Photography connoisseurs show off images that speak to them

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The exhibit “Pittsburgh Collects,” on display at Silver Eye Center for Photography, contains 75 photographs contributed by three Pittsburgh photography collectors — Evan Mirapaul, Graham Shearing and an anonymous source — that showcase powerful images along with the true passion of their respective collectors.

For example, Mirapaul, founding director of the Pittsburgh Photo Fair, has been collecting photography for more than 20 years, with a special focus on work that explores the process of photography and the limits of the medium.

“My collecting process is based on learning as much as I can both about an individual artist and about the field as a whole,” Mirapaul says. “In the past, I collected individual pieces that were satisfying for me. Now, I tend to look at the entire career of an artist with the aim of purchasing multiple works. If that artist only has one work or series that appeals to me, I probably won't buy for myself.”

One of those artists is Gabor Kerekes, a Hungarian experimental photographer who creates largely abstract works that reference the work of European avant-garde artists of the early 20th century.

“I began to buy from him directly from the first time I met him,” Mirapaul says. “He is intriguing to me on a number of levels: he's important in the history of art in his country, his work is visually compelling and engaging, and, intellectually, his work can follow many philosophical paths.”

Mirapaul chose to present works from two series by Kerekes and various images from earlier work. One series, called “Electrocity,” is exhibited in its entirety. Another uses photograms (images made without a camera) of circuit boards, which is taken from a number of related series, that are all, at their source, screen captures of Google Earth images.

Thus, Mirapaul says of the latter works, “While they appear to be abstract, they are, in fact, hyper-representational. The tension between the seemingly abstract and literal representation is one of the many reasons I find them satisfying to know.”

As for the works Shearing shows, it's a bit more of an eclectic mix. An art critic, interior decorator and independent curator, he says he came late to collecting photography, but “probably the Silver Eye auctions in the early days started me off here in Pittsburgh.”

“I continue to buy from those now more competitive sales, but I usually contribute the odd work to add to the mix,” he says.

And works like “Waterfall Spirits” (2008) by Lawrenceville photographer William D. Wade prove that Shearing has no problem adding local, in addition to national and international talents, to his collection. In fact, a number of the images in the “Pittsburgh Collects” show are works done by Shearing's friends and acquaintances, such as Rosie Purcel, Lorraine Vullo and the late Aaronel deRoy Gruber and Mark Fiennes.

“I collect promiscuously, on the basis of hunches, opportunism, friends, greediness and, sometimes, sympathy,” he says. “Of the accumulated material, I try to make a coherent case for a systematic plan. I don't ‘invest' in anything and hope the undertaker's check will bounce.”

Interestingly, although obviously not in the show, Shearing says he also collects digital images in an online vault at

“I can play on a variety of screens and sometimes print a single digital image,” he says. “They tell me this may be an investment in the long view, but the outlay is small and the immediate pleasure, substantial.

“This is not a ‘grown-up' method of collecting, but I am not answerable to a board of trustees, a boss or public opinion,” he says. “I never stop learning from this merry jaunt.”

As for the works on display that are owned by the anonymous collector, several are by Abelardo Morell, a Cuban-born photographer based in Boston who creates mysterious, allegorical images through traditional means. The work “Camera Obscura Image of Houses Across the Street in Our Living Room” (1991) was created by blocking the light from his living room window just enough to get the desired reflective effect and create the photograph.

Mirapaul and Shearing say that, above all, they look for quality when making their choices as to what to acquire and collect.

“It's important to me that the work functions on multiple levels: intellectual, visual, personal, etc.,” Mirapaul says. “If the work doesn't ask questions of me in various ways, I'm almost certain to get bored with it over time.”

While Shearing says, “As a collector, I stand by my eye, not that of professional advisors or pundits. I will arm-wrestle to defend my choices.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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