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Focus Gallery records, 1963-1987

Focus Gallery records, 1963-1987

Focus Gallery

Collection Information

Size: 11.8 linear feet

Summary: The records of San Francisco's Focus Gallery measure 11.8 linear feet and date from 1963-1987. The bulk of the collection consists of exhibition files. There are also artists files, sales information, correspondence, and scattered records of the gallery's companion bookshop.

Exhibition files comprise the bulk of the collection and generally contain a wide range of materials including correspondence, short biographies, forms requesting artists' background information, flyers, booklets, brochures, checklists, loan agreements, sales records, news releases, and photographs and negatives. Among the many photographers exhibited were Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Bill Brandt, Wynn Bullock, Paul Caponigro, Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater, Robert Heinecken, Eikoh Hosoe, Annie Leibovitz, Eliot Porter, Aaron Siskind, Jerry Uelsmann, and Brett Weston.

A relatively small amount of general business correspondence includes orders and payments for photographic prints, books, and magazine subscriptions, some personal notes, and requests for information about how to submit for exhibitions and for exhibition schedules. Correspondents include customers, photographers, publishers, law firms, museum, and colleges and universities. Correspondence from the founding year contains Johnston's letters to various venues prominent in art photography, such as George Eastman House. There is also a letter to Ansel Adams requesting prints to sell or for a small opening exhibit.

Additional records include artists' files; sales and inventory records containing print and bookshop inventories, general pricing information and receipts for photographs; and printed materials including flyers and brochures, bookshop catalogs, and news releases. There are also scattered administrative records, including gallery history, a file on the Toren Gallery and five owner's notebooks, as well as The Imogen Cunningham Trust files documenting Focus Gallery's interactions with the trust before and after Cunningham's death regarding photographs printed and signed by her; financial and legal files; and guest books.

Documents in the collection that pre-date the founding of the gallery are found in the Toren Gallery file and a few of the exhibition files.

Biographical/Historical Note

Focus Gallery was founded by Helen Head Johnson (1916-1989) in 1966 on Union Street in San Francisco.


The Focus Gallery records were donated by the estate of owner Helen Johnston, care of Gerald O'Conner, executor.

Related Materials

Helen Johnston left her private photography collection to the de Saisset Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A Finding Aid to the Focus Gallery Records, 1963-1987, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical/Historical note
Focus Gallery was founded by Helen Head Johnson (1916-1989) in 1966 on Union Street in San Francisco. The gallery exhibited and sold primarily art photographs and other contemporary art.
Helen Head Johnston believed that photography deserved its own exhibition space. As stated in the gallery's first press release, "in seeking to encourage print collecting it (the gallery) offers not only a show place but also a market place for photographers." While retaining an emphasis on Bay Area photographers, the gallery's exhibitions soon became international in scope, featuring little known and well-established photographers through both solo and group exhibitions. With few exceptions, the gallery's policy was to feature an artist only once. To help keep the gallery going in its early days, Johnston started a bookshop mail-order business. At the time of its closing in August 1985, Focus Gallery was the longest continuously operating photography gallery in the country. The bookshop continued in another location for an additional two years.
Arrangement note
The collection is arranged as 8 series.
Series 1: Administrative Records, 1963-1985 (Box 1; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1966-1987 (Boxes 1-2; 1 linear foot)
Series 3: Exhibition Files, 1966-1985 (Boxes 2-10; 8.5 linear feet)
Series 4: Artists Files, 1966-1978 (Boxes 10-11; 0 .5 linear feet)
Series 5: Financial and Legal Files, 1966-1987 (Box 11; 0 .2 linear feet)
Series 6: Sales and Inventories, 1966-1987 (Box 11; 0.4 linear feet)
Series 7: Printed Materials, 1966-1987 (Boxes 11-12; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 8: Guest Books, 1966-1970, 1978-1985 (Boxes 12-13; 0.6 linear feet)
The Focus Gallery records were donated by the estate of owner Helen Johnston, care of Gerald O'Conner, executor.
Processing Information note
The collection was processed and a finding aid created by Valerie Vanden Bossche in 2013 with funding provided by the Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund.
The Archives of American Art has implemented minimal processing tactics when possible in order to increase information about and access to more of our collections. Minimal processing included arrangement to the series and folder levels. Generally items within folders were simply verified with folder titles, but not arranged further. Folders within boxes may not be numbered. The collection was rehoused in archival containers and folders, but not all staples and clips were removed.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires and appointment.

How to Cite This Collection

Focus Gallery records, 1963-1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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