part of the population that we might not otherwise have access to. It is also an opportunity to connect with colleagues and other galleries and to get energized and see what is going on in our industry.

30CZ. Since the pandemic, many galleries have developed online shows and programs, but we have also realized how important in person visits are! How do you balance the two: online and “in person”?
RM. A lot more of our business has moved online. Seasoned collectors who are used to buying and are familiar with what the pictures look like are fairly comfortable buying online. Collectors who buy contemporary work which translates more easily to the screen, they are also comfortable buying online. It’s the higher end objects, the more expensive pictures, the pictures that cost tens of thousands of dollars and where every little nuance of the print could be important, the physical condition, the tonality, the way that the picture feels when you look at it in person, in those instances, I think the collectors, the museum curators want to see the work in person. There’s no substitute. An early or vintage Ansel Adams print for example which could be priced above $50,000 would have subtle nuances in the print that a collector would want to experience first-hand. Especially when there are very slight gradations in the print tonality, that is a visual experience nearly impossible to fully experience from a digital file. The screen can be a deadening experience, it can flatten out depth and render a sumptuous early print into what looks like a textbook reproduction. In such cases there is no substitute for viewing the original object in person.

31CZ. Do you keep track of the provenance, and destination of prints?
RM. The provenance is extremely important. We keep extremely careful records of every single picture that’s ever passed through the gallery. It’s easier with computer-based inventory programs. We keep these records because you never know, you may want to buy that picture back or a museum may want to borrow it for a show, or a client may lose the paperwork and need to have it recreated. So we do keep careful track of where our pictures go.

32CZ. In terms of business, are there cycles in photography? Can you think of “fashionable” moments, and then a lull?
RM. Yes, there are waves, but I cannot anticipate them. I’m never sure what’s affecting the market. Some seasons are typically better than others and I can sometimes try to equate with what’s going on in the world around us. There’s been a tremendous amount of noise and distraction lately and that can be disruptive for business, but sometimes it can also be a good thing. Sometimes people just want to shut out the noise and enjoy quiet time with art. Art can give them an escape.

33Museum shows which can generate interest and excitement can certainly help foster interest in a particular artist or type of photography.

34CZ. You run a photography gallery, and there are not that many. There certainly are a great number of art galleries in New York but far fewer photo galleries. Although the medium seems to be more accessible, what are the reasons, according to you, that there are fewer photo galleries?
RM. There’re fewer galleries now. Some of this may be based on economics, the cost of running a public space. Some galleries have moved their programs entirely online. It is also the case that more contemporary art galleries are including photography in their programs although it does not seem to be the reverse where photography galleries are branching out into other art disciplines. Part of that may be due to the fact that people like me think that there’s enough, and even more than enough to explore in just photography. But I never consciously set out to be just a photography gallery it’s just there was an abundance of great work. I have dabbled in other areas over the years and recently I’ve become involved in art that explores the intersection of embroidery and photography. We’ve held three exhibitions that were focused on the combination of these two techniques in the arts. And I have to confess that the inspiration came from my wife who is a very well-known embroidery artist (Orly Cogan). She trained as painter but over 20 years ago she started doing figurative embroidery. Orly is an internationally recognized feminist artist who has exhibited her embroideries throughout the world and she is widely published. Through my exposure to these exhibitions and publications I’ve been introduced to other artists who work in embroidery and where some included photography as a component of their work. I found this work quite compelling and inspirational, hence the idea of curating exhibitions of embroidered photographs and sourcing work from artists everywhere that combine the two mediums. So I ventured a little outside of my comfort zone into a different medium or a hybrid of photography. It was an opportunity to introduce something different into the gallery program and it’s something that I will continue to explore.

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1 Robert Mann Gallery. “Hot Summer Cool Jazz.” 2013,

2 Robert Mann Gallery. “The Embroidered Image.” 2014

3 Robert Mann Gallery. “Birds of a Feather.” 2017,

4 Robert Mann Gallery. “Elisabeth Hase. An Independent Vision.” 2016,

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Electronic reference

Christine Zumello, Conversing and Pondering with Robert MannEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 30 July 2023, connection on 14 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Christine Zumello

Christine Zumello is a Professor of American studies and business history at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. Her research and publications focus on the interactions between politics, finance and the arts. She has conducted extensive explorations in both public and private archives and she tries to tap the formidable creativity of archival documents and spaces.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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