By Alexandra Mezey
Updated April 09, 1979 12:00 PM

Lee Witkin grew up in New Jersey wanting to be a movie star, but the closest he got was having Woody Allen as a classmate in an NYU cinema course. Instead, Witkin found himself contributing to Popular Science on subjects like how to build home waterfalls and producing boiler plate for the building trade journal Constructioneer. Nights he nursed an invalid mother. All the while, the walls of the Witkin family house in East Orange began to fill with art purchased with Lee’s paychecks. “Look, the Witkin Gallery,” joshed a cousin who had come to visit.

From that chance remark 14 years ago sprang one of America’s most influential photographic galleries—and a rebirth for Witkin “at what seemed late middle age.” Against the advice of everyone in the field and his own misgivings, he opened a Manhattan show spot exclusively for photographs. Last year his $6,000 venture grossed some $600,000. “It was the one chance I took in my whole life,” says Witkin, who’s still only 43. “I figured when the gallery failed in a year, I would go back to my old job.” Instead, he has become a leader in upgrading the public taste for photographs and propelling them into the front rank of popular collectibles. “Everybody used to want a Picasso on their living room wall,” he says. “Now it’s Ansel Adams.”

Last month the Witkin Gallery marked its 10th anniversary with a retrospective (the exhibit continues until May 5) and a book, A Ten Year Salute, which focuses on Lee’s personal collection. The show reflects Witkin’s eclectic tastes, with prints by such masters as Edward Weston and André Kertész sharing wall space with younger artists like Joel Meyerowitz and Bea Nettles.

Witkin wishes his collectors would be equally far-ranging and fancy-free. “You can buy inexpensively and build up an important collection by being an individual,” he insists. “Everyone has an opinion if they will only trust it. I wish people would not buy prints because everybody else has them. We have reached the point where people will spend any amount for a key work, and we can’t sell a beautiful $75 platinum print by an unknown.”

When Witkin began his collection he simply bought what pleased him: etchings and oils. Unfulfilled by his grindstone job, he found art galleries were his weekend “sanctuary.” However, on opening his own gallery he found paintings were too expensive to stock. But he could obtain photographs by the masters for virtually nothing. The field was so untapped that he had his pick of photographers. He recalls, “I could approach anyone. Imagine, telephoning Edward Steichen and hearing him say, ‘Come up and take what you like.’ I called Imogen Cunningham, Eugene Smith; I went abroad and met Brassaï and Lartigue. From the beginning I was dealing with the greats.” Today those early acquisitions are Witkin’s mother lode.

Lee began by fumbling—at the opening show he forgot the keys to the gallery and kept 40 guests standing in a snowstorm until his sister arrived to unlock the door—but he was turning a profit within three months. In one day alone Witkin sold $2,500 worth of prints. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt intoxicated,” he recalls. His most popular print, Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, was bringing a then staggering $150—now it is selling for $7,000, although some 900 exist.

Still a bachelor, Witkin looks on the changes in his life and art with awe. “I find it very strange that I’ve had this great success after all those years in limbo,” he says. The son of a hardware store owner, he and his sister cared for their mother, who suffered from lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), for 10 years. “People used to say you are foolish to waste your life that way,” he remembers, “but we were closer and happier as a family helping each other survive. The responsibilities I met did not hurt me.” It was not until he was truly successful that he spent 10 months in psychotherapy. “I wasn’t as happy as I thought I was supposed to be,” he explains, adding, “Everyone should go into therapy. It’s like cleaning your teeth. If you get one degree more aware of your reactions, it’s a victory.”

Nowadays when not in his 57th Street gallery Witkin takes refuge in a West Side Manhattan apartment that would evoke the admiration of a bowerbird. It is filled with photographs, glasswork, paintings, Indian baskets, old books and stones. “There are lots of beautiful things that don’t cost money,” he proclaims. “I’m a great nest builder, though, to be honest, sometimes I feel as if I’m suffocating.”

His own commercial triumph has inspired the opening of 20-odd rival photography galleries in New York City alone. But Lee Witkin is only flattered. “I have helped establish beyond a doubt that photography is an art medium,” he exults. “We live in an age of the photo image. Photography is our art form.”