Suzie Hudgens stands in front of a disconcerting photograph of a water-filled desert wasteland with cavorting crowds and says, "This is Steve's sentimental picture."
The photograph is of Death Valley, where her husband, Dr. Steve Hudgens, recently ran one of his extreme 100-mile races. The Fort Worth cardiothoracic surgeon was there in July, where he saw neither water nor frolicking people, just miles of blacktop radiating an oppressive heat. It was a place that had a resonance of pain and accomplishment for him, so he bought the photograph Badwater Lake by Joel Sternfeld. It is one of two Death Valley photographs the couple owns -- the other is Zabriskie Point by Ansel Adams.
The Hudgenses buy a great number of photographs. They began their art collection about 12 years ago, and it now covers almost all of the available wall space in their southwest Fort Worth home. In some rooms, pieces are hung three and four deep, and no room goes bare. Even the bathrooms and kitchen are repositories for their burgeoning collection.
"We started with David Bates paintings," says Suzie Hudgens. "Then they got pricey." So the couple turned their attention to photography. "I love photography and studied photography," says Suzie. Her own photographs are mixed in with those of Robert Mapplethorpe, Abelardo Morell, Lee Friedlander, Barbara Crane and Misty Keasler.
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There is none of the pretension seen in so many collectors' houses. It is not about display or being photo-ready should Dwell magazine drop by for an impromptu shoot. This is a comfy home where children were raised and launched, and where six basset hounds still reside. There are huge museum-quality prints by Sternfeld and Morell hung alongside senior-year class portraits.
"We don't buy anything we don't love or I can't keep looking at," Steve says.
"I buy for aesthetic reasons," Suzie says. "Steve enjoys the hunt."
Their collection is unusual. There are photographs that look like multiple exposures but are not, simple landscapes that look like photographs but are drawings, and prints of negative images. The trompe l'oeil effects can be quite surprising. The couple likes a bit of mystery in their medium -- it holds the viewers' attention, they say.
While they haven't planned their collection for investment purposes -- "There is not anything here that I would plan to resell unless I just had to," Steve says -- they do plan their acquisitions. There are photography magazines and auction catalogs piled next to easy chairs that attest to this. Steve is constantly on the prowl, and he is as likely to brag about the great scores as he is about the ones that got away.
Something to crow about: buying the Sternfeld Badwater Lake print at auction and paying half what the gallery was charging.
Lamentation: letting a Vera Lutter photograph of the Manhattan skyline, with two dark twin towers still in evidence, get away. At auction, the price was skyrocketing, and Steve quit bidding. Now, the price looks like a bargain.
At first the Hudgenses bought purely on their visceral response. "Then I sort of educated myself," Steve says. "At first, we bought what we liked. Now we buy if we like it, but we are more selective."
They also sought professional guidance. They joined the Stieglitz Circle at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. This group of photography aficionados was started by John Rohrbach, the museum's senior curator of photographs, to encourage area collectors and to help develop museum-quality collections.
It is a quid pro quo relationship. Rohrbach extends his time and contacts and, in exchange, he is hoping to nurture future loans, and even gifts, for the museum.
It's working. The Hudgenses became founding members of the circle, and they often travel with Rohrbach to New York City and Los Angeles for yearly sales. The museum in turn has requested the loan of one of the couple's pieces for a show in 2012.
There is a $1,000 membership minimum to join the Stieglitz Circle, with the yearly dues going to purchase works for the Carter's photography collection. Rohrbach says he and Jessica May, the Carter's associate curator of photographs, are resources for general information about photographers and photography in the marketplace but do not consult on prices.
"It's always a pleasure for me to see people build collections," Rohrbach says. "Our goal is to help advise them to make purchases at a level [at which] the museum collects."
The high point of the year for Rohrbach is when the circle decides which piece or pieces to buy for the Carter. "It always gets passionate," he says.
When the Hudgenses bought their house, they thought of it as temporary quarters. They were sure they would sell in a year or two -- the rooms were small and painted odd colors, and the kitchen was covered in salmon-colored tiles. They are still there 21 years later, however, thanks to smart remodeling and modernizing, most recently directed by friend and interior designer Kathy Hopwood.
The couple's first impulse, once Hopwood's work was completed, was to rehang their collection exactly as it had been before. Hopwood says she gently forced them into an entirely new display.
After painting the rooms a warm neutral (Benjamin Moore Nantucket Gray -- a good ground color for black-and-white and color artworks), the rehanging began. "We started with a focal point, a large artwork," Hopwood says. Over the living room sofa is one of Mapplethorpe's flowers, over the mantel is a Frank X. Tolbert painting, and an early David Bates painting is in this room, too, but so are dozens of smaller prints. The long hallway to the bedrooms acts as a gallery for some of the other oversize works. Small prints fill in the remaining wall space and tabletops. On one of the largest walls in the family room is Mapplethorpe's portrait of actress Isabella Rossellini
"I was so happy when we got that I almost cried," Suzie says.
She is quite sentimental about many of the pieces, including the first artwork they ever bought -- a mid-19th-century painting of a woman in a period gown. This was purchased years before the quest for a collection heated up. "It is Barbizon school, bought on Rodeo Drive," Suzie admits. It is extremely at odds with the Hudgens' wealth of contemporary photographs, but it is one of the first things Suzie says she would save if the house were on fire.
"It brings back memories," Steve says. "It reminds you of where you were when you bought it, and what we were doing. It seemed to make her so happy when she got it."
And this is what makes their collection so important to them: It's all about them. Not about the rising or falling art market, not about which photographer is trendy or whose stock is falling. It's about the pair's history, no one else's. And that's as it should be.