When Ellen Shapiro began collecting photography in the 1970s, she admits she was eager but green. Today, her works fill three homes on both sides of the Atlantic.
Photography is the art form that captivated eager collectors Ellen Shapiro and her late husband, Daniel. Their collecting journey started in Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s with lithographs but did not yield the enjoyment they had hoped for. Ellen had long been enthusiastic about black and white modernist photography and attended auctions at Phillips and Sotheby’s; she bought occasionally. “We decided that we would go in the direction of modern photography,” she says. “We had wonderful assistance from gallerists Howard Greenberg and Edwynn Houk and a few other dealers as well.”
Between the early and middle 1990s, the Shapiros’ focus included European artists like Hungarian André Kertész and Germans August Sander and Dorothea Lange. “I loved every part of it,” recalls Ellen, who still treasures those images, which are part of the collection in her Manhattan apartment. She admits they were not well educated in this art form and, having a limited budget, they eventually understood that there was a huge difference between vintage works and later printed works. By the mid 1990s, they became excited by the appearance of the large, digital printed works by artists like Vik Muniz coming onto the market, as well as German artists from the Düsseldorf School of Photography. “For less than $10,000, you could buy a big print that was colorful and in a limited edition of five or seven by wonderful artists,” says Ellen of their discovery. “I became very excited by contemporary work. A Cindy Sherman, Woman Reading Book (1984), was our first acquisition of contemporary photography.”
As the New York collection and art experience grew, Ellen got involved with the Museum of Modern Art’s Photography Council, where she served for many years.
The Shapiros moved to London in 2002 for Dan’s professional work and established a home there. They did not expect to stay long and only brought their clothes and one of the works that Ellen could not live without—Action Painter (1998) by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who used chocolate sauce to create the Jackson Pollock drip effect. The rest of the walls of their rented apartment were bare, prompting Ellen and Dan to explore Art Basel in Switzerland, Paris Photo, and the handful of galleries that were showing contemporary photography at that time.
They acquired works that now cover the walls in their two-story London home—including those by Annie Leibovitz, Irish artist Richard Mosse, German artists Candida Höfer and Elger Esser, and Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky, among many others. “We had a wonderful time hanging the art, talking about the art, visiting the galleries, and getting to know the artists when we could,” Ellen reminisces. “We became active with museums in London, and I was on the Tate’s Photography Acquisition Committee for four years and was chairperson of The National Portrait Gallery Photography Committee for two years. We also contributed support to The Photographers’ Gallery for their move to their present location.” Ellen is also a founding advisor to Photo London, a world-class photography fair that takes place at Somerset House in May, where she hosts events and leads an annual collectors’ trip. This year they visited Milan and Turin.
The Shapiros’ London collection is so impressive, many important people come to see it. Photo London brings by its VIPs, and Darius Himes (international head of photography at Christie’s) brings his special guests. Curators, as well as students from the Master’s program at Sotheby’s, have viewed the collection too. “It’s always wonderful to have knowledgeable people visit,” Ellen says.
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
Two years ago, after Daniel passed away, Ellen made a home in Palm Beach at The Biltmore, where she spends winter months. “I very much enjoy Palm Beach, and I love the Photography Committee at the Norton Museum, which I joined last year,” she says. “I have become good friends with Tim Wride, the curator of photography, who brought a group to my London home during Photo London. Earlier this year, he asked me to host the first committee meeting of the year at my home in Palm Beach so they could see what I have here. It’s a smaller collection compared to the London home, but I am adding to it.”
The Norton Museum’s installation team provided a professional hang for Ellen’s Palm Beach collection. When works are installed, Ellen strongly believes that they must relate to one another and speak to the other works around them. “When you walk into my apartment, you are immediately involved in two outdoor scenes,” she says. “One is a very important picture by Edward Burtynsky, Oil Spill #7 (2010), which captures the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; on the other side is Les Mécaniques (2016), photographed in the jungle by French artist Noémie Goudal, whose work is very conceptual and in some ways abstract. Both photographs greet you in the foyer, and when you look ahead, you see a large Richard Mosse, Girl from the North Country (2015), next to a large Michael Wolf, Transparent City # 88 (Chicago, 2007). There are no people in these two works; they reflect imagery of the environment. One is shot in the Congo, captured with infrared film so that everything green appears pink; the other is a cityscape.”
Dutch artist Reinier Gerritsen, Cuban-born Deborah Mesa-Pelly, Zanele Muholi from South Africa, Israeli Michal Rovner, and London-based Italian Lorenzo Vitturi are among the many international artists whose works represent some of the photographic themes that can be seen throughout Ellen’s Palm Beach home.
What attracts Ellen to an image is usually a visceral feeling. She must love it—but that is not sufficient. What really interests her is what makes the artist unique. It may be the process or it may just as importantly be the message. “I have no problem with anything that is created artificially, whether it is created by computer or by a sophisticated Photoshop program,” explains Ellen. “Artists have always manipulated their work, in the darkroom with light or chemicals. Today, artists do it digitally—even using old analog equipment, they can scan an image and then manipulate it. What is challenging and interesting about the art today is that it means much more than simply the image; it’s about the artist’s intent and how he got there.” She has shied away from photojournalism, fashion, and celebrity photography because, she says, those genres lack some of the conceptual background that interests her.
These days, Ellen travels to established fairs in Europe, as well as Art Basel Miami Beach and the satellite fairs, to look for art. “There are so many wonderful sources today to see works,” she says. “The art world has changed, and the fairs have everything. People don’t go to see the galleries as much as they used, and the hope is that they bring the best of what they have to the fairs.”
Ellen finds it hard to name a favorite among her collections. There are many artists on her list, and they represent a range of genres and techniques that excite her. “I love my big Richard Mosse photograph in Palm Beach,” she says, referring to Girl from the North Country. “It comes with a heavy message about war, because it was shot in war-torn Congo. He mostly photographs in that environment. And there is another one of Mosse’s I love from his Heat Maps series, Still from Incoming #110 (1916), shot in Afghanistan.”
“I would also include Vik Muniz’s chocolate drip picture in London
and another Muniz that’s in New York—Noon Rush Hour on Fifth Avenue
(2009). That was my husband’s favorite,” she continues. “Candida Höfer,
whom I had the privilege to meet last year, would certainly be in the
mix. Ed Burtynsky, whose passion is the environment, saving us and
saving itÉ I find his work very interesting. Diane Arbus was formative in
changing the direction of this medium, so she will always be on my list
Irving Penn—I love his work, his portrait work and his still life work. He’s
fabulous. I would have to include Ori Gersht. I could go on and on.”