Now on view is Decisive Moments: Photographs from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce, along with two smaller exhibitions, Critters: Animal Pictures from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce and Karl Struss: Pictorialist Photographer.  The Pierces, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this month, began collecting photographs together 35 years ago. Photography has been an integral part of their bond, ever since Cherye made their first purchase at A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans (her hometown) in 1978. Jim, a retired neurologist, and Cherye, a trustee of the New Orleans Museum of Art (and both are Honolulu Museum of Art trustees) gravitate towards different styles and subjects, but they always like what the other chooses. They spend three months a year in San Francisco, and regularly explore galleries and fairs across the country in search of the next image that speaks to them.

From seminal photographs by masters such as Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, and Adams, to contemporary artists like Tom Naughton and Lalla Essaydi, the Pierces’ eyes have selected a large swath of photographic art history to hang on their walls. Ten years ago, the museum held a first exhibition carved from the Pierce collection—In Celebration of Light. While a few of the 80 works in Decisive Moments are making repeat appearances, many others reveal the couple’s shift from traditional, black-and-white works to color and multimedia. The evolution has resulted in an even richer, more engaging visual journey through the gallery. The Pierces sat down to talk with the museum about their passion.

How did you get involved in collecting photography?
Jim Pierce:
Before we married I was collecting works on paper, and the market went up so much that we started looking around for something else. We discovered photography at a gallery in San Francisco. In the meantime Cherye went to New Orleans and bought our first photograph.
Cherye Pierce: I was on the board of directors of a bank outside of New Orleans. I would go to New Orleans every other month. There was a book called Collecting Photographs and one month Jim handed it to me when I was getting on the plane and said, “Go and see Josh Pailet,” who owned a photography gallery. So I did—there was an Ansel Adams show on view. I had decided I wanted Aspens (Vertical). But when I walked in the gallery and saw Moonrise over Hernandez, I knew that was the one I should have. About two weeks later, Ansel Adams’s portrait was on the cover of Time magazine, and Moonrise was one of the photographs in the article. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then I’d regularly visit Josh, who was one of the earliest photography dealers. He was the only photo dealer in New Orleans.

Did you set out to collect “name photographers”?
Jim Pierce:
To this day we have never collected for investment. We only collect things we like. We’ve never bought a photograph thinking we’re going to sell it. We focus on 20th- and 21st-century photography. Our collection is eclectic and broad. We do not collect in any one area. We have a lot of portraits, we have a lot of animals and botanicals, nudes and an interest in surrealism.
Cherye Pierce: We have bought pieces by artists who were unknown when we bought their work. But we like the work.
Jim Pierce: We also try to promote the local photography community. We probably have the largest collection of Franco Salmoiraghi photos in the world. And we occasionally buy other local artists.

Has what you look for changed over 35 years?
Jim Pierce:
After our show in 2004, we started collecting contemporary work. We think of it as “photography and beyond.” Now we’re buying photography that’s manipulated, digital, has a lot more color, and even minimal multimedia—a piece mounted on cloth by Krista Jurisich, for example. Economics has also been an issue. More traditional work has become very expensive, and you can still find emerging artists who are still very inexpensive—wonderful things.

What is an example of you feeling an immediate personal connection to a work?
Cherye Pierce:
Seeing the Katrina pieces I was compelled to buy them. [The show includes four works related to Hurricane Katrina.] One of them is a Plexiglas piece by Dawn DeDeaux, called Eight Feet of Water. It’s a 10-foot-high slender pillar of clear acrylic and mounted on it is a transparency of water that is eight feet high. The water level in our house in New Orleans rose to 10 feet, then dropped to 8 feet of standing water.
Jim Pierce: That depth of water was in Cherye’s former home, so we bought it, sort of as a memorial. There’s also the Krista Jurisich quilt, a collage of houses that were destroyed in Katrina.
Cherye Pierce: Another one is Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Bottom of the Pot—a digital print on a frying pan found after Katrina. [Cherye’s eyes well up talking about these works.]
Jim Pierce: It’s like a memorial to the tragedy in New Orleans. Not only does it show the structural destruction, but the human side as well. In Escape—A Mother’s Burden—The Child’s Joy—Near the Superdome on Poydras Street by Joshua Mann Pailet, there’s a woman you can tell is totally exhausted pushing kids around in a grocery basket, but the kids are smiling. She’s struggling to survive and help these kids. Other photographs are quite emotional—one of the saddest of the photos is Lost Dog by Keith Carter. It’s very sad. Look into his eyes. I was in [the Holt Gallery to see Critters!] the other day and a woman in there said “That dog looks really lost.” We like photographs with humor as well, I think there is a lot of the humor in Critters!

Tell me a little about how you collect.
Cherye Pierce:
It’s been a thread throughout our marriage. When we travel we go to see photography exhibits at museums and in galleries, meet different people at trade shows and collectors—it becomes an extended thing. Our collection includes photographs we’ve given each other. For instance, in Critters!—the André Kertész photograph At the Animal Market, Quai Saint-Michel, Paris, of a little boy with a puppy. I gave that to Jim for a birthday because it reminded me of him. There’s a little string attached to the puppy—does that mean it is being sold, or did the boy just buy it?
Jim Pierce: You look at his face and you can’t tell. There are all these things…I don’t like people to read too much into photography, but if you’re not sensitive to it being more than a snapshot you miss a lot.
Cherye Pierce: Jim gave me the Sleeping Swan [a graceful black and white portrait by Keith Carter]. I gave Jim a photo by Brassaï, Three Ladies of the Evening, and I told him I was the short dumpy one in the middle.
Jim Pierce: The Sleeping Swan was hung in our bedroom. It has a “design element” to it. When choosing works, we almost always agree. There are a few I call her photos and she calls mine, but you can count those on one hand.
Cherye Pierce: Franco Salmoiraghi has given us the chance to see four prints of the same photograph and almost always Jim and I will select the same one. We have a similar eye.
Jim Pierce: In the early days of our collecting, some of our photographs were pulled out of bottom drawers of galleries and had been sitting there for years.
Cherye Pierce: For example, at a gallery in Atlanta, one day I said what about so and so, and the dealer said, “Well I just rehung my house because my husband said it looked like a museum,” and she brought out two photographs from her own house. She was good friends with Mapplethorpe and had a large number of his botanicals. She asked us, “Which one do you really want?” I liked the one with the silver bracelets. So she checked with the Mapplethorpe estate to see if they had it. She found out they didn’t have any more gelatin silver prints, but they had a platinum print on linen. So when you make an effort, there are opportunities that come to you that otherwise you don’t have.

One of your most recent acquisitions is the image of a Herero woman by Tom Naughten. How did you come to acquire it?
Jim Pierce:
We were walking through AIPAD [Association of International Photography Art Dealers], a trade show in New York, which we try to go to every other year, and in this gallery we saw this photograph and it just struck us. We wandered around and went back. We were drawn to it, there was something special about it.

What is one of the things about the photography that make it exciting for you as a collector.
Jim Pierce:
There’s always a slight variation. If you give 100 people an Instamatic, there will be no two alike. A photograph says something about the photographer, not just about what they’re photographing. The photographer Joseph Mills had a schizophrenic break when he was 21, and his work recalls his hallucinations, showing ambivalence and gender identity issues. So it reveals a lot about the photographer.

Any tips for beginning collectors?
Cherye Pierce:
We didn’t start out to have a collection. We just bought photos we liked.
Jim Pierce: Younger people ought to consider photography—it’s possible to have original art that’s affordable, but not for investment, never collect for investing only.
Cherye Pierce: When I buy, I look at it and ask myself, “If the bottom fell out of the market tomorrow, would I be happy I have that photograph today?”
Jim Pierce: I tend to buy surrealism. We have one of a girl holding a dog that’s just been run over by a car, but it didn’t make it into the show. It is emotionally intense. Photography captures one moment in time that will never occur again. You cannot reproduce it. People should know that a collection is a responsibility. Maintaining, curating and cataloging is a big thing. Framing is important—there’s all these little things that people don’t think about that are cost elements in maintaining a collection.
Cherye Pierce: When we started we really didn’t know. We used metal frames without sealing the back, and that’s really bad.
Jim Pierce: It’s like a petri dish for mold.