This April Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books, an eclectic collection of vintage and found imagery and books in Portland's Alberta neighborhood, will be curating an exclusive collection of images for our New York storefront. We spoke with Ampersand's Myles Haselhorst about his contemplative approach to photographic storytelling and the ever-blurring lines between gallery and retail space.
Can you explain a bit about how Ampersand came to fruition? What was your background prior to opening in 2008? Were you always a collector?
I've always been a collector. Ever since I was young a huge part of it was the find. Finding something you've never seen before, which is one kind of rarity, or finding something that's worth money, which is another kind. I was also an obsessive reader & while studying literature in college I would hit garage sales in search of books, then trade what I found at used bookstores for the books I actually wanted to read. So, my desire to read & write books evolved alongside this activity of finding & selling them. I guess the impulse to find & sell things won. But really, in the end, it's still about stories for me. It's about being flexible, keeping my eyes open & creating a space where the things I find can tell their stories. We are surrounded by all this amazing visual material from the past--old photographs, booklets, pamphlets & brochures, antique prints, amateur art-- most of which gets ignored or tossed aside. Ampersand came about because I'm driven to find & preserve unique cultural material that is rich in narrative content.
You describe the focus of Ampersand's exhibits as examining "the colliding point between now & then, past and present..." Can you explain a bit how you developed an interest in that particular idea? Is a photograph almost literally and physically the product of that intersection?
When the opportunity to open the storefront on Alberta Street presented itself almost four years ago, I knew right away that I wanted to show art alongside the books, found photos & ephemera that had always been the staple of my business. For better or worse, it's a setup that really challenges notions of what a gallery should be. There is the risk that too many elements within one space will distract one from really being able to experience the art.
I look at it differently. I wanted a space that was more dynamic than a hushed, white-walled gallery. Nobody's house looks like this. Instead, chances are that if someone collects art, he or she also collects books & other types of cultural artifacts. So, in part, I'm trying to emulate this type of environment, the domain of a collector who has an eye for the modern & contemporary but whose curiosity also strays toward what was created in the past. This notion of a colliding point is pretty obvious but often gets ignored. In other words, art & design is not created in a vacuum; artists & designers, whether consciously or unconsciously, are always drawing from what came before them. Vintage photographs, especially when you hold the original objects in your hand, are indeed a great example of this intersection. We recognize the situations captured in old photographs as very similar to our own & yet the shape of things, the colors & the clothing are all very different. That point of recognition is a kind of entering point & beyond that the space of the photograph is open to the movements of our imagination.
Ampersand also publishes photographic work and books. Did you always envision the gallery and publishing components working hand in hand? How do you select works and artists to publish?
Publishing was not part of the original concept of the business. It came about last spring when one of the photographers we show, John Ryan Brubaker, presented a body of work to us in the format of a small book he had made called Strange Cities. With publishing it, we wanted to emulate the intimate quality of the original handmade version but outsource the printing to cut down on production time & costs. Fortunately, a close friend of mine works at a printer here in Portland & he did an amazing job. Strange Cities has since sold out & it's success inspired us to publish more books. It also ultimately became the template for all the books that have followed. The idea behind the books is limiting them to small editions that are affordable, collectable & made with the highest design & material standards. We also want to keep the production here in Portland so that the money & creative energy is circulated back into the community. To this end, all the paper comes from local distributors, printing & binding is done here in Portland & all our design is done in-house. Thus far we've made books that coincide with shows that have been in the gallery. It makes sense from a production & marketing point of view. But we also have all this amazing vintage material that we can draw from. Our first experiment with that actually coincides with the Dunderdon collaboration. We are publishing a small book of erotic photo postcards titled Women I Never Knew No. 1. As the title implies, we are planning an ongoing series of these books, all of which will contain anonymous erotic photos of women that have found their way into our collection, photos of women I never knew but of whom I now have this intimate photographic knowledge.
On your website you describe the Ampersand space as reflecting the "organized mess" of a collector's home. You'll be curating a selection of materials for our NYC storefront, what was your approach to selecting and displaying work for a very different retail space?
Yeah, I mentioned this a little before, the idea that Ampersand is meant to feel as much like the home of a collector as it is a retail store or gallery. For the Dunderdon storefront in NYC, I would say the initial approach focuses on creating a condensed version of Ampersand that fits the NYC space. In other words, your New York clientele will hopefully get a sense of the very specific way we curate, package & organize the things we sell. More than that, though, we wanted to select material that fit the essence of the Dunderdon line, especially its roots in workwear & focused design. For the walls, we have made a few blowups of photographs that date from the 1910s that feature men on bicycles & others dressed in cowboy costumes in arcade studio settings. The images look back to a time when the design of clothing very much aligned with it's intended function. With the found material & books, we have again selected material we hope will inspire people's creative side or in the least reacquaint their imaginations with a time when visual culture was very much a tangible (as opposed to digital) thing.
Aside from continuing to feature monthly exhibits, what can we expect from Ampersand in 2012 and beyond?
We have several amazing exhibits lined up this year. Readers outside of Portland can sign up for our mailing list & stay on top of the 2012 schedule. We'll also be publishing several more books this year, each of which are limited to small editions. Beyond that, we have a large garage door in the gallery that opens onto a lovely back patio that is planted with natives & features an outdoor stage. It's a perfect spot for outdoor summer readings & film screenings. So, we are in the initial phase of scheduling those events. Of course, we'll also continue hunting for old photos, ephemera & such.