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With more than 1,000 photos already in their possession, Jim and Cherye Pierce continue to be on the lookout for their next additions.

These days, anyone with a camera and a flickr account is likely to call himself or herself a photographer, but check out the Decisive Moments: Photographs from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and it’s obvious that these self-proclaimed photographers fall far short of the masters.

“100,000 photos a day are uploaded to Flickr,” says Jim. “What that means to me is that photography is a very democratic medium. Anyone can do it, and many people are doing amazing documentary work, photographing their friends and family, but there’s a world of di~ erence between a hobbyist and an art photographer.”

The local couple has spent more than 40 years assembling their collection of 20th-century and contemporary photographs, honing their own discerning eyes as well.

The museum exhibition features 80 images examining the idea of the decisive moment as it has evolved in photographic practice from the early 20th century to the present-from Cartier-Bresson’s “Behind the Gare St. Lazare,” capturing the silhouette of a man poised over an undisturbed puddle of water, to Sandy Skoglund’s “Fresh Hybrid” incorporating found materials and real and fake models in a fantasy forest, to black-and-whites by local photographer Franco Salmoiraghi.

“A lot of what you collect starts with where you are,” says Cherye, who was on the board of directors of a bank in New Orleans, and spent nearly 20 years shuttling between her Louisiana hometown and Honolulu.

In New Orleans, she found her way to Joshua Mann Pailet’s A Gallery for Fine Photography, which exhibits and sells original photographs by master photographers from 1839 to the present.

The very first photo she purchased was Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise over Hernandez,” and she knew she had made the right choice when, two weeks later, Adams was on the cover of Time magazine, and “Moonrise” was one of the featured photographs.

A photographer himself, Pailet proved to be passionate about his subject, and eager to educate potential buyers, without ever pushing sales.

“I wish he had pushed harder,” says Jim, who had been collecting lithographs and other works on paper before the couple married and discovered a shared love of photography.

“[Pailet] would host a Diane Arbus photo exhibition and would have 25 photographs to choose from,” Cherye says.

“I wish I had 10 Diane Arbuss’ instead of one,” Jim says. “~ ey were less than $5,000 in 1978 when we started collecting.”

Before photography became a popular collectible, they could buy prints by well-known photographers for $1,000 or $2,000. Today, the pieces they want put them in competition with museums, and typically sell for $50,000, although Jim notes, “We’re very selective now.”

In the beginning, they pursued 19th-century work, but soon found it didn’t suit their interest.

“Nineteenth-century photography is more documentary work, photo journalism. It’s not very aesthetically interesting,” says Jim, who is captivated by the power of photos to provoke a response from viewers.

“Photography evokes memories, experiences and captures reality like no other art medium,” he says. “~ at can be very disturbing, grotesque and frightening. You can have a nude oil painting, and no one takes o° ense, but plenty of people are uncomfortable when confronted with a photo, because of the realism.”

The couple once had the opportunity to purchase some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s shocking homoerotic work, but passed.

“It’s worth a lot of money now, but we’d never show it and we’d never hang it in our home. We could have bought it as an investment and sold it to buy something else, but that’s not the way we collect,” Jim says.

Of their diverse collection, ranging from still lifes, to portraits, to landscapes to digital wonderscapes, Cherye says, “Most of our photographs have a beauty to them.”

They also want to feel a personal connection to the work, which might provoke a response ranging from laughter, as with Michael Garlington’s “Fada,” a portrait of a man whose face is hidden by multiple noses, to joy and surprise when witnessing Maggie Taylor’s digitally manipulated prints that mix fairy tale backdrops and real faces in painterly dreamscapes.

The Pierces say that rather than devaluing photography with the ability to make multiple copies of prints, use of new technologies pushes artists to be more creative.

Because of the potential for fraud, provenance of photo prints is important, and collectors should deal only with reputable galleries and artists who are honest in the numbering their prints.

The downside of collecting photos in Hawai’i is that the climate puts these treasures at high-risk for moisture and UV damage, and fading, but they’ve educated themselves on the types of paper and pigments used, and are careful in choosing the environment in which the works are hung, rotating images in and out accordingly.

And, their interest has never waned. “Sometimes we’ll go to a show like Artists of Hawai’i and see a painting we like, but we just have to rein ourselves in and say, ‘Remember, we collect photographs.'”


Decisive Moments: Photographs from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce is on view at Honolulu Museum of Art, through June 8.

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