If it’s hard to be a gallerist in New York, it’s even harder to be one who specializes in photography—a medium that, because of its reproducibility and historically depreciated status in the art world, does not command the same type of market that painting and sculpture do. There’s only a handful of dealers in the field who have enjoyed sustained success.
Yancey Richardson is one of them. The venerable gallerist, known for her assiduousness and shrewd eye, has helped to establish contemporary photography’s place among the elite galleries in the city. A small and elegant woman, she has, as photographer Mitch Epstein puts it, “the grace of her Southern upbringing and the industriousness of a New Yorker. She is direct and transparent in an art world often shrouded by smoke and mirrors.”
Richardson was born and raised in the South. She studied art history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and enrolled as a curatorial fellow in the Whitney Museum’s respected Independent Study Program thereafter. It was around this time that she fell for photography, meeting and befriending photographers and spending her nights speed-reading classics—trying to, as she puts it, put together the “bits and pieces of the puzzle of the history of photography.” After finishing up the Whitney program, Richardson travelled, living for a time in Paris and then San Francisco, before returning to New York and working for 10 years as a private dealer, steadily developing a client base—a sizable portion of which she still works with today.
“I had to do it all on my own,” Richardson says. “I didn’t have a backer or a wealthy husband, and my family wasn’t giving me any money. Early on I was just learning about the medium and how to develop clients, figuring it out. The market was tiny and I had to travel to meet with collectors because I didn’t have a gallery.”
“I don’t think there’s any mystery to Yancey’s success,” says Julie Saul, a fellow photo gallerist and longtime friend. “She’s an extremely hard-working and innovative dealer.”
Saul first met Richardson in the early ’80s, and their career trajectories have been closely linked ever since. In the ’90s, Saul owned a gallery at 560 Broadway in Soho—a building that at the time was a nexus of burgeoning galleries, home to David Nolan, Jack Shainman and Max Protetch, among others. (Today it’s the site of a Dean & Deluca store.) She helped Richardson launch her first space in the building in ’95. Five years later, in 2000, both gallerists relocated to Chelsea, renting small spaces on upper-level floors in a building on 22nd Street.
In her 20-plus years as a gallery owner, she has refined a roster known for its diversity and inclusiveness, representing a range of artists that run the gamut in terms of ethnicity, gender, geography and technique. And she’s buoyed the careers of some big names along the way: Zanele Muholi, Sebastião Salgado and Mickalene Thomas, to name a few.
“Yancey has cultivated a warm and productive community that has responded to social and technological shifts while maintaining a core set of qualities,” says Laura Letinsky, a photographer who has been with Richardson since the mid- 2000s. “Many gallerists have great programs, as does Yancey, but it’s her long view that distinguishes her from her peers. She is a visual sophisticate—her eye is always open to artists who push against tradition with its notions of mastery. She’s rooted within a photographic tradition but also brings an adventurousness to the medium.”
“In the past, I questioned whether my specialization towards medium had been a disadvantage in some ways,” says Richardson. “But I’ve come to believe that there’s a great advantage to being very informed and well-respected in a specific arena. Collectors interested in contemporary photography follow the gallery’s program closely and many photography curators from out of town make it a point to stop by the gallery whenever they are in New York.”
In 2013, Richardson moved to the spot she’s in now—a capacious street- level space on the same block as her previous location. The move put her on the same level—literally—as the city’s most prominent contemporary art galleries.
“Yancey has represented my work for nearly five years now,” says David Maisel, whose second exhibition with the gallery, “Atlas,” is on view until July 6. Maisel began showing work with Richardson as she was on the verge of moving to the current space. “That move represented a significant shift for the gallery. And it said a lot about Yancey—smart, thoughtful, detail-oriented, and highly aware of her gallery’s position within the world of contemporary art and photography.”
“Having a business for all these years, especially when you’re selling material that is, by art market standards, relatively inexpensive—it demonstrates a real commitment,” says Saul. “It means that you’re probably not making as much money as galleries that sell million-dollar works, but it also takes some of the negative stuff about the art world out of the equation. You’re getting your gratifications in different ways. I think Yancey’s comes from the many close relationships she’s developed.”