From Folk Rock to Auction Block, What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been for Photo Collector Graham Nash

updated 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Graham Nash began collecting photographs 19 years ago, he never pictured himself making huge profits. "I never collected photography as an investment," he says. "But I'm not dumb," adds the 48-year-old musician, who sings, composes and plays guitar in one of rock's legendary supergroups, Crosby, Stills & Nash. "I know that the value of beauty always increases."

Indeed, Nash can look forward to a handsome windfall this week when the nearly 1,800 prints in his picture collection go up for auction at Sotheby's in New York. The sale, which is expected to raise $2 million, is being billed by the auction house as "the most important single-owner sale of photographs ever." Auction director Beth Gates-Warren is impressed by both the power and sheer sweep of images, which range from 19th-century prints by pioneering photographers to rare self-portraits by such modern masters as Edward Steichen and Paul Outerbridge. "It's not a textbook, by-the-numbers collection," says Gates-Warren. "Graham bought what he liked, and for that reason, it's interesting." Or as Nash puts it, "I'd buy something only if I couldn't leave the store without it."

Growing up near Manchester, England, Nash inherited his love of photography from his father, William, a warehouse manager who developed his own pictures in a makeshift darkroom at home. "He'd nail my blanket to the window and go to work," recalls Nash. "It was absolute magic, one of the great tricks of the universe." In 1971, Nash himself was bitten by the shutterbug while rummaging through some prints in a dusty San Francisco gallery. There, he ran across "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.," a photo by Diane Arbus. At the time Crosby, Stills & Nash were active in the movement against the Vietnam War; Nash was taken aback by the hatred he saw in the face of the young boy. "The moment was chilling," he says. "The madness of war seemed to crystallize in that photograph."

In building his collection, Nash continued to choose images that evoke a strong emotional response. "I like stuff that causes you to wake up," he says. Nash is deeply moved, for example, by the crusading photojournalism of W. Eugene Smith and Lewis Hine and the biting satire of Weegee, but has trouble relating to the austere naturalism of Ansel Adams. "I have only one Adams," he says. "I'm not a great landscape collector. They don't touch me too much."

Nash's passion for collecting soon became a near obsession. Susan, 38, his wife of 14 years, recalls how he paged through auction-house catalogs in the morning, looking for photos. "Before he had even had a single cup of tea, he'd have spent $25,000," says Susan. "He hadn't even got out of bed. He'd just check off what he wanted and make calls. It was very funny." By 1977 Nash had stashed photographs in every nook and cranny of his four-story Victorian home in San Francisco, and Susan complained that there was not even enough room left for the bathroom towels. So Nash hired a curator who organized a traveling exhibition of his best photographs. "They were on the road from 1978 to 1989 as a free exhibit," Nash says.

In addition to the Sotheby's auction this week, Nash is showing some of his own photographic work for the first time at the Simon Lowinsky Gallery in New York City. On display are 12 of his photos that have been run through a computer and reproduced on an ink-jet printer. Nash cites his growing interest in such experimental forms of visual art as one reason for the sale of his current collection of photographs. Though he admits he's "sad to part with" his classic photos, he quickly adds he's "elated about starting a new collection of more contemporary work. Creatively speaking," says Nash, "you can do quite a bit with a couple million dollars—like getting computer artists involved in photography."

Nash won't be liquidating his entire collection. One of his favorite pictures is an image of a teenage Marilyn Monroe, taken by an anonymous photographer. "Her smile and the innocence with which she is looking at the camera are quite poignant," he says. Nash bought it 17 years ago in an L.A. bookstore for $20, and its emotional worth to him is now beyond measure. "I'm not selling that one," he says. "It's still one of my treasures."

—David Grogan, Todd Gold in Los Angeles

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