A challenging treasure: the James Dee archives
In early June, the New York Times published an article about a massive (and massively intriguing) photography archive. D. James Dee, aka the SoHo Photographer, spent almost 40 years documenting contemporary art in New York City and, upon retiring, was searching for a home for his archive. Dee worked for many galleries such as Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Inc., Paula Cooper Gallery, Holly Solomon Gallery, OK Harris, and artists such as George Segal, Jeff Koons, and many others, in particular during SoHo’s art boom in the 1980s. The archive comprises slides, transparencies, negatives, and digital photographs of approximately 250,000 works of art.
In size and scope, Dee’s archive is surely one of the most comprehensive collections documenting contemporary art in New York City over the last four decades. However, the archive comes with one major piece missing. Ever the enterprising businessman, Dee did such a good job of keeping busy that he never bothered to label or catalog his work; when one project was over it was on the next. The lack of cataloging data scared off many potential repositories. However, the collection is arranged in chronological order (in over 70 boxes, a large filing cabinet, and a two terabyte hard drive) and is accompanied by his appointment books, client database, and relevant publications, which makes the prospect of cataloging the collection slightly less daunting.
Not only an excellent photographer, Dee was also generous in wanting to share his life’s work with the educational community. His story captured our imagination here at Artstor, and a few of us decided to pay him a visit at his studio in SoHo. Standing around his light table, we looked at beautiful transparencies of Basquiats, Warhols, Ruschas… and a lot we could not identify. Despite the considerable challenges in identifying, scanning, and cataloging such a vast archive, Artstor decided to acquire the D. James Dee Archive.
Now it’s on to the hard work of getting the collection into the Artstor Digital Library. We would be lying if we claimed to have the perfect plan to digitize and catalog the archive, which, strangely enough, is part of the reason we decided to take on this project. Necessarily, the D. James Dee Archive calls for collective action and a community-based solution. We plan to call upon scholars, curators, librarians, and other experts as we sift through the dozens of boxes full of countless gems. Stay tuned and get in touch if you want to help!
Photography by Marin Watts