NEW YORK — Walking into the East Side offices of W.L. Ross & Co., the first thing a visitor sees is a photograph of a stuffed donkey in a sweater vest, reading the Financial Times.
It’s the sort of image that makes one wonder: Who picked this photo? Was it someone with a thing for stuffed animals, perhaps a big fan of the Democratic Party or just an investor with a sense of humor?
But if the visitor takes a seat in the waiting area and notices the enormous surreal Japanese photograph of a woman in an airport, the black-and-white landscape featuring Iranian women crouching in the desert and the pair of Robert Mapplethorpe portraits visible down a hallway, it becomes clear that he’s in the presence of a serious collector.
The collector in question is Wilbur L. Ross himself, who’s best known as an investor with a knack for making money off companies that have hit the skids. Most recently, his private equity firm has been in the news as one of the lead creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings of Burlington Industries Inc.
The Ross collection of contemporary photography, which is spread across the East 52nd Street offices of his firm, as well as in his homes around the U.S., currently includes about 100 photographs by photographers from the U.S., Germany, China, Japan and elsewhere. In addition to the Mapplethorpes and the donkey photo — by a French photographer named Khazem — his collection includes works by the Japanese photographer, Mariko Mori; the Iranian-born Shirin Neshat; Chinese expatriate Tsang Kwong Chi; Americans Barbara Ess and Kathryn Seova, and German Heiner Schilling.
He started collecting photography only three years ago, when he left Rothschild Inc. and went into business for himself. For the 30 years before that, he’d been a major collector of American pre-Raphaelite paintings, assembling a hefty collection that was exhibited at the Vatican and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
He wound up selling that collection during his divorce from former New York Lt. Gov. Betsey McCaughey, who is remembered by New Yorkers for standing while everyone else sat down during Gov. George E. Pataki’s State of the State Address and later making a run for the statehouse. Before their 1998 divorce, Ross — a major Democratic Party contributor — bankrolled her campaign for governor.
After the divorce was completed, and facing “a whole batch of new walls to do something with” at his office, Ross decided it was time to start picking up some more art.
“You can’t re-create nowadays [a collection of] 19th-century American paintings,” he said. “They’re not accessible, even if you could afford them, so I was looking around for something to collect.”
During trips to Japan, where his company has an office, he became interested in the work of young Japanese photographers like Mori.
“Just as Impressionism was a huge innovation, partly technologically based, because new kinds of paint, new kinds of canvas and stuff came into being toward the end of the 19th century, [with] all kinds of innovations — digital cameras, the ability to manipulate images — the technology of photography has changed a lot in recent years,” said Ross.
“It seemed like something that was of the time,” said the soft-spoken, 65-year-old Ross, who projects an almost constant aura of calm that belies the continual activity in his offices. “I also liked the intellectual underpinning of being part of this whole technical evolution.”
There was another, practical consideration that brought him to photography, though. “I thought, ‘Well, gee, there’s a medium that is relatively low in absolute price,’” Ross said. “A hundred-thousand dollars goes a long way in photography, whereas in most other forms of serious art, $100,000 won’t get you very far.”
Getting the most bang for his buck is, after all, also Ross’ approach to investing.
As Ross walks around his office during a lunchtime break to discuss his favorite photos, it becomes clear that he seeks out images that puzzle him.
“I like the photo to have meaning and relevance beyond the simple aesthetic of the image,” he explained. “It’s obviously important to have the image be one that you find intriguing, but if all it is is a pleasing image, you might as well just take photographs of beautiful oil paintings and hang the photographs up.”
One of the most striking photos in his collection is the six-foot by 10-foot image of the woman at the Kansei airport in Osaka, Japan. It’s a color self-portrait by Mori, which shows her holding a crystal that reflects her own image and flanked by ghost images of herself.
Ross said he’s intrigued by the outfit Mori is wearing, which at once looks futuristic and also suggests traditional Japanese dress.
“It tells us a lot about Japan because Japan has one foot in the dark ages and one foot in the new century,” he said. “There’s a vulnerability and something archaic.”
Turning to the black-and-white landscape with what first appears to be black cairns that are, in fact, heavily shawled crouching women, by Neshat, Ross again pointed out the questions it raises to him.
“Why are they there, are they praying, are they about to be attacked, are they prisoners?” he asked rhetorically. “What are they?”
The color donkey image, Ross acknowledged, was something of a lark.
“Given what we do here,” he said, “it’s very amusing.”
Humor plays a role in Ross’ art selections. A conference room features a caricature of him holding a hamburger with a bite taken out of it, with a vulture on his shoulder — a clear reference to the name executives of bankrupt companies have for companies like his, “vulture funds.”
But humor aside, it’s typically mystery that pulls him into a photo. He brings a visitor to a color image by Kim Keever, which appears to be an aerial image of a river delta in some hilly location.
“This looks, to me, as real as any landscape you’ve ever seen,” he said. The rub is that it isn’t one. The photographer builds little landscapes in a 100-gallon fish tank in his studio, then pours in caustic chemicals and snaps frames as the structure dissolves.
“You think of a landscape as a permanent and a huge thing, and this is transitory,” Ross said.
That holds a lesson for Ross.
“We live in an ambiguous world,” he said. “The challenge for us is to determine what is real and what’s not so real.”
That sounds like a thought process that would be deeply ingrained in a man whose business strategy is to seek companies that are troubled, but not so troubled as to be unsalvageable. But Ross said it’s not something that he thought about as he became interested in photography.
“It isn’t a conscious parallel,” he said.
In the end, the collection is driven by the images themselves, he said, adding, “It’s each one having a story, having something more to tell, that engages you intellectually, and then as you think more about it, there are other levels of meaning.”