John Cleary, Gallery Owner, Collector of Prints and Photobooks: 1937-2008

It is with a heavy heart and the fondest of memories that I inform my readers that John Cleary passed away on Friday, February 1st in Houston, Texas after a one-month battle with pancreatic cancer. I know many of you had the pleasure of meeting John at his booth at AIPAD or Photo LA, or as a Portfolio Reviewer at Review Santa Fe or Fotofest over the years. After doing business as a private dealer for some time, the John Cleary Gallery was established 12 years ago on Colquitt Row, an important gallery district in Houston; he and his dedicated Gallery Director, Catherine Couturier offered the very best of images spanning the last century of the medium, from contemporary to classics. And the photobooks! A staggering collection of books are available at the gallery. John’s love of photobooks was contageous. It was at the John Cleary Gallery that I held many of the most important books in our medium’s history in my hands for the first time. I feel that John was a curator at heart, collecting particular themes in depth. In the 90’s, John, in collaboration with Stephen Daiter Gallery (Chicago), amassed a collection of the works of The Photo League, and published a very special book on the work of members of The Photo League, entitled This Was the Photo League: Compassion and the Camera from the Depression to the Cold War (Chicago: Stephen Daiter Gallery, 2001). The Photo League was “… a New York-based organization of socially committed professional photographer like Bernice Abbott, Sid Grossman, Arnold Newman, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, and Arthur Fellig, known as ‘Weegee.’ It offered classes and exhibitions from 1936-1951” (from an article by Ralph Blumenthal). The collection amassed was acquired in 2001 by the Columbus Museum of Art.

(Note: see also this article “The Emergence of Photography As Collectible Art, ” a series by Richard Pitnick, that refers to The Photo League, and Acknowledgements by Photo League photographer Rebecca Lepkoff from her publication “Life on the Lower East Side” released by Princeton Architectural Press, 2006)

The focus of John’s personal collection for many years now was photographs of “kids” as he referred to the subject, consisting of imagery ranging from classic documentary work to work John would acquire from emerging photographers at portfolio review events. I hope that this collection too will be acquired by an institution in its entirety, as it so strongly reflect’s John’s keen eye, and serves as a testimony for his love of photography.

There is not a dealer or collector in the business who would not agree that John was among the most honorable dealers in our field. Honesty IS the best policy, and this attribute will define John’s legacy in our field.

On Tuesday of this week, the Houston Chronicle published an article by Patricia Covo Johnson entitled “Black-and-white Legacy: John Cleary Shares his Lifelong Passion for Photos through his Kid Collection” based on an interview she did with John, his friends and colleagues in recent days. A fine tribute it was! I urge you to open the link and learn more about John Cleary and his interesting career in photography.

As I type this sad news, I’m a short distance from John’s home, and his gallery, having planned on arriving as soon as was literally possible after my PIEA/PMA lecture in Las Vegas this morning to spend the weekend with John sharing memories and latest passions, but alas he passed away hours before my arrival. I’ll remember with great fondness our many conversations over meals at Goode’s Seafood, our trips to local honkytonks like Blanco’s (“the best live bands in Texas”) and even journeys to regional VFW halls in pursuit of legendary accordion players. Who else would look forward to those adventures for months in advance, with classic Willie, Merle and George (Jones) blaring from the car? You did, John, and my upcoming two+ weeks in Houston in March for Fotofest ’08 won’t be the same without you. Our planned time together for collection research, visiting exhibitions and the requisite pursuit of great food and great music with great colleagues has been cut from the calendar; Roy Flukinger and I will have to proceed without you to artist April Rapier’s band SUGAR BAYOU‘s gig at the Mucky Duck on the opening night of Fotofest, March 7th. (Join us!)

No one can take your place. You were one of a kind and I will miss you in my life and in our community. We will begin to tell stories about you – starting NOW.

So here’s one for you – get a load of this bumper sticker on the side of John’s bookcase in the gallery: “HONK IF YOU LOVE STEIGLITZ!”

Who couldn’t love a guy like that?


Read the notice of John’s death in the Houston Chronicle here.

Read John’s obituary in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle here, and learn about contributing photobooks in his memory to the newly-named John Cleary Library at the Houston Center for Photography.



  1. laurielambrecht said

    Thank you for this! John was a honorable person and inspirational to many of us!

  2. […] MVS PHOTO FAVORITES, Market Musings As many of my readers will recall, my friend and gallerist John Cleary passed away suddenly earlier this year. I am going to be in Houston June 21-28 to work with his […]

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