I began working for Howard Stein in the early 90s when he was Chairman and CEO of Dreyfus. The headquarters were on the top floors of the Met Life Building in New York. Howard wanted offices and public spaces to display photographs of the city. MoMA’s Peter Galassi and Susan Kismaric recommended me for the job, and I was quickly thrown into the photographic quest. I brought in work I thought appropriate, and we began buying. I discovered Howard’s appetite and his curiosity. In addition to acquiring photographs, we commissioned a few works for open areas. Michael Spano created an extensive frieze-like series of black and white images for the walls of the trading area. It was a powerful exhibit of faces, objects, and situations that reflected the actual goings-on beneath it. I would often meet Howard on a Sunday afternoon and go through the unoccupied offices, talking about the photographs and the new installations. He seemed to enjoy those strolls, talking about photographs.
His interest in photography only grew after he sold Dreyfus to Mellon Bank. I continued to work for him, but privately now, soon discovering the benefits of being the point person for a collector avid to learn, with the means to buy. Howard wanted to meet the most creative photographers, so I took him to their studios and galleries. I had no problem knowing which photographers he should visit, given my years working on magazines, books, and international freelance projects. Purchasing became a personal experience for him. He challenged me to find new work and people for him to know. He liked the adventure of going to unexpected places to meet photographers—a Soho basement, a Tribeca studio behind a beauty salon, or up four steep flights of stairs in an old Lower East Side building—just to get to the source of the pictures. This elegant, reserved, and rather shy man endeared himself to many photographers.
Not surprisingly, he became fixated at various times on certain subjects and pursued them like a sleuth. The first was a surprise to me. It was Hope! Dealing with “hope” had to include the obvious—love, family, food, religion, etc. The difficulty was to find images of the subject without the sentimentality so often associated with them. Lee Marks, who was working for Howard also, and I joined forces. The group began with photographs taken after Robert Frank’s watershed work of the 1950s and continued into the 21st century. The one hundred and seven photographs of Hope we ultimately assembled were exhibited in ten museums and in a book published in 1999 by Thames & Hudson called Hope Photographs. Meanwhile, Lee and I continued to work together on the overall collection.
There were other projects of equal scope to Hope.
There was Howard’s fascination with molecular biology. He wanted art that reflected this new genetic research. Work was commissioned, such as Gary Schneider’s genetic self-portrait. I traveled to England to select and buy pieces by Helen Chadwick. Howard encouraged photographers who were interested in the subject and paired them, when possible, with doctors or their research labs, aiming for an exchange of art and science. A number of exhibitions reflected this effort.
As China emerged into the global arena and we began to see photographs coming from there and throughout Asia, Howard wanted to collect that work. As always when he hit on new discoveries, he pursued Asian subjects relentlessly, finding experts in museums and knowledgeable people on the ground in those locations. He recognized institutions where research was being done that aided his own concerns and supported exhibitions that contained some of the work he had collected.
Howard became a major supporter of contemporary photographers, funding individual and group projects. He aided financially in the creation of the post 9/11 photographic event called “Here is New York,” of which I was a co-founder. That storefront exhibit in Soho, about a mile from the World Trade Center, consisted of photographs taken by everyday citizens as well as professionals. It was heralded as an historic use of photography to express a nation’s anguish and its attempt to deal with the wounds of the tragedy.
In later years, books became a major focus. For me, they had always been an important part of the photographic experience, so it was natural to be involved in their creation. We supported innumerable book projects by established as well as unknown photographers. His collection expanded once again.
Despite his multiplicity of interests and openness to the new, Howard never neglected the finest images, historically and aesthetically. He was always in pursuit of the great photograph, whether it was from the 19th, 20th, or 21st century. It is more difficult to appraise the new and untried, but through a study of tradition, knowledgeable comparisons, and familiarity with the artists and their work, one can make a reasonable estimate of future value. Howard liked betting on the future. He had a discerning eye, despite the vastness of his collection. He spent many hours with the collection, making groupings from copy prints that mixed old with new, iconic with unfamiliar images, and placing the groups of five or six images in a large scroll-like book under words or titles that he found meaningful. He was often found mulling over the book, ready to discuss the images and their placement. Many a lively discussion came from these sessions.
He liked for people to come to the apartment, inviting them for a “bowl of soup” to talk about their ideas. There was never a dull moment, and there was never a lack of demands. Energized by that curious mind, everyone who knew him felt stimulated and demanded of themselves, as he did of them, their best efforts.
It was an honor.
Alice Rose George
New York, New York