Joel Soroka: All you need is love … of photography
December 18, 2008
ASPEN ” There’s a video clip of Joel Soroka in which it’s impossible to overlook the hippie in him. The year is 1968, Soroka is in a London TV studio, surrounded by a crowd of people ” four of whom happen to be Paul, George, John and Ringo. The Beatles are making a video of “Hey Jude,” and Soroka, in a brown leather jacket, is at the center of the action, shaking a tambourine, his long dark hair shaking along with it.
It’s a lot harder to see the hippie in Soroka now that he is 61, his hair significantly shorter, with two grown kids. He can already look back on a straight career, as a New York City real estate developer.
If you’re searching for the remnants of his hippie past, look at Soroka’s eponymous gallery. No, he doesn’t specialize in artifacts from the ’60s ” no rock ‘n’ roll posters or psychedelic colors. The hippie ethos lives on in how the gallery operates. Fifteen years ago, having built a nest egg off of Manhattan land, Soroka was looking for a new life, and a new line of work. It wasn’t hard to choose a new occupation: photography, which had long been a major interest. And it was just as simple to settle on a guiding philosophy: a genuine love of what he was dealing in.
“I didn’t love doing real estate. It wasn’t about love,” said Soroka. “And I’ve always said I’m too much of a hippie to do something without love, that was just about money.”
That passion is evident in what Soroka identifies as his biggest professional disappointment. He has made a reputation with dealers around the world, who, knowing of Soroka’s client list and his standing in the fine-art photography realm, will call him to be a partner in taking on emerging talent. He has forged relationships with significant artists like the Guatemalan-born, Argentina-based Luis Gonzalez Palma, who has had a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Beatrice Helg, who is represented in Europe by the Jan Krugier, one of the most significant art galleries on the planet. But he says he harbors sorrow ” “I feel isolated here,” is how he put it ” over the lack of local attention, the shortage of walk-in traffic by viewers who simply want to experience what he considers the top shelf of contemporary and vintage photography.
That passion is also felt in how Soroka treats the work he exhibits. He is eager to talk to visitors about the artists he represents, and to point out details in the art: the evolution of the masterful technique of New York-based Lynn Bianchi; the eye for design and geometry demonstrated in a 1926 piece by the Hungarian-born Andre Kertesz. And Soroka has an open-door policy for new artists: “I’m always open to looking at work,” he said.
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Soroka sees himself in the role of a collector as much as a dealer. In one sense this is very true: All of the vintage art he exhibits ” most of it black-and-white images from the period between the World Wars ” he owns outright, or in partnership with other dealers, rather than on consignment. In a looser sense, Soroka deals in art that pleases his eye, rather than that which is trendy or merely calculated to sell. And his esthetic is undeniably sophisticated: There are no bright landscapes in his gallery; instead of images of the Maroon Bells, there is the work of Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi, whose exquisite, text-heavy work addresses issues of women in Muslim societies.
“I’m a collector first. That’s the important thing,” said Soroka. “I find things I want to own, and make them available. I love talking about the work, and the thing I hate talking about is the financial part of it.
“I remain true to that. I’d rather go back to selling real estate than if I had to compromise my vision. Fortunately, it has been 15 years and I’ve been able to maintain that.”
Soroka was a collector of photography well before he was a dealer. While working in New York, the Brooklyn native developed a serious love for photographs, with a particular attraction to American Modernists like Man Ray, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, and the avant-garde photographers from Europe. Soroka didn’t rely only on his eye, but studied the history of photography and the background of the artists who interested him.
“I saw the pictures I loved and was able to acquire some,” said Soroka. “And my motivation had nothing to do with investment, just the pure love of the medium. There was no approach, just what fascinated me. But being a reader, anything that interest me, I school myself in the history. I knew who the masters were, what it took to make a photograph.”
The love of photography actually goes back before his collecting years. Soroka’s first interest was in literature, and his desire to be a writer was so intense that he gave up reading, believing that the work of other writers was a distraction in developing his own voice. Just at the time he was discovering that he might not have the skill to be a writer, a friend gave him a 35mm camera, and he transferred his passion for writing to photography. He taught himself the fundamentals of photography, took some courses at the New York Institute of Photography, and took work as an assistant to other photographers.
“I discovered that I really didn’t have the talent or the temperament to make a go of professionally,” he said. “I was pulled in a different direction. I needed to make a living.”
After making a handsome living off of New York land through the mid-’70s and ’80s, Soroka and his wife Fran decided a shake-up was in order. In 1988, with two young kids, they moved to Boulder, where they knew no one, with no idea what they would do job-wise. Joel spent five years as a stay-at-home dad, buying some photographs. For a short while he set himself up as a private dealer, taking booths at photography fairs. But he quickly realized that, to be taken seriously, he needed to get into the gallery world.
That opportunity presented itself in a most unexpected way. Back in New York, tying up some loose ends in real estate, Soroka heard a familiar voice over the radio in a taxi. It was an old family friend, pitching Air France. The friend also happened to be a photography dealer, who had mentored Soroka in his collecting. He called the friend, who assured Soroka he would introduce him to the right people. Soroka also made the decision that Boulder wasn’t the place for a photography gallery. So he found a space in Aspen which he rented for one summer, and gave himself some modest sales goals. When he hit those, he re-upped for the winter. For two years, he commuted between the gallery in Aspen and his family in Boulder before bringing his family to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1995.
Over the 15 years he has operated the Joel Soroka Gallery, there has been an upheaval in the photography world to match that in Soroka’s life. Thirty years ago the works he favored were reasonably affordable. Now, notable work from the 1920s and ’30s has become so expensive and hard-to-get that Soroka increasingly focuses on contemporary artists; he currently has a roster of 12 living artists that he represents. While the prices can be dismaying, they have been accompanied by a rise in prestige for the medium. It is no big deal now for a photographer to have a solo exhibition in a major museum; photographic prints can sell for over a million dollars.
“It’s gone from a stepchild art form to a form that’s considered as important as painting,” said Soroka. Major painting galleries that sell classic work are taking on photographers, creating photography departments.
“My gut instinct is to say it always deserved this place. Slowly, over time, it began to be perceived differently by museums, who increased their purchases significantly. Serious collectors of fine art saw photography as something not just made mechanically, but as fine art. Anyone can capture on a negative something interesting, but not necessarily make fine art.”
Soroka says that the recognition, in the ’70s, of the work of Ansel Adams “made people in America feel that photographs were something more than you can take yourself.”
Soroka needed to have his eyes opened as well. Through his years as a collector, he had no interest in color photography. Early in 1993, just before he opened his gallery, he had a booth at the annual Association of International Photography Art Dealers; it was, Soroka notes, a particularly sophisticated display. A Swiss woman, Beatrice Helg, took a great interest in the work, and impressed Soroka with the way she examined the art.
“She said she did cibachromes ” big, color format,” recalled Soroka. “Just to be polite I asked to see her chromes” ” a sample of her work. “I held it up to the light and my jaw dropped. It was a still life, like a little world she had created. It was color, but not just about pretty. It was about all the things I loved in photography ” perspective and form and texture.”
Helg became the first contemporary artist represented by Soroka; he has sold 10 of her pieces to major museums. He has since added Luis Gonzalez Parma, who hand-paints, in oil, his black-and-white portraits of the Mayan people; and Lynn Bianchi, whose work generally combines humor and nudity. (When the paper Bianchi printed on was discontinued, Soroka helped keep her career afloat by selling as much of her work as possible, including sculptural pieces, before she developed a new technique.)
Helg remains on his roster; her sculptural, geometric works currently show in the gallery. As is his custom, Soroka didn’t throw an opening for the exhibition.
“I’m not a party person,” he explains. “I’d rather just hang great work.”